DMX: He can snarl better than most.
At a certain point during Cradle 2 the Grave, you must relinquish the usual expectations of verisimilitude and allow your suspension of disbelief to stretch itself far, far across the hemisphere and into the realm of Hong Kong. This occurs at approximately the 8-second mark: Aided by an elite team of kung-fu-fighting cat burglars, growly rapper DMX is revealed to be a criminal mastermind armed with enough high-tech safe-cracking equipment to make James Bond swoon. And as he lines up what looks to be a Howitzer at the frozen door of a diamond vault, you may find yourself acceding to these affairs with only a minor struggle.
Sure. Why not?
Those are the last words you'll hear from your enfeebled sense of skepticism as it fades away from consciousness. Really, it has little choice. Otherwise, you'll face a long, hard journey to daylight outside the theater. So: DMX is a Porsche-driving genius-thief who can break through any security system and still get home in time to tuck his daughter into bed with a hug. Why not? Jet Li is a Taiwanese security agent who can walk into any U.S. crime scene simply by flashing his ID. Why not? Bad guy Mark Dacascos has smuggled black diamonds into the country that are actually radioactive doo-dads invented by Taiwan to be easily transported power sources for nuclear bombs. Sure. Why the heck not?
None of it really makes much sense but, well, do even the best films of the Hong Kong action genre use logical stories? Not if you actually try to follow them, but that's usually not the point. Anyway, it's certainly not the point of Cradle 2 the Grave, in which Li's secret agent somehow knows every move of Dacascos' villain, who is trying to regain his stolen stones by kidnapping DMX's feisty young daughter so he can sell them to the world's nuclear-bomb-loving terrorists. The point is mostly showing guys kick each others' asses, which is fine, though not exactly inspired.
Way back in the '90s, an influx of Hong Kong film talent was supposed to reinvigorate Hollywood action movies. And to a certain degree, John Woo, Jackie Chan, Chow Yun Fat, and fight choreographer Yuen Wo Ping have achieved thatthough their movies have been heavily Americanized and often mediocre. Cradle 2 the Grave, on the other hand, is probably the first Hollywood effort to truly grasp the central element of most Hong Kong action movies: It's completely nonsensical to an absurd level. Just as in many Hong Kong imports, the plot and the characters have only the barest relation to reality or to each other. Instead, the story is just a bizarre setup to bravura action set-pieces with really bad dialogue. But that's what it is, so there's really no use in complaining. Just sit back and savor your stale popcorn as the feet fly.
Fortunately, Cradle 2 the Grave's action choreography and the casting surpass the scriptwriting enough to make for an enjoyable matinee. As unlikely as it sounds to cast DMX as a master thief, he pulls it offthe guy's got magnetism to spare. (Enough that it actually enveloped the black hole of Steven Seagal's personality and made Exit Wounds a surprise hit.) Although you can't exactly call his acting "nuanced," DMX nevertheless conveys conviction whether he's beating up a gangster or pining for his kidnapped daughter. He's got as much potential as Eminem does in the rapper-turned-actor sweepstakes, though he's shooting less for social realism than for action stardom.
Meanwhile, the ongoing campaign to refashion Jet Li as a Hollywood star continues, though I doubt if he'll ever find the right vehicle. (Actually, he didhe was offered a role in the Matrix sequels and turned it down to star in the teeth-gnashing trash of Kiss of the Dragon.) At least producer Joel Silver has figured out that the less dialogue the better for Li, and in Cradle 2 the Grave he doesn't say much, or even move his facial muscles for that matter. But he does fight with a grace and fluidity that is a pleasure to watch, particularly in his trademark one-man-against-an-entire-army scene, this time facing down a squadron of ultimate-fighter goons. Is this enough for U.S. stardom? Not really. His roles in these Hollywood films (Romeo Must Die, The One) haven't exactly been the kind that win audiences over like Chan's lovable goofball or Yun Fat's noble warrior. Too bad he rejected the Wachowski brothers for yet more run-of-the-mill beat-em-ups.
Run-of-the-mill it may be, Cradle 2 the Grave at least gets the basics right, with plenty of genuine stunts and fights. Throw in a cool ATV chase scene, comic relief by the personable Anthony Anderson, and a final showdown in a blazing ring of fire, and you've got a pleasing addition to the new rap-fu genre. Who'll be next? Michelle Yeoh and Busta Rhymes? Fat Joe and Leslie Cheung? Bring it on, I say. Why not?