William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes. Rated mature.

Now playing at the Granville 7, Scott 72, Coquitlam, and others

He's right up there with big names like Stephen King and Judith Krantz, but why William Shakespeare gets the marquee treatment for this slice-and-dice version of the world's most famous love story is anyone's guess.

Perhaps Australian director Baz Luhrmann, of Strictly Ballroom fame, called it William Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet because he had to remind himself of the source material. Or maybe it was just to differentiate it from all the other movie versions. (There are at least four, not counting Romeo Is Bleeding.) The film's press notes state that the director wanted to avoid "a rarefied, stilted, elitist, stagy version"–you know, like everyone else's. Of course, such a list of negatives can be used to justify any old clumsy whack at the play, and Luhrmann does go at it with an exceptionally broad axe.

Setting the tale in a superviolent south Florida (it was actually filmed in Mexico), he takes literally Shakespeare's own description of R&J as "two hours' traffic" on the stage, with pileups and fender benders more common than smooth cruising. Still, it's fascinating to gawk at, at least until it runs out of steam. The gunplay, the gaudy vistas, the silly clothes all have a certain messy logic on-screen. Production designer Catherine Martin (who also worked on Ballroom and several operas, presumably nonelitist, that Luhrmann staged in Sydney) has combined Blade Runner aesthetics with the tawdry, drug-fuelled look of dance-music videos, and there's flashy cutting to match.

Then there's the casting. It was a fairly safe bet combining Leonardo DiCaprio–a scaled-down, mildly ethnic James Dean for the '90s–with the grounded introspection of Claire Danes. Of course, they both come off like SoCal surfers when a veteran British thespian like Pete Postlethwaite, as the meddling Father Laurence, shows up. The rest is a rummage sale of bad accents, with Paul Sorvino and Diane Venora as Juliet's parents, the creepy Capulets, sounding like refugees from Evita; the go-between governess is played by England's Miriam Margolyes, doing some kind of Puerto Rican?Italian number. Brian Dennehy and Christina Pickles play it relatively straight as Romeo Montague's scary folks. Faring best in this melange is John Leguizamo, as Tybalt, fierce head of the black-clad Capulet Gang. And Harold Perrineau (last seen as the tale-spinning inner-city kid in Smoke) is impressive, if a tad overbearing, as Romeo's best bud Mercutio, a hot-tempered duellist and–here anyway–an extremely accomplished cross-dresser.

Luhrmann's multicultural take on the Bard involves video monitors, Hawaiian shirts, giant statues, grungy guitars, and hip-hop rhythms. (The film was produced by former Vancouverite Gabriella Martinelli, and Soul II Soul's Nellee Hooper did much of the smart song selection.) The musical mix is surprisingly effective, with the well-known dialogue, somewhat altered, sitting quite neatly on syncopated beats. The director also has his lovebirds eschewing their usual balcony rendezvous for some less-than-discreet splashes around the family pool. If parts of R&J look like outtakes from Melrose Place, it shouldn't surprise, because that's exactly the audience he seems to be after. This approach could bring in kids who think Beethoven is a large dog, but will it keep them around for sterner stuff, say Twelfth Night, or Kenneth Branagh's four-hour Hamlet?

Such a question makes the Aussie director out to be a closet educator masquerading as an MTV VJ. His film is a little more original, and a lot more sloppy, than that suggests; despite his brusque refashioning of the text (Romeo, for example, no longer kills his rival, Paris) and the film's slack denouement, he manages to come up with a few sharp ideas. Religion doesn't exactly loom large in Shakespeare's work, but by building the movie on outsize Christian imagery–right down to a huge crucifix tattooed on Father Laurence's back–Luhrmann plays with the ambivalence toward the church that you find in a lot of modern art, even that from 400 years ago. After all, it's the priest who gets these "star-cross'd" teens into their biggest trouble. Of course, he also tells them to "love moderately", but do they listen? n