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On Nov. 1, 1996, 20th Century Fox unveiled Baz Luhrmann’s Shakespearean adaptation Romeo + Juliet in theaters, where it would go on to gross $147 million globally. The Hollywood Reporter’s original review is below:
A clever and well-executed reworking of the timeless Elizabethan tragedy, Baz Luhrmann’s follow-up to his widely admired Strictly Ballroom won’t replace other top cinematic versions of the same story (the Oscar-winning musical West Side Story, Franco Zeffirelli’s exquisite traditional take), but the young target audience of this release should find this one tough to resist.
Seeking to avoid the academic label and setting the story in a violent big city, Aussie Luhrmann and co-writer Craig Pearce use the Bard’s poesy and stay more or less faithful to the story line. “William Shakespeare’s Romeo & Juliet” is just what it promises — a graphic, wildly passionate love story that captures the brightly burning emotions of youth.
Racing through much of the family-rivalry material in chaotic montages of ”fair Verona,” the film delivers memorable renderings of the central story’s most famous moments, while leads Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes are superb. Both are ultragorgeous in the Latin-flavored decor and costumes, but more importantly they pull off the film’s tricky maneuver of using Elizabethan stage dialogue in a world of guns and cars and overnight delivery services.
Danes is so strong as Juliet there’s a chance she’ll be remembered come awards time. In the garish ball scene, on the balcony (and in the pool), but particularly in the hardship scenes, Danes is a formidable talent with breathtaking good looks. DiCaprio is likewise called upon to swing willy-nilly between pure love and primal hatred, and he handles both well.
Danes and DiCaprio’s potent chemistry takes over the movie in welcome relief to Luhrmann’s subtext-heavy assemblage of Christian and gunfighter town imagery. Still, the film’s iconographic treatment of handguns turns into harsh reality. A powerful message emerges from an earlier humorous device, which describes the film’s scheme as a whole.
Straight out of a Sergio Leone epic, smoldering John Leguizamo personifies the rabid killer Tybalt, a macho Capulet whose hatred of Romeo escalates with fatal results. Son of powerful Ted Montague (Brian Dennehy), a bitter enemy of the Capulets, Romeo runs with a gang that includes drag-queen extraordinaire Mercutio (Harold Perrineau).
Juliet is the daughter of Capulet tycoons (Paul Sorvino and Diane Venora; both are excellent), presenting a problem for the two lovers that never goes away.
The film’s great visual panache is what filmgoers will be talking about. Filmed in Veracruz and at the Churubusco studios in Mexico City, the wide-screen production showcases the imagination and talents of cinematographer Donald M. McAlpine, production designer Catherine Martin and costume designer Kym Barrett. — David Hunter, originally published Oct. 28, 1996.
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