Born 2 the life. True 2 the code. Bad 2 the bone.
2 cool 2 B stuck with 2 wack a title.
Facts of the Case
High-tech thief Tony Fait (DMX, Exit Wounds, Romeo Must Die) leads his gang of larcenous cronies, including Tommy (Anthony Anderson, also of Exit Wounds and Romeo Must Die fame) and Daria (Gabrielle Union, who wasn't in either Exit Wounds or Romeo Must Die, but did star in Bring It On and Bad Boys II), on a major league jewel heist involving some rare black diamonds. On the getaway, Tony's crew runs afoul of a Taiwanese intelligence agent named Su (Jet Li, star of—you're way ahead of me—Romeo Must Die…but not Exit Wounds), who wants the hot rocks for his government. Su's mission is to keep the diamonds out of the hands of a hardcase named Ling (Mark Dacascos, who wasn't in either Exit Wounds or Romeo Must Die, but is reported to have rented both of them).
Unfortunately for all concerned, Tony's posse has managed to lose the diamonds to the minions of crime lord Jump Chambers (an uncredited Chi McBride, who was too busy filming Undercover Brother and TV's Boston Public to check out Exit Wounds or Romeo Must Die), who manages his empire from a cushy cellblock in the Big House. As disappointed as Tony, Su, and company are, Ling is even more distressed, to the degree that he kidnaps Tony's eight-year-old daughter Vanessa (Paige Hurd, who's not old enough to watch Exit Wounds or Romeo Must Die) to use as a bargaining chip to leverage the mysterious ebony stones from Tony…stones which Tony can't supply, given the circumstances.
With the aid of a motormouthed gunrunner and fence named Archie (Tom Arnold, from—can you believe this?—Exit Wounds, but who skipped Romeo Must Die once he found out it wasn't really titled Roseanne Must Die), Tony and Su team up to recover the diamonds (which turn out not to be actual diamonds, but something so sinister and bizarre they could only exist in an action movie). But the clock is ticking—will the impatient Ling and his triggerhappy girl Friday, Sona (Kelly Hu, who was in X2: X-Men United, but won't cop to even having heard of Romeo Must Die or Exit Wounds) assassinate little Vanessa before Tony and Su can effect a rescue?
Andrej Bartkowiak, the director of Cradle 2 The Grave (as well as—no fair peeking—Exit Wounds and Romeo Must Die), has learned this essential truth about success in the movie biz: when you find a horse that runs, baby, you ride that son-of-a-stallion until it collapses. As you have by this point figured out, Cradle 2 The Grave is Bartkowiak's third movie with superstar rapper turned rising action star DMX (who played a pivotal supporting role in Romeo Must Die and auxiliary lead behind Steven Seagal in Exit Wounds) and his second starring Jet Li (who headlined the many times aforementioned Romeo Must Die). From all appearances, Bartkowiak's not going to be done milking these two cash cows anytime in the foreseeable future.
Bartkowiak has also tumbled to the fact that the true winner in this horse race is not the top-billed Li—who despite his consistently impressive martial arts technique possesses all the screen charisma of a lukewarm pot of oatmeal—but the hotter-than-Mercury DMX. That's why, even though Li still gets his name and mug first on the snapper case, this film's center is DMX's Tony Fait, with Li relegated to the unusual (for him) position of the buddy/sidekick role.
This is the kind of film whose success depends largely on the viewer's expectations. At one point, Jet Li's character is asked, "What are you, some kind of kung fu James Bond?" If you've come to Cradle 2 The Grave with the fervent hope that the answer to that query will be "yes," then you'll enjoy the movie, because it delivers all the kung fu James Bond you could ask for, and a bag of chips. If, however, the very concept of a kung fu James Bond is anathema to your cinematic sensibility, then Cradle 2 The Grave will likely not be your idea of a good time. For the kung fu James Bond seeker in me, this filled the bill quite satisfyingly.
