Director Andrzej Bartkowiak apparently likes to keep it in the family when making his films. Aside from DMX and Jet Li starring in his 2000 debut, "Romeo Must Die," DMX and Tom Arnold appeared in his follow-up feature, "Exit Wounds
." For his third attempt behind the camera, Bartkowiak has concocted "Cradle 2 the Grave," the kind of insignificant, if painless, action flick that has been filmed and edited precisely for MTV-generation, attention-deprived audiences. Because the film has a premise more or less identical to "Romeo Must Die" and "Exit Wounds
," Bartkowiak has been able to more tightly hone his skills in the process, even if they are still far from airtight. Thank goodness for small favors: Steven Seagal is nowhere to be found.
When jewel thief Tony Fait (DMX) and his ragtag cohortsthe wisecracking Tommy (Anthony Anderson), beautiful and tough Daria (Gabrielle Union), and go-to guy Miles (Drag-On)break into a vault and steal a cache of extremely valuable black diamonds, they do not realize how drastically others want them. Soon, Tony's 8-year-old daughter, Vanessa (Paige Hurd), has been kidnapped by maniacal crooks Ling (Mark Dacascos) and Sona (Kelly Hu), who want the jewels as a means of creating mass destruction. To save his daughter, Tony joins up with Taiwanese government agent Su (Jet Li), who has a personal claim on Ling's life and can ably predict his every move.
In six words, "Cradle 2 the Grave" is hackneyed, preposterous, disposable, undemanding, diverting, and energetic. Written by John O'Brien and Channing Gibson, the only actual wit to be found in the dialogue comes during the end credits as Tommy and small-arms dealer Archie (Tom Arnold) discuss who would be cast if what has just happened to them were made into a movie. What is so telling is that this inordinately bright and funny dialogue was clearly ad-libbed, proving that O'Brien and Gibson aren't nearly as good of writers as its actors are when they are merely coming up with shtick on the spot.
The characters are stock figures who either (1) push the plot forward, or (2) are on hand to act as comic relief. Anthony Anderson (2003's "Kangaroo Jack
") is more successful at the latter than Tom Arnold, whose character, to the best of my knowledge, has no actual purpose aside from tagging along and spouting off throwaway jokes. In the lead roles, DMX isn't overly annoying or out of place as Tony, but does get forced into some embarrassingly syrupy moments with his screen daughter. As Su, Jet Li (2001's "The One
") has charisma and impressive fighting skills; now he needs to study the English language. The lovely Gabrielle Union (2003's "Deliver Us From Eva
"), as sexy good girl Daria, and Kelly Hu (2002's "The Scorpion King
"), as nasty, child-hating Sona, fill out the female requirements with aplomb.
If "Cradle 2 the Grave," which has a title even more nonsensical than the out-of-left-field, fantasy-laden plot development in the second half, is better than it ought to be, it is because of a few taut and stylish action sequences and stunts that boast showmanship. Near the beginning, Jet Li drops down floor by floor on the outside of a hotel, while later DMX proves why "all-terrain" vehicles adopt such a name in a nice chase interlude. The finale is also not too shabby, if slightly disjointed, as it jumps between three different fights to death going on at the same time.
In the end, however, the filmmakers and actors responsible must question how advantageous it was to dedicate their time to something so inconsequential. With such little innovation and a story not believable enough to care one iota about, the only thing left to do is admire the pyrotechnics and fight choreography. "Cradle 2 the Grave" is a big-screen version of junk food. Nutritionally, it is worthless, but it can be fun to experience. You'll just kick yourself afterward for wasting your time.