Rapper-turned-movie star (“actor” wouldn’t really be appropriate) DMX had his first lead role in “Exit Wounds” (2001), in which he teamed with the sluggish Steven Seagal. He’s definitely moved up the buddy ladder this time around, paired as he is with Jet Li, the most agile Hong Konger now on the international scene, in the latest action flick from Andrzej Bartkowiak (who also directed “Wounds” and Li’s “Romeo Must Die”). What results is a loony mixture of gangsta flick (complete with thumping hip-hop soundtrack) and John Woozy heels-over-head chop-socky action. “Cradle 2 the Grave” is certainly cinematic junk food, but it’s slickly fashioned and packaged. That should be enough for viewers who enjoy well-staged fights, explosions and chases so much that they’re willing to forgo the slightest trace of logic or plausibility in order to get a heavy dose of them.
It would be an exaggeration to say that the picture has a plot in any serious sense; what John O’Brien and Channing Gibson have provided is basically a skeleton of stock situations and characters on which to hang an assortment of slam-bang moments. Fait (DMX) is a master thief in L.A. with a darling daughter named Vanessa (Paige Hurd) whom he cherishes–though no wife is in sight–and a gang of savvy, ultra-loyal helpers: Tommy, the inevitably jovial chubby guy (Anthony Anderson); svelte, sexy Daria (Gabrielle Union); and slightly goofy home-boy Miles (Drag-On). Fait is a principled guy: he’s got a strict “no guns” policy for his crew, for instance. But that doesn’t stop him from taking a job from a piece of slick Euro-trash (Paolo Seganti) to steal some exotic black stones from a heavily-guarded safety deposit vault. He succeeds (in an elaborate heist sequence that opens the movie), but things are complicated by the intrusion of a super-cool Taiwanese operative called Su (Li) who’s out to retrieve the “gems” for his government and the theft of the stones by henchmen of the local crime strongman (Chi McBride)–which puts Fait in Dutch with the stones’ ultimate “buyer,” the nefarious Ling (Mark Dacascos). Ling’s got a gang of his own, the most eye-catching member of which is the leggy Sona (Kelly Hu); and as if his penchant for easy brutality and smiling villainy weren’t enough, he also happens to be Su’s traitorous former partner. When the nasty guy kidnaps Vanessa to force Fait to get him the stones, Fait and Su link up to save the girl and keep Ling from making a fortune on the stolen merchandise. (What the stones turn out to be is one of the dumbest things about the script–a Macguffin out of a comic book; the other really dumb thing is the character of a jabbering honky fence named Archie, played, with all the subtlety you’d expect, by Tom Arnold–there has to be one white guy in the mix, after all, and he needs to be a fool.)
All of this is patently idiotic, of course, but it does allow for a succession of set-pieces in which DMX’s smoldering intensity and Li’s casual athleticism can share the spotlight. After the opening heist and Su’s intervention in it, there’s a rumble in an alley in which Fait and Su first join forces, a wild high-speed chase through the L.A. streets with Fait on an all-terrain vehicle, and a “tough guy” boxing match in a cage, in which Su takes on every bad-ass in the metropolitan area. It all winds up with a triple bang: a grand finale in which no fewer than three fights are intercut. Fait, Vanessa in tow, takes on one of Ling’s baddest boys (Woon Young Park); Daria dukes it out with Sona in a sexy catfight; and Su faces off against the equally proficient Ling. Needless to say, the fate of humanity hangs in the balance.
Throughout all the empty-headed action Daryn Okada’s cinematography glistens and Bartkowiak’s aptitude for carefully-choreographed violence is in clear evidence. DMX has presence to burn, and after the tedium of “The One” Li gets back to basics, going through his fantastic feats with straight-laced aplomb. The rest of the cast does what’s expected of them; Dacascos, who’s usually played heroes in the past (he was most recently the Indian in the joyously absurd “Brotherhood of the Wolf”), makes a particularly good foil for Li, though the drive to find an appropriately over-the-top mode of demise for him takes the scripters way too far.
“Cradle 2 the Grave” is shamelessly cynical from a marketing perspective–a product, not a picture. But its makers know their target audience, and it should satisfy their need for an action high.