What's most impressive about Romeo + Juliet to me now is looking at who was on the short list for the cast, according to IMDB: Ewan McGregor, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Reese Witherspoon, Kate Winslet, Christina Ricci, Natalie Portman, and Christian Bale. Of course, none of them ended up in the film, but the actual ensemble cast was nothing to scoff at: Harold Perrineau (though I've never seen "Lost"), Dash Mihok, Jesse Bradford (great in Flags of Our Fathers), Pete Postlethwaite (Kobayashi from The Usual Suspects), Paul Sorvino, Brian Dennehy, John Leguizamo, and even Paul Rudd. Among those I've listed in this paragraph are some really great actors, and remember this was 12 years ago! Baz Luhrmann is either really lucky or has an amazing casting agent. Don't think I've forgotten future Hollywood legend Leonardo DiCaprio (who broke through two years later with Titanic) or talented underachiever Claire Danes. They were a great pair at the perfect point in their careers. I shudder to think at who would be cast if this film was made in 2008 - Paul Walker and Jessica Alba?
Wow. Well it should go without saying that your initial reaction to the film almost entirely depends on how sacred you regard Shakespeare's work. Speaking for myself: eh. The stories are rich with symbolism and I'm sure are very useful in college literature classes, but I'm not one to gush about dialogue like, "If I profane with my unworthiest hand this holy shrine, the gentle sin is this. My lips, to blushing pilgrims, ready stand to smooth that rough touch with a tender kiss." I'm sorry, it just doesn't do much for me, and I accept that that makes me culturally degenerate. I enjoy the novelty of an old language ("Do you bite your thumb at us, sir?"; "A curse on both your houses!"), but it takes something like Romeo + Juliet to bring it life for me.
I also have to mention here the reaction to 2005's highly acclaimed Brick, which (awkwardly, in my opinion) featured dialogue in film noir style: "Your muscle seemed plenty cool putting his fist in my head. I want him out." In his glowing review of Brick, Ebert observed that these "contemporary characters...inhabit personal styles from an earlier time," before describing director Rian Johnson as "very good." What gives?
I'm going to go ahead and speculate that if Ebert and LaSalle sat down and watched Romeo + Juliet again, they would have a different reaction (probably similar to Slant's take in 2002). With Moulin Rouge!, Luhrmann clearly showed again that his motive is not protecting the sanctity of language but rather imagining new ways to mix art, pop culture, music, and love. At least Maslin recognized this "visual universe fully in tune with the characters' ageless passions." Luhrmann's style is wholly unique, similar to Julie Taymor, and he's not given enough credit for exploring new dimensions in film. Romeo + Juliet was, in my opinion, a successful experiment and fascinating stimulus for the senses. And yes, I think it did make a 400 year-old story more relevant.