When his daughter is kidnapped by a gang of international criminals, professional thief Tony Fait (DMX) must surrender a stash of black diamonds to get her back. But the unique gemstones aren't just pricey trinkets--they're also experimental weapons of mass destruction, and Taiwanese intelligence agent Su (Jet Li) is determined to get them back at any cost. Eventually crossing paths and finding that they have a common enemy, Su and Fait team up to retrieve both the diamonds and the girl.
Cradle 2 the Grave has a lot in common with Jet Li's 2000 movie Romeo Must Die: they share a few cast members, they are directed by Andrzej Bartkowiak and produced by Joel Silver, and they both have an urban-warfare-meets-kung-fu flavor to their action. They also have similarly flimsy stories that are mostly excuses to get Chinese guys to brawl with black guys. But in spite of an insanely generic plot, Cradle manages to pull off some memorable moments thanks to a solid ensemble cast.
Jet Li and DMX make a good team, and both bust enough wicked moves to keep things entertaining--in particular, Li's stylish brand of fighting includes a lot of confident showboating, like whipping his shoulders back to straighten his jacket just before bringing down the fists of fury. The stuntwork done with wires manages the rare feat of complementing the fight choreography instead of replacing it with bogus effects, treading the fine line between dramatic embellishment and obvious movie magic.
Tom Arnold and Anthony Anderson, who are so prone to going overboard with their comic relief personas, are actually funny here. Gabrielle Union and Drag-On, as integral parts of Fait's crew, elevate the typically underdeveloped roles of supporting gang members beyond mere one-dimensional thuggery. Chi McBride breaks away from his Boston Public role of clean cut principal to play a heartless crime lord, and the transformation is interesting, even if his character's phat lifestyle in prison doesn't make a damned bit of sense.
Most surprising and impressive of all, though, is that the lead villain isn't the inept, all-talk-no-action wimp that has overcrowded the action genre. Thanks to a strong presence from Mark Dacascos, this role transcends the common pitfall of phony, blowhard posturing that fails to be sinister. His character is a true killer who backs up his threats with actions. It just goes to show that when it comes to formidable adversaries, evil kung fu master always trumps European nancy boy.
If there's anything lacking in Cradle, it's the amount of action. While the fight scenes presented are generally thrilling, there simply aren't enough of them to keep the pace cranking at a steady click. Some are strangely abrupt, such as the first meeting between Jet Li and DMX--in the middle of all the punching and kicking, DMX basically throws his arms up in frustration and strolls out of the room. Even in the climactic showdown between Li and Dacascos--which shows off some flashy moves from the combatants--the momentum is killed by the camera's refusal to focus on a single fight for any length of time, instead opting to cut together three separate battles to more clumsy effect.
Cradle 2 the Grave could have used longer, more uninterrupted bouts of bone breaking martial arts. It also could have used a title that didn't take a cue from illiterate gangsta rap albums (although it's still not as idiotic as 2 Fast 2 Furious). But these gripes notwithstanding, Cradle demonstrates that a good selection of actors can squeeze decent entertainment from even one of the most tired of action formulas.
Rating: 7 out of 10 (0=Abysmal, 5=Average, 10=Excellent)