Let’s be real: Baz Luhrmann is one of the best things to happen Shakespeare’s iconic tragedy Romeo and Juliet. Starring a young Leonardo DiCaprio just moments before his role in Titanic and Claire Danes fresh from her time as Angela Chase on the cult hit My So-Called Life as the titular characters, Romeo + Juliet applied a modern lens to the classic play about the star-crossed lovers. The Montagues and Capulets became warring mafia families in fair Verona Beach, wielding guns named after different types of swords as Police Chief Prince tries to wrangle them. The genius of this adaptation lies in these creative choices–mixing a flashy aesthetic with Shakespeare’s original language creates a culture clash that works in unexpected ways. Here are the five best scenes that illustrate just that.
Opening with a newscaster reading the prologue as if it’s the evening news, the first scene of the play shows us exactly what we’re about to experience. The Montague boys, decked out in Hawaiian shirts and dyed hair (bubblegum pink for Jamie Kennedy’s character, a great look), talk shit about a group of leather-clad, cigarette-smoking Capulets. The ensuing conflict, taken straight from Shakespeare’s original text, sets the tone for the rest of the movie and lets us know that the star-crossed lovers are about to get the Hollywood blockbuster treatment. There’s going to be a lot of bright colors, a decent amount of violence, and an absolutely killer soundtrack. We’re not looking at traditional Elizabethan Shakespeare, kids.
After we’ve been introduced to the Montague-Capulet conflict and that melancholy, fickle Romeo we all know and can’t stand (just kidding, DiCaprio makes Romeo pretty endearing, if endlessly angsty), we meet his friend Mercutio. In the text, Mercutio brings some levity into Romeo’s life full of melancholy, along with the invitation to the Capulet’s party that introduces Romeo and Juliet, thus setting the entire story in motion.
Meeting Harold Perrineau’s Mercutio is An Experience. He arrives at the beach for the Capulet’s masquerade dressed in drag–specifically a white sparkly crop top, miniskirt, wig, and silver heels. He whips out the invitations to the party from under his skirt and delivers his famous soliloquy about Queen Mab as a means to offer the heartsick Romeo a hit of ecstasy. Perrineau’s delivery is teasing, entrancing, and dark, as the speech ends in him yelling “THIS IS SHE” before Romeo takes the drug.
Romeo and Juliet has arguably two climaxes: the fight that leads to the deaths of Mercutio and Tybalt, and the deaths of our title characters. Tybalt and some of the Capulet boys taunt Mercutio and Benvolio. To this point, Mercutio has been lighthearted and joking, but when Tybalt accuses him of a sexual relationship between Mercutio and Romeo, he becomes enraged. Perrineau shines once more, demonstrating that he’s just as adept at the dramatic scenes as he is at the comedic ones, as Mercutio attacks Tybalt on the beach. Romeo’s intervention is just enough distraction for Tybalt to deliver a fatal stab wound with a shard of broken glass. You can see the exact moment Mercutio realizes he’s dead reflected in his eyes. He screams the curse on both houses and falls.
Textually, Mercutio’s and Tybalt’s deaths occur within the same scene, but Luhrmann and screenwriter Craig Pearce chose to split these into two different ones for the movies. Overcome by grief and rage, Romeo chases Tybalt down in his car. The blockbuster vibes are back in full force when this high-speed chase results in Tybalt’s car flipping. The scene culminates in a bleeding Romeo holding Tybalt’s gun to his own head screaming, “Either thou, or I, or both must go with him,” before grabbing the gun, yelling in rage, and shooting him into the fountain. This scene allows DiCaprio to really go for it–prior to this he’s dealt a heavy rotation of being wistful and mooning over Rosaline and Juliet, respectively. He knocks it out of the park.
Perhaps the most iconic scene in the movie is when Romeo opens the doors to the church on Juliet’s “dead” body, surrounded by a thousand white candles and blue neon crosses. DiCaprio’s and Danes’s performances in this scene are heartbreaking in a scene that some (okay, me) might normally find ridiculous due to the circumstances of their insta-love. Luhrmann’s and Pearce’s choice to have Juliet wake up in the midst of Romeo taking the poison makes everything even more devastating. Juliet, at first happy to see his face upon waking, witnesses his quick death without being able to do a thing to stop it before taking his pistol and ending her own life. Seeing Danes hold the pistol to her head and stare into the camera before pulling the trigger makes their deaths seem all the more violent and senseless.