I read that DMX's salary for "Cradle 2 the Grave" was $5,000,000. Considering that he is the second-billed star, I can only assume that Jet Li, the star, received as much or more money for his part in the project. The movie's entire budget was $25,000,000, meaning that the two leads accounted for nearly half the money spent on the film. I don't mention these numbers out of envy or resentment but simply as a comment on the state of filmmaking these days.
Think about it: If a person made a more-than-comfortable living in America earning, say, $100,000 a year, that person would have to work for fifty years to pull down $5,000,000. Now, I suppose it would make sense to pay superstars in the millions, they're known crowd pleasers, but I doubt that the names of Jet Li or DMX would register much more than a minor fluctuation on the recognition meters of most average folk. Still and all, the movie grossed over $38,000,000, so I suppose everybody's happy. Ticket buyers paid the stars' salaries, the studio cleared a profit, and the world is a better place.
I wish I could say the same for the movie. It's one of those things where not even the title makes any sense, let alone the story. The title appears to be little more than a marketing gimmick. In truth, the whole picture seems like a marketing gimmick. The back of the keep case proclaims, "Producer Joel Silver and director Andrzej Bartkowiak, who fused martial arts with hip-hop style in 'Romeo Must Die' and 'Exit Wounds,' take it to the next level with 'Cradle 2 the Grave.'" Well, all right, but, frankly, I don't see that as a ringing endorsement of the current product.
The plot is one of those slim excuses for bringing together as many fights, crashes, explosions, and chases as possible in the shortest amount of time. Logic, credibility, and, worse, humor, are left by the wayside for the sake of flimsy, often spurious thrills. Think of a Jackie Chan-Chris Tucker "Rush Hour" movie without the stars' charisma or any of the comedy. Think of "Cradle 2 To the Grave."
Anyway, the story involves a gang of crooks led by DMX's character stealing a pile of black diamonds, only to have the diamonds stolen from them by another gang of crooks, only to have the owners of the diamonds, themselves crooks, looking for both gangs, only to have Li's character, a Taiwanese secret agent, looking for everyone. Here, let me diagram that for you. The plot is an excuse, as I say, to have as many people shooting at and kicking each other as possible.
Li, supple and graceful as always, plays Inspector Su duncan, a very cool guy as all of Li's characters are, but this time almost aggressively so. You'd think after years of kung-fu moviemaking that Li would have developed somewhat as an actor, too, but if anything he seems to be regressing. His character Su's insouciance, his blithe nonchalance, is so extreme he fights most of his battles with one hand in his pocket. At first I thought he might be handicapped, but, no, he's just annoyingly smug. What's more, Li plays the part without the faintest flicker of expression, as though his very impassiveness was intended to render him more skilled or more clever. In reality it just makes him more remote and unsympathetic. Maybe it's the material, maybe it's the director, or maybe Li has just become overly complacent; whatever the case, Li wins no new fans in this corner.
He eventually teams up with DMX's character, Tony Fait, because Fait is really a good bad guy (we know he's good because he has a cute little girl, and only good guys can have cute little girls in movies; besides, he refuses to use guns in his robberies). Then, when the really bad bad guys, lead by Marc Dacascos as Ling, kidnap Fait's daughter unless he turns the diamonds that he no longer has over to them, well, what can Inspector Su do but commiserate and join forces. Oh, and why is Su after the diamonds? They belong to the Taiwanese government, and they're actually an energy component for a new secret weapon. Or some such nonsense.
Also in the cast are Anthony Anderson and Tom Arnold as token comic relief, only they aren't very funny. Arnold does his usual fast-talking, cowardly know-it-all shtick, a role he perfected in "True Lies" and has been doing ever since. Gabrielle Union plays Fait's partner and love interest; Kelly Hu (who fares better in "X-Men 2") plays one of Ling's henchmen (henchwomen?). And that's probably about all you need to know about anybody but Li and DMX, since they are at the center of almost every scene. Except to know that offscreen DMX likes to be known as Darkman X, born Earl Simmons. What do you mean, you didn't care?
The pounding rap/rock hip-hop music does not make the action any more exciting, but it's so blaring it does take our mind off the story, which is no small favor. None of the action develops any tension whatever, not even during the manditory opening jewel robbery or watching Li skitter down the outside of a skyscraper without the aid of a rope or cord, one level at a time, grabbing onto the ledge of each floor. It simply looks painful.
As usual in the kind of movie fights we see in "Cradle 2 the Grave," people get punched dozens of times to the head and pop right back up for more. In real life, of course, a single blow to a professional boxer's jaw can drop him. Movies, they'll do it every time.
Finally, I'd like to mention a sequence at an Ultimate Fighting Championship that is thrown in totally from the blue. Su, the martial-arts expert, is induced to fight a dozen or more Ultimate Fighting competitors for no discernable reason. They have nothing to do with the plot, nothing to do with any of the gangs; they just all jump into the ring with Su and surround him, and Su has to fight his way through all of them. It's gratuitous violence at its most sublimely ridiculous. You know, if this film didn't take itself so seriously, if there was even an ounce of tongue-in-cheek attitude about it, it might have been funny.
The climax, by the way, involves a tank and helicopters. Wouldn't you know it?
Have you observed as I have that the video quality on most recent DVDs is improving dramatically? This was brought to my attention a while ago when a fellow reviewer, Tim Raynor, asked me why the picture quality on his old DVD copy of "Aliens