Andrzej Bartkowiak used to be one of Hollywood’s most celebrated cinematographers. He photographed such films as Terms of Endearment, Prizzi’s Honor, Speed, and The Devil’s Advocate. In 2000, he left cinematography behind to become a director. Since then, he has virtually created his own genre with such interchangeable movies as Romeo Must Die, Exit Wounds, and now Cradle 2 the Grave. As far as I’m concerned, these are all essentially the same movie; each one features a martial arts star paired up with a star from the world of R&B/hip-hop music. All are crammed with complex-but-mindless action scenes. And all of them are pale imitators of Hong Kong action cinema.
Cradle 2 the Grave stars Jet Li (who also starred in Romeo Must Die) as Su, a Chinese intelligence officer in America who is trying to locate some stolen “black diamonds.” The thief in question is Fate (DMX, who also starred in Exit Wounds), an urban Robin Hood who steals jewels because…well, the script requires him to. Fate works in conjunction with the obligatory sexy female thief (Gabrielle Union), the obligatory wisecracking goofball (Anthony Anderson, who also starred in both Romeo Must Die and Exit Wounds, and the obligatory guy-who-can-get-anything - in this case a pawnshop owner played by Tom Arnold (who also starred in Exit Wounds).
See what I mean about these movies being interchangeable? Flip past one of them on Cinemax and you’d never be able to tell which was which, at least not by looking at the cast.
The bad guy is Ling (Mark Dacascos), a slimy businessman from Hong Kong who knows the secret of the diamonds: they are actually a new form of plutonium. Ling has plans to sell them to the highest bidder among a group of the world’s most notorious arms dealers. First, though, he must get them from Fate, who has conveniently let them get away. Ling does this via that age-old movie cliché in which he kidnaps the hero’s 8-year old daughter. This allows DMX to use his gravelly voice to shout such obvious lines as, “He’s got my daughter!” Su agrees to help Fate retrieve the plutonium so he can get his daughter back.
The plot here is merely an excuse to assemble a bunch of loosely connected action scenes. In fact, the movie at times all but throws away the plot. It’s probably just as well because you could drive a Mack truck through the plot holes. I was personally kind of thrown off by the naivete of Ling’s plan. There’s a scene in which those arms dealers are frantically trying to outbid each other to buy the plutonium, which Ling has promised can deliver “a new world order.” Well, if there’s a new world order, couldn’t that possibly throw the world economy so far out of whack that Ling could never enjoy the millions of dollars he receives in payment? What good is all that money if the new world order makes it impossible for you to do anything with it?
I suppose I’m applying too much logic here. Let’s leave the hypothetical issues aside and focus on what’s observably wrong with Cradle 2 the Grave. Aside from the thin plot, I found the characterization to be lame. DMX is, I suppose, a screen presence. But so is Jet Li, who surprisingly makes absolutely no impression here. A friend of mine remarked that Su has no character arc whatsoever, and I think that was an astute observation. Li’s work is far superior in Lethal Weapon 4 (in which he played a creepy villain) and Kiss of the Dragon (in which he showed some heart). This time around, he’s just a generic butt-kicker.
Faring worst of all is Gabrielle Union (Bring It On, Deliver Us From Eva), a very talented young actress who is offensively used only as eye candy. Her character has a scene in which she distracts a bad guy by – you guessed it – giving him a striptease. At one point, Bartkowiak actually fills the movie’s widescreen composition with a close-up of the actress’s butt. Union isn’t doing her career any favors by exploiting herself this way. As she proved in her other movies, it’s possible to be sexy and still play a fully-formed character.
As for the action scenes, I admit that many of them are well done. In general, I’m a fan of movie martial arts sequences. One particular moment finds Su battling a group of ferocious cage fighters. It’s really a cool scene, although Bartkowiak dulls its impact by intercutting the scene with a car chase. Every time I started to get into the cage match, the movie switched to the chase; when I started to get into the chase, it switched back. An action scene is only exciting if you can witness it in its entirety. Keep cutting away and you lose tension.
Cradle 2 the Grave is a brain-dead action flick, to be sure. I’ve seen a lot better, but I’ve also seen a lot worse. Not exactly a compliment, but there you go. The action scenes are really the only things of even moderate interest here. Then again, I think that the picture’s inanity partially accounts for my giving it as generous a star rating as I am about to. This is the kind of movie that makes you feel good about yourself because you know that you are smarter than any of the characters on screen; you just can't fight as well.
P.S. I’ll give extra credit to anyone who can tell me what that absurd title has to do with anything in this film.
( out of four)
Cradle 2 the Grave is rated R for violence, language, and some sexual content. The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes.
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