Cradle 2 the Grave could have been subtitled Return of Jet Li. This is the third flick in producer Joel Silver and director Andrzej Bartkowiak’s hip hop-meets-martial arts-chop-chop-mob-wars trilogy. Fists, kicks, firepower — and, this time, an all-terrain vehicle — fly fast and furious, breaking only for ham-fisted tearjerking or hit-and-miss rib tickling.
Romeo Must Die (2000) kicked the series off. As usual, Li played it cool — too cool to be believed — as the titular Romeo, Han, to late R&B singer-actress Aaliyah’s Juliet, Trish. Anthony Anderson played the stooge for comic relief and DMX, with a bit part, added a second acting credential (his first was Belly) to the actor half of his rapper-actor hyphenate.
Silver and Bartkowiak struck back with Exit Wounds the next year. The story follows the formula Silver has banked on since Lethal Weapon (1987): Take an odd couple of dudes who hate each other, toss them into the plot’s crucible where they test their macho mettle against each other, and then have some exotic supervillain turn up the heat so they alloy into a dynamic, crime-fighting duo and become grudging buddies. Still half-baked as an actor, DMX rose to second billing under a stale Steven Seagal. Adding Tom Arnold’s fast-talking white stooge to Anderson’s couldn’t patch up Exit Wounds. But it still gushed gold at the box office.
In Cradle, the Silver formula returns to full effect with Jet Li. Now top-billed DMX’s safe-cracking thug with a heart of gold, Anthony Fait, bucks against Li’s cobra-like Chinese intelligence agent, Su, over the lost score of Fait’s last rocket-powered heist. During their introductory slapdown, Fait somehow meets the whip-cracks of Su’s hands and feet with such street-smart poise you expect Fait to paraphrase one of the classic lines of the kung fu canon: “Your Wu Shu style’s pretty good ... But it’s no match for my gangsta Tae Bo!” Hmmm. I don’t think so. It’s one of a few plot turns in Reggie Rock Bythewood’s (Biker Boyz) script that Cradle fails to pull off. Another is the artificial sap of Fait’s relationship with his daughter, Vanessa.
For Bythewood, a clever kid can have 101 uses: Vanessa makes Fait sympathetic. And when the supervillain du jour, Ling (Mark Dacasco), and his dragon lady, Sona (Kelly Hu), kidnap the girl for a ransom of the heisted black “diamonds,” she gives her father and Su something else to argue over, shifts the plot into second gear and makes her captors seem even more despicable. The problem is that DMX’s melodramatic scenes with her are more clumsy misses than hits.
But even if he occasionally misses a melodramatic or comic beat, Bartkowiak scores highest with his action set pieces that often verge on the awesome and occasionally leap into the impossible. It’s his direction and Li and Dacasco’s action that rock Cradle 2 the Grave.
James Keith La Croix writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].