Both the Prologue and the opening scene of the film use setting to establish the opposing parties. In the film version, we see how the two opposed families dominate Verona Beach from the way skyscrapers bearing the names Montague and Capulet overshadow the city's horizon. Luhrmann follows this image with photographs of the two families on the front of the newspaper separated by a photograph of the statue of Jesus. The repeated focus on the Jesus statue and other religious icons comments on how religion, like the law, is no longer an effective means of maintaining peace and harmony in modern society. Shakespeare's disregard of religion as a force in maintaining social order may not have been so blatant as Luhrmann's treatment in the film. Shakespeare presents the Friar as a well-intentioned character despite the Friar's impotence to affect the tragic outcome of the action.
In the opening scene, the city of Verona is renamed Verona Beach, evoking America's famous city on the beach, Miami. The film draws on pop-culture images such as those from Miami Vice, which depicted both urban glamour and crime. Luhrmann clearly distinguishes the downtown area from the beach. He associates the city with the violence of the feud and the idyllic beach with love and peace.
The film illustrates these opposing forces through the use of a fire and water motif. In both the news footage and an encounter between the Montagues and Capulets at a gas station, flames repeatedly engulf the surroundings. "Fiery" Tybalt in particular seems to have a distinctly combustible effect on his surroundings. ">Romeo and ">Juliet, in contrast, are connected with water throughout the film. We first see Romeo on the beach looking to the ocean. Later, Romeo and Juliet see each other for the first time through a fish tank, and the famous balcony scene takes place in a swimming pool.
The beach, through its connection with the sea, becomes a place for change as opposed to the concrete, unchanging nature of the city. Luhrmann uses the beach as the place where the worlds of love and conflict clash when peaceable Romeo encounters "fiery" Tybalt. Moments later, ">Mercutio is killed there, symbolizing a loss of innocence, a violation of purity, and a defamation of a natural order.
Luhrmann places a huge Elizabethan stage on the beach to acknowledge the film's awareness of its Shakespearean heritage. The stage also provides several characters an alternative vehicle for expressing their emotional development, or lack thereof. Luhrmann presents a youthful, immature Romeo seated on stage, delivering his Rosaline-inspired "O brawling love" speech as a voice-over. The speech sounds stilted, stiff, and staged as though Romeo were a young, incompetent actor who merely recites his lines mechanically without understanding their meaning.
Luhrmann chooses a modern city as the setting for his film adaptation of Romeo and Juliet to present a chaotic urban world familiar to a 20th-century cinema audience. The media coverage of the feud makes the play's events familiar to a modern audience as they watch violent video of the chaos on the streets of Verona Beach and are drawn into the feud-ravaged world of the film. The updated and renamed Verona Beach is a clever mechanism by which peaceful and violent worlds collide.