Cradle 2 The Grave (R)
Warner Bros. Pictures
Even if Jet Li didn't spend most of his fight scenes with his left hand stuck inexplicably in his pocket while he does an "I can beat you with one arm tied behind my back" routine, Cradle 2 The Grave would still be a nightmare of ill-conceived genre melding.
Given that director Andrzej Bartkowiak (Romeo Must Die) worked as cinematographer on such respectable films as Sidney Lumet's The Verdict, we'd expect him to have a better eye for scripts than this action clich miasma under a thick coat of plastically sentimental dialogue. Rap embarrassment DMX as thief/caring father Tony Fait couldn't act wet in a rainstorm. To make matters worse, Tony has a penchant for incurring a chant of "faith" from his minions when he isn't praying insipidly about angels to his 9-year-old daughter.
The best moment in the movie comes early on when Taiwanese Government Agent Su (Jet Li) breaks into a bad guy's high-rise beachfront apartment by dropping from balcony to balcony, many stories above the ground. The camera pulls back to record the dangerous scale of the feat, and the effect is a breathtakingly exciting moment of physical daring-do.
But the film never again hits such a high note of excitement thanks mainly to a lack of focus on Li's character. We see Su employ his lightning-fast martial arts skill to devastate villain after villain with one hand and two feet flying, but never get an explanation about why we're being shortchanged in the fighting department. It seems probable that Li hurt his left hand during filming, and the production was forced to continue in spite of the problem.
Tony Fait (DMX) is a diamond burglar working with a talented but undisciplined group of hoods to steal a collection of precious "black diamonds." But when the thieves, including one gorgeous Gabrielle Union as Daria, expertly blow a hole in a giant vault filled with hundreds of locked drawers, they don't even know which compartment to heist. They blunder into the right drawer eventually, but it brings into question the competence of the crew.
The suddenly relevant black Asian stones are also being sought by the evil Ling (Mark Dacascos), who was Su's former partner in Taiwan before turning bad with a capital "B." Ling soon kidnaps Fait's daughter Vanessa (Paige Hurd) to ransom the stones from Fait, who has recently joined forces with Su. The ransomed daughter device is pathetically employed to mitigate the fact that Tony is a thieving scum riding on Su's coattails of legitimacy, and to similarly obscure the chasm of talent differences between DMX and Li.
The search-and-rescue mini-plot expands when it's revealed that the stones are actually synthetic plutonium being auctioned off to a gathering of international arms dealers offering $5 million per stone. The auction scene forfeits a perfect opportunity at satire, considering how much of the world's "illegal arms" are made and sold to countries like Iraq by the U.S. military. (For an idea of where that scene could have gone, check out Malcolm McDowell as a young British salesman in Lindsay Anderson's O Lucky Man.)
Tom Arnold adds much needed comic spice as a Los Angeles small-arms dealer who sweats greedy beads of Republican war hunger with a fitting devil-may-care approach to the role. But it's Mark Dacascos' Ling who steals the movie with his exotic looks and experienced fighting skill. Dacascos is a better actor than Jet Li, and they enhance one another whenever they share the screen. The possibility that these two may face off again in a better movie may be the only saving grace Cradle 2 The Grave has to offer.
-- Cole Smithey