By pairing rappers-turned-actors with martial-arts action stars, director Andrzej Bartkowiak has carved out his own private genre of hip-hop-kung-fu pictures -- and entrenched himself in a flashy but fruitless rut.
After the misfiring with 2000's overproduced "Romeo Must Die" and miscasting the over-the-hill Steven Seagal in 2001's "Exit Wounds," he's assembled many of the same actors (minus Seagal) for "Cradle 2 the Grave." This time it seems Bartkowiak's formula might finally work -- right up to the point where the diamond-heist-and-kidnapping plot is jettisoned in favor of an imbecilic nuclear weapons twist that turns the film into radioactive waste.
Hip-hop star DMX displays a natural toughness and affection as a top-notch vault-buster whose 9-year-old daughter is abducted by smugglers bent on obtaining the rare black diamonds he snatched in the film's opening action set-piece -- a stylish and exciting, if far-fetched, safe-deposit box heist and subway tunnel getaway.
Stone-faced Hong Kong high-kicker Jet Li plays a Taiwanese intelligence operative who joins forces with DMX as a way of recovering the stones, which were stolen from a secret project in his homeland. ("They aren't what you think they are," he says.)
Most of the movie's fight sequences are invigorating -- or would be if Bartkowiak weren't busy hacking them up into thousands of nanosecond-long shots. Li gracefully wallops his opponents (he kicks one guy's butt without taking his hands out of his pockets) while DMX fights street-dirty but fights well.
The plot has imaginative gangland spirals that eventually lead our heroes to a convicted crime boss (Chi McBride in a droll, smart, casually menacing performance) who is locked away in a luxurious, all-amenities prison cell. Soon they're paying action-packed visits to his strip club and his underground ultimate-fighting arena -- where, of course, Li ends up in a cage match with 12 muscle-bound grunts for the picture's most mundane brawl. (Li dispatches them easily because they attack one by one.)
Most of the action shows more creativity -- especially a chase sequence that has DMX on an all-terrain quad, out-running cops and treating the back alleys and business rooftops of downtown Los Angeles like an off-road obstacle course. (As it's in L.A., the chase is broadcast live on TV, natch.) Even the minimalist dialogue shows some cleverness from time to time.
If only screenwriters John O'Brien and Channing Gibson had stuck to the precious gems and the kidnapping, "Cradle 2 the Grave" could have been a gratifying B-movie (even with that silly title that has no connection to the story). But when the asinine plutonium subplot hijacks the last act, the flick goes into an unrecoverable tailspin of cartoonish technology, mock-scientific mumbo-jumbo and laughable Eurotrash arms dealers in the form of rabidly over-zealous day players from central casting.
After that, nothing can save "Cradle" from the grave. Not DMX's enjoyably smart kid (Paige Hurd) outfoxing her abductors. Not a final showdown in a ring of fire between Li and handsomely reptilian martial-arts-abled villain Marc Decoscos ("Brotherhood of the Wolf"). Not an over-edited, under-rehearsed kung-fu catfight between good-guy girlfriend Gabriel Union ("Deliver Us From Eva") and bad-guy girlfriend Kelly Hu ("The Scorpion King").
Not even amusing supporting performances help, like those of hammy Tom Arnold (as a thick-witted heist gang hanger-on) and sidekick extraordinaire Anthony Anderson ("Kangaroo Jack," "Barbershop"), who steals an early scene when he's forced to distract a gay security guard with reluctantly fay flirtation.
Jet Li -- whose English language acting skills show marked improvement -- has yet to make a good movie since leaving a respectable Hong Kong track record for Hollywood. But getting the heck away from Andrzej Bartkowiak, who doesn't seem to realize when his uber-slick flicks are self-destructing, would probably be a judicious first step toward finding better projects.
Run time: 101 mins
In Theaters: Friday 28th February 2003
Box Office USA: $34.5M
Box Office Worldwide: $56.5M
Distributed by: Warner Bros.
Production compaines: Silver Pictures
Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 26%
Fresh: 31 Rotten: 90
IMDB: 5.7 / 10
Director: Andrzej Bartkowiak
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