The storyline of Cradle 2 The Grave is ludicrous at best. When you really think about it, there really isn't any logical reason for Fait and Su to team up, aside from having DMX and Jet Li sharing the screen as much as possible. The whole mystery-gemstones-as-nuclear-fuel angle feels ripped off from a grade-B sci-fi-flick, and out of place in an urban actioner. And we've witnessed a few dozen iterations of the well-worn bad-guy/childnapper plot in other, occasionally better, movies.
But director Bartkowiak is content to throw subtlety and rationality to the wind, slam the accelerator to the floor, and just keep pouring on the gas—and thus gets decent mileage out of a script that threatens to blow away in the first stiff breeze. When things look like the audience might be about ready to stop and think, Bartkowiak throws Li into a steel-cage death match against a gaggle of WWE types, or pits Gabrielle Union against Kelly Hu in a knock-down, drag-out catfight, or hurls a few bodies through the air. Works for me.
No one will win an Oscar for appearing in Cradle 2 The Grave, but I'd imagine everyone in it will look back on the experience as a fun time. DMX does a fine, if unspectacular, job as the cat burglar with a heart of gold. Li gets to stick to what he does best—bushwhacking onrushing hordes of evildoers (when will they ever learn not to attack him one at a time?) and looking inscrutable. Mark Dacascos makes a worthy adversary for the dynamic duo. Union and Hu deliver the eye candy, and Tom Arnold and Anthony Anderson—each capable of being obnoxious and tiresome in large doses—play off one another so effortlessly I can easily picture them paired in film after film as the next action-comedy buddy team. Their freeform, in-character riffing over the closing credits is worth sticking around to enjoy. (What makes the coupling work is that neither Anderson nor Arnold has to carry the entire comedy relief load for the film. Moderation in all things.)
Technophiles will find more than their fair share of whiz-bang gimmickry in which to delight. Fans of the hip-hop musical genre can crank up the soundtrack and bust a move. Martial arts aficionados can overdose on flying fists, flailing feet, and wire fu goodness. Everyone leaves with a smile. No animals are harmed in the process. Again, if "kung fu James Bond" is your cup o' joe, you could do worse than Cradle 2 The Grave, and most likely have.
Warner, who could easily vault to the pinnacle of the Judge's list of favorite DVD producers were it not for their continued reliance on the cheapjack snapper case, chalks up another winner with the Cradle 2 The Grave disc. Both the video and audio components of the presentation are exceptional. The quality of the sharp anamorphic transfer is near-perfect, with only a few isolated instances of digital artifacting and pixelation marring an otherwise superb display. Color reproduction is bright and realistic, without bleed or muddiness. Depth is excellent, with solid, deep shadows and crisp background detail.
And the soundtrack? Boy, howdy. Were the audio any fatter, elephants would wander in from the circus and attempt to canoodle with it. If you like it loud, proud, and well endowed, just goose the volume up and let your subwoofer party. More than just powerful, the mix is clean and tightly balanced—one of the first hip-hop or rap-based scores I've heard in a while where I could actually comprehend the vocal lines without switching on the subtitles. Nice work.
The menu of supplements doesn't overstay its welcome. We're treated to a trio of brief production featurettes:
• Ultimate Fighting Champions (8:15) focuses on a bravura
martial arts sequence, set in an underground Fight Club-type setting with Jet Li
facing an onslaught of ruffians.
DMX partisans can head-bob to the star's theme-song video, X Gon' Give It to Ya. A pair of barely-hidden (and advertised on the cover) Easter eggs unveil a time-lapse montage with music and captions, and another brief featurette showing the rear projection techniques used in the subway scene (1:30). Cast and crew filmographies and the movie's theatrical trailer, plus a few DVD-ROM web links, round out the package.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
No, after three viewings, I still don't have any idea what the title of the film means, either.
Leave your high-minded arthouse interests at the door—along with your demands for more than a shred of screenplay cohesion—and just go with the flow. X ain't really gon' give it to ya, but neither he nor you will be sorry if you buy it.
Cradle 2 The Grave is acquitted on all charges. Warner receives the commendation of the court for the standout transfer and soundtrack, but is cautioned to come strong with a few more extras next time or the Judge won't be so gracious. DMX, Jet Li, and their 2 live crew are free to go.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Featurette: Ultimate Fighting Champions
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