The song "X Gon' Give it to Ya" might scream over the soundtrack for the new film, "Cradle 2 the Grave" (IMDb listing), but X hardly gives it to ya during this promising, but bloated film.
Tony Fait (DMX) is a slick jewel thief, who, with his crew (including Gabrielle Union, Drag-On, and Anthony Anderson, who keeps his shrill shtick to a minimum here), has managed to pull off a huge score, which included snatching a bag of mysterious black diamonds. Hot on their trail is Taiwan special agent Su (Jet Li, typically restrained and ominous), who only wants the diamonds back, not the thieves. When Tony loses the stones and his 9-year-old daughter to an evil crime lord (Mark Dacascos, "Brotherhood Of the Wolf"), he teams up with Su to get them both back in one piece. Danger arises when the diamonds turn out to be something far more catastrophic than your average bling-bling.
"Cradle 2 the Grave" (and what the heck that title actually means to the film, I will never know), is the new product from famed action producer Joel Sliver. A mastermind of slick, utterly of-the-moment actioners ("Lethal Weapon," "Swordfish," "Demolition Man"), Silver has brought back most of the creative forces that shaped his recent mid-range hits "Romeo Must Die" and "Exit Wounds," for this new film. He's also turned up the luxury quotient, bathing the film in the latest cars, clothes and music. "Cradle" doesn't bring anything innovative to the genre, but it does have some fun while it's relentlessly kicking people around and asking Tom Arnold to be comedic relief (shudder).
Directed by former cinematographer Andrzej Bartkowiak, "Cradle" is miles ahead of the appalling "Romeo" and "Exit Wounds," yet still stuck in that rut of overindulgence, and general disinterest in shaking things up. The ingredients are here, with a prime Jet Li ready to fight, rapper DMX improving his acting, and Sliver's typically lavish production values ready to work overtime for the film. But Bartkowiak would rather let the ho-hum action go through the motions, leaving the performances out to dry, and top it all off with a baffling display of irritating rapid-fire editing. Why hire Jet Li if you won't let us see his natural ability?
"Cradle" does have its share of good fight moments, including the centerpiece of the film, which has Su reluctantly competing in an ultimate fighting championship. Forced to beat the stuffing out of his opponents, he raises the ire of the rest of the contestants, and must take them all on to escape with his life. While providing a display of Li's extensive talents, this sequence also reaches a blissful delirium that really elevates the film from its grim, familiar posturings. It doesn't last forever, but provides a taste powerful enough to leave fond memories of the film even after Bartkowiak tries to destroy them with his ghastly finale.
One the mantras of "Cradle" is that Tony doesn't believe in using a handgun during his crime sprees. Recalling a similar idea from "Charlie's Angels," "Cradle" benefits from the restraint in pyrotechnic displays. Of course, this is all thrown to hell in the climax, in which just about every firearm ever invented (including a tank for those keeping count) is put to use for the big-bang, give-'em-what-they-paid-for finish. Bartkowiak, most likely under the assumption that his film wasn't noisy enough, lets the action dissolve into fireballs and kung-fu nonsense. He even touches "Austin Powers"-like hilarity by bringing in "terrorist masterminds" from all over the globe to view the diamonds' ultimate use, with each person dressed as the nation they are representing. That's actually something that needs to be seen to be believed.
I wouldn't exactly recommend "Cradle 2 the Grave," but I wouldn't immediately dismiss it. It is an improvement in quality for everyone involved, and for at least 2/3 of the film, is actually quite entertaining to watch. But if these minds meet again for a third film, they need to drop the gangsta attitude and screenwriting, and just try something different. Jet Li deserves so much better than this.
Filmfodder Grade: C