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ROMEO AND JULIET. Directed by Baz Luhrmann; written by Craig Pearce and Baz Luhrmann; produced by Gabriella Martinelli and Baz Luhrmann for Twentieth Century-Fox. Starring Leonardo Di Caprio and Claire Danes. Rated PG-13 (violence, modestly-filmed bedroom scene)


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This brash, ambitious movie was a pleasant surprise for a Shakespeare-o-phile from 'way back like myself.

The previews made me fear a cheap rip-off, substituting fancy guns for swords, urban gangs for the Capulets and Montagues, and a couple of teen heartthrobs for the tragic hero and heroine.

Well, all those substitutions are indeed made. But the surprise is that the spirit, and even the language, of the original not only survives, but thrives in transplanted form. The desperate energy and stunning visual style more than make up for the slight trouble some of the actors have with the blank verse.

The bottom line is that the old, familiar story seems fresh and new. And I wouldn't be surprised if it inspires more than a few of those teenagers in the audience to further curiousity about and maybe even—shudder—study of the Bard. My daughter, for whom English class is a burden grudgingly borne, has been "forsooth-ing" and blank-versifying all over the place since she saw it.

We parents will take our small miracles wherever we can find them.

Not all of the movie is miraculous, to be sure. The editing is often too MTV-ish, and the music, though fittingly energetic and moving is often too loud for these middle-aged ears. Romeo's and Juliet's parents are something of a distraction. Played by recognizable faces (Brian Dennehy, Christina Pickles, Paul Sorvino and Diane Venora) if not top-line stars, we keep expecting them to have more to say than they do. Sorvino and Venora also have come-and-go accents that make even their brief scenes somewhat puzzling.

But DiCaprio and Danes are what the show's about, and they are always worth watching. John Leguizamo (Tybalt), and especially Harold Perrineau (Mercutio) are, too, raising an already stylish production to higher level of panache.

Something else to savor is the setting, a surrealistic, timeless-looking Mexico City, full of religious statuary and garish neon. And my fellow Shakespeare-lovers can play an entertaining game of spot the quotes (from other plays) in quick cuts to signs and even on the soundtrack. For a tragedy, this Romeo and Juliet is a lot of fun!

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