November 11, 1996 12:00 PM

Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes

Good thing Shakespeare’s name is included in the title. Otherwise, you might mistake this audacious version of his tale of star-crossed teen lovers for an extended music video. Loud, garish, violent and determinedly in-your-face, it more accurately should be billed Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo & Juliet. Director Luhrmann (Strictly Ballroom) plunks down the Bard’s tragic romance in a modern urban hellhole he dubs Verona Beach (the film was shot in Mexico City and Veracruz), depicts the Montagues and Capulets as warring gangs (complete with tattoos, souped-up cars and drive-by shootings), piles on religious iconography (a Madonna even graces a pistol handle) and bathes the whole in pointless water imagery (Romeo and Juliet first glimpse each other through a fish tank and later make out in a swimming pool). And, oh yes, Mercutio is a singing drag queen.

What’s missing amid all this frantic activity and eye candy is the poetry. Only in the big romantic scenes between Romeo (DiCaprio, whose alienated, lost-lamb approach works) and Juliet (Danes, so spunkily googly-eyed that you want to smack her) does the booming soundtrack pipe down enough so you can hear Shakespeare’s swell speeches. While there’s nothing wrong with updating and adapting a classic, one hopes this rocket-fueled R&J won’t be the only version its young audience ever sees. That would be a real tragedy. (PG-13)

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