- The Washington Times - Friday, February 28, 2003

"Cradle 2 the Grave" plays out like a cynical producer's dream pitch: "Let's team Jet Li's kung-fu fighting with rapper DMX's thuggish charisma and exploit two demographic groups at once."
Never mind that neither star has a knack for dialogue or that the plot of "Cradle" feels as if it was fashioned on the fly from spare movie parts.
It's safe to say that when a film features a midget being used as a blunt weapon, the best one can hope for is some good, pulpy fun.
In that regard, this "Cradle" sporadically rocks. It has the good sense to keep all its plates spinning at once, becoming intolerable only when those discs slow to a near standstill.
DMX, another rapper with designs on Hollywood, stars as Tony, a devoted dad who moonlights as a jewel thief. Tony's latest haul is a fistful of black diamonds swiped with the help of his faithful crew (including Gabrielle Union of "Deliver Us From Eva" and Anthony Anderson of "Kangaroo Jack," doing far better work here). His dysfunctional pack runs a crooked enterprise but never packs heat on its heists.
Further buffing Tony's rough edges is his adoration for his daughter, Vanessa (Paige Hurd), a precocious 8-year-old who exists chiefly to be held captive later.
The diamond theft doesn't go unnoticed. A mysterious Taiwanese lawman named Su (Mr. Li) is on to Tony's score, and so are a powerful crime lord and Ling (Mark Dacascos), Su's former partner, who is obsessed with the diamonds. Su eventually swipes the diamonds from Tony's pal, a fidgety fence played by Tom Arnold could Mr. Arnold ever play a non-fidgety sort?
Those diamonds are far more than just fancy baubles. They could provide the fuel for a new weapon of mass destruction, and when Ling's henchmen kidnap Vanessa, Tony and Su grudgingly join forces to retrieve both Vanessa and the diamonds.
"Cradle" supplies copious amounts of comic relief, chiefly via Mr. Arnold. The actor's previous bids for movie stardom in the mid-'90s proved anemic anybody remember "The Stupids"? Here, in a secondary role tailored to his limited strengths, he wrings out a few laughs.
Also engaging is Chi McBride (of Fox's "Boston Public") as the imprisoned crime lord. He chews on his stogie and the scenery with a greedy grin.
Matching Mr. Li's Eastern style of fighting with DMX's street pugilism gives "Cradle" some punch.
Mr. Li internalizes his swagger, sometimes dispatching foes without moving his upper body. DMX, his shaved pate bobbing and weaving as he lumbers forward, fights with his whole body.
Their characters aren't buddies, nor do they become pals at any point. Their muted respect is a rare note of originality in a sea of cribbed material.
However, pairing two men who are essentially non-actors strains that approach. DMX glowers and growls. Mr. Li prefers a menacing monotone. The soporific combination renders the quiet scenes simply chances to catch our collective breath before the next action sequence.
Director Andrzej Bartkowiak, a former cinematographer ("Speed"), frames that action with an eye on his target audience.
An early scene featuring DMX and Miss Union struggling to stay atop a hurtling subway train is thrilling, and an all-terrain-vehicle chase illustrates Mr. Bartkowiak's cagey sense of camera placement.
For all the talk of rappers proving to be magnetic on screen, "Cradle" doesn't state the case for DMX's ascent to the thespian ranks.
The rapper's raspy line readings might be modulated into a real performance one day, but odds are Mr. Bartkowiak isn't the man to make that happen. There's little display of nuance here. DMX brings the same intensity to the scenes with his daughter as he does to those in which he's swiping gems.
Still, he is more than qualified to anchor an action vehicle, given his commanding physique and no-nonsense demeanor.
Action fans will be sated by the wall-to-wall violence of "Cradle 2 the Grave." Those looking for more sustenance will walk away famished.

**
TITLE: "Cradle 2 the Grave"
RATING: R (Extreme violence, partial nudity, coarse language, alcohol use and an endangered child)
CREDITS: Directed by Andrzej Bartkowiak. Screenplay by John O'Brien and Channing Gibson.
RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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