The problem with CRADLE 2 GRAVE, aside from the cutesy “2” in the title is very simple. Not enough Jet Li. There’s also not enough Mark Dacascos, but that’s another issue and I will get to it. As for why Li isn’t on screen every possible moment, I think I have the answer. Someone got the idea of taking a gansta flick and grafting Li onto it. Someone who probably saw RUSH HOUR and said, “Hey, if it works for comedy, why not for drama?” This same someone probably saw the obstacle to this as soon as the film began shooting, which is to say zero chemistry between Li and co-star DMX, and separated the two of them as much as possible. So, what we have here is two entirely different films, one a pretty run of the mill heist-gone-wrong flick, the other a martial arts fest with distinct possibilities, if only it had a feature-length running time.
The plot is not why we go to action flicks, but there are rules, probably set up by the Writer’s Guild and more power to them and so we enough to keep things going. In this case it’s black diamonds that everyone wants. Fait, played convincingly by DMX, has stolen them for some bad guy who is just so much king fu fodder before the first reel is done. Fait is a thief, but he and his gang have a strict no-gun policy and, besides, as Daria (Gabrielle Union, who along with Kelly Hu provides the flick’s eye-candy), points out, they’re probably just stealing from drug dealers anyway. And it is a sad commentary on modern times that those two facts really don’t make them the bad guys so much as the not entirely good guys.
Alas for our noble criminals, it turns out that the black diamonds belong to the Taiwanese government, and special agent Su (Li) is in hot pursuit. And points for the film making only one joke about Li being a boy named Su. Somewhere along the line the evil Ling (Dacoscas) arrives, creating further mayhem and kidnapping Fait’s eight-year-old daughter in order to get the diamonds back. And this would be just fine with Fait except that he doesn’t have them anymore and so he teams up with Su to get them. From there we have chases and fights and things that get blowed up real good. I especially liked the helicopters.
Li’s character is a man of few words and this is good because let’s just say that Li wasn’t hired for the way English flows trippingly from his tongue. Never mind. When he’s uncorking a bottle of whoop-ass, he’s a cool as the ice everyone is after, even when scampering like a squirrel up a mesh fence during the film’s death cage sequence (don’t ask). He also starts the film with a WAY excellent bit where the rappels down a high-rise without using a rope. He rules.
Also along for the ride is a goofy but refreshingly non-irritating Tom Arnold as a black market dealer in everything from televisions to tanks. He’s Li’s sidekick after DMX checks out for his own featurette and there is an undeniable if loopy kind of chemistry between them that might get someone thinking of pairing them again, and no, wait, stop. That way madness lies.
The chase sequences include big fancy cars and all-terrain vehicles, the latter shown plowing through an office building, rousing the 9-5 denizens from their stupor. The problem is that in all of DMX’s feats of derring-do, his opponents, be they cops or thugs are raging dunderheads. It’s not a real contest, just a chance for DMX, who does a fine job of acting, to look cool in his leather ensemble.
Dacascos is also in black leather, looking properly suave and sporting a snarl, but we have to wait until the end of the film for him to square off with Li in a ring of fire and a rain of water from the fire hydrant that the tank hit. Again, don’t ask. Until then he talks on the phone, talks on the phone some more, rides in cars, and, just to whet our appetites, makes one gracefully predatory leap onto a table before finding a novel use for a lobster fork.
What a waste.
CRADLE 2 GRAVE does promote family values of a sort. Fait is a caring father, though he may not be Ozzie Nelson exactly, but then, neither was Ozzie. More points there. But still, all points to the DVD release, where we can click the chapter button appropriately and watch the Jet Li part of the movie uninterrupted.