Combustible Celluloid
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With: Jet Li, DMX, Anthony Anderson, Gabrielle Union, Tom Arnold, Mark Dacascos, Kelly Hu
Written by: Channing Gibson, John O'Brien, based on a story by John O'Brien, Reggie Rock Bythewood
Directed by: Andrzej Bartkowiak
MPAA Rating: R for violence, language and some sexual content
Running Time: 101
Date: 02/28/2003

Cradle 2 the Grave (2003)

2 Stars (out of 4)

Flat is the 'Cradle'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Cradle 2 the Grave begins so well, it looks like the movie might even have a chance.

Jet Li breaks into a swanky apartment building by dropping off balcony ledges, one floor at a time, and grabbing onto the floor above to keep from plummeting to his death. Once inside, he beats the tar out of some guy, keeping one hand in his front pants pocket the whole time.

Meanwhile, Anthony Anderson (Barbershop, Kangaroo Jack) pulls off a hilarious scene in which he flirts with and distracts a gay security guard so that his colleagues can steal a bagful of black diamonds.

All this to the tune of the frighteningly awesome song "Go to Sleep," performed by the film's star, DMX, with backup from Eminem and Obie Trice.

But alas, the proceedings quickly turn sour, thanks to the unflatteringly fragrant screenplay by Channing Gibson, John O'Brien and Reggie Rock Bythewood. One of the first lines of dialogue is "We're in position," which must have been used in at least 1,000 other movies by now and gives a pretty good indication of what's to come.

The plot sets Jet Li as a Taiwanese agent looking for the black diamonds, which have some secret sinister purpose. DMX stars as the thief who took them, along with Anderson and the gorgeous Gabrielle Union (Deliver Us from Eva). Tom Arnold also jumps on board this trainwreck of a film as a helpful black market salesman.

But bad guys Mark Dacascos and Kelly Hu kidnap DMX's little daughter in hopes of laying their hands on the jewels. So implausibly, Li and DMX team up.

The rest of the movie consists of the shabbiest detective work ever filmed, with our characters blundering into clubs and jail cells and whatnot, based on guesses and hunches and without an ounce of logic from anyone.

The worst scene comes near the end when the bad guys assemble a team of international black marketers to demonstrate the diamonds' real purpose. It's so badly staged and acted that it caused uncontrollable titters among the audience.

In fact, after about 30 minutes, it becomes clear that everything that works in Cradle 2 the Grave was either improvised or not specifically written into the script -- i.e., the fight scenes and Anderson's hysterical ad-libbing.

Cradle 2 the Grave even manages to blunder the fight scenes. The director is Andrzej Bartkowiak, who previously destroyed two or three perfectly good Jet Li fights in 2000's Romeo Must Die. Bartkowiak is back, and apparently, he hasn't learned anything.

In Hong Kong, directors shoot fight scenes the same way Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly shot dance sequences -- with long wide takes and fluid camera movements, editing only when necessary for maximum clarity. For examples of Jet Li at his best, check out Tsui Hark's masterpiece Swordsman II.

But Bartkowiak somehow thinks he's involved in the fight, and so he gets excited and does everything wrong. He moves in too close, shakes the camera around a lot and cuts every half-second, rendering the action nearly unwatchable.

It's about the same as going to Jamba Juice and trying to pick out one particular blueberry as it goes around in the blender.

The movie's most shameful scene involves a climactic duel between Li and Dacascos, the latter of whom starred in the recent Brotherhood of the Wolf and is a certified kung-fu artist. This could have been a beautiful, knockout fight -- and probably was for those who caught the real thing during filming. But, no. Bartkowiak does the predictable thing and ruins it for the rest of us.

What really hurts is thinking about posterity. Long after Li and Dacascos are gone, this is all we'll have to remember them by. Thanks a bunch.

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