Leonardo DiCaprio is 21, Claire Danes is 17, and, yes, they do get naked in Willian Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. You almost laugh watching them put a hip, hotblooded spin on the Bard's star-crossed lovers. No dis intended. The laughter comes from delight and awe at how well DiCaprio and Danes pull off the trick. These babes from the TV woods -- he started in Growing Pains; she emerged in My So-Called Life -- fill their classic roles with vital passion, speak the Elizabethan verse with unforced grace, find the spirited comedy of the play without losing its tragic fervor and keep their balance when the audacious Australian director Baz Luhrmann (Strictly Ballroom) hurls them into a whirlwind of hardball action, rowdy humor and rapturous romance.
It's a good thing that Shakespeare gets his name in the title, or you might mistake the opening scenes for Quentin Tarantino's Romeo and Juliet. No dialogue, just gunshots, as two gang families -- the Montagues and the Capulets (each has its name in lights on the roof of a high-rise) - go to war. Welcome to mythical Verona Beach, where the gangs fire on each other, and soldiers in choppers fire on them. Shot in Mexico in a style that might be called retrofuturistic, since it encompasses castles and armor, as well as bulletproof vests and boomboxes, the film reworks Shakespeare in a frenzy of jump cuts that makes most rock videos look like MTV on Midol.
Juliet's papa Capulet is robustly played by Paul Sorvino as a John Gotti-like godfather. Her mother, Gloria (Diane Venora), is a Southern belle out to marry off her daughter to Paris (Paul Rudd, from Clueless), a wealthy square who comes dressed as an astronaut to a costume ball. Juliet's bawdy nurse is played by British actress Miriam Margolyes with a broad Hispanic accent (she calls her mistress Wholiette). The excellent John Leguizamo is Juliet's cousin Tybalt, a volatile Latino who's in a gang that likes to dude up and then accessorize with pearl-handle guns and silver boot heels. Romeo's clan is led by Dad (Brian Dennehy) and Mom (Christina Pickles) Montague. Their gang favors shorts and Hawaiian shirts, though Romeo's best bud, Mercutio (Harold Perrineau, from Smoke), is a black crossdresser whose murder by Tybalt sparks Romeo to take lethal vengeance.
If your head isn't spinning yet, it will. The rabid flamboyance of Luhrmann's vision, remarkably accented by Kym Barrett's costumes and Catherine Martin's production design, is meant to make Romeo and Juliet accessible to the elusive Gen X audience without leaving the play bowlderized and broken. Luhrmann, known as a wizard in his native Oz, where he stages plays and operas, relishes knocking cobwebs off classics.
Of course, messing with Romeo and Juliet is nothing new. It's been made over as a ballet, as a Broadway musical and Oscar-winning movie (West Side Story), and a 1987 Abel Ferrara gang film (China Girl). But all those productions threw out Shakespeare's language. Luhrmann and his Aussie co-writer, Craig Pearce, stick with the Bard's funny way of talking. Iambic pentameter in this pulp context may throw you at first, but hang on.
Director Franco Zeffirelli stuck to the language and the period in his 1968 film Romeo and Juliet but livened things up by casting young leads - Olivia Hussey, 15, and Leonard Whiting, 17 - and showcasing enough codpieces and cleavage to have censors crying kiddie porn. The film was a smash, though Zeffirelli cut the text severely to make up for the inadequacies of his otherwise-appealing actors.
Luhrmann cuts the text as well, though not as damagingly. His point is not to distract you from the words, as Zeffirelli did, but to lead you to them. And in DiCaprio and Danes, who give magnetic performances, he has found two actors with the youth to play the roles and the talent to do them justice. They speak the verse so naturally that the meaning registers.
DiCaprio is dynamite in a role that builds on the rare talent he showed in This Boy'S Life, What's Eating Gilbert Grape? and The Baseketball Diaries. As Romeo, he doesn't round his vowels (tonight becomes tanight) or enunciate in dulcet tones, but when he speaks, you believe him. Whether Romeo is lovesick ("Did my heart love till now?"), violent ("Tempt not a desperate man") or drugged ("A dateless bargain to engrossing death"), DiCaprio lets the Bard's words flow with an ardor that you can't buy in acting class. As his co-star Leguizamo has said in jest: "It came so easy to that little, blond, happy, golden-boy motherfucker."
Danes, with poise beyond her years, as My So-Called Life made clear, is DiCaprio's equal. Juliet can be played as a ninny, a role Danes has been saddled with in other films (Little Women, How To Make An American Quilt). She wisely chooses to emphasize Juliet's melting loveliness and bristling wit. When the lusty Romeo, on their first date, complains of being left unsatisfied with only a kiss, Juliet turns on him. "What satisfaction canst thou have tonight?" she asks. The fire in Danes' eyes is unmistakable: Juliet is interested, but for now, Romeo should keep his dick in his pants.
For all the tumult that Luhrmann stirs up in the film, he shoots the scenes between the two lovers with elegant simplicity. When Romeo first sees Juliet at the costume ball, his "bright angel" is wearing wings. He is dressed in a knight's shining armor. These children of enemies steal looks at each other on opposite sides of a fish tank and later steal a kiss. Says Romeo, "Oh, trespass sweetly urged." The actors don't rush past the language to get to the sex, as Zeffirelli had Whiting and Hussey do. DiCaprio and Danes make the bandying of words a sly, erotic game. Shakespeare has never been this sexy on screen.
Without the right actors, puppy love could never become the grand passion that tragedy requires after Romeo and Juliet are secretly married by Father Laurence (a splendid Pete Postlethwaite) in defiance of their families. DiCaprio delivers the line "I am fortune's fool" with wrenching power as violence seals his fate. Luhrmann goes hog wild for the climactic double suicide on a flower-strewn altar lit by 2,000 candles, with Romeo swallowing a lethal drug picked up from a seedy dealer (M. Emmet Walsh) and Juliet holding a semiautomatic to her head. Amid the clamor from outraged purists and Shakespeare spinning in his Stratford-on-Avon, England, grave, you should notice that Luhrmann and his two bright angels have shaken up a 400-year-old play without losing it's touching, poetic innocence.
© Rolling Stone 1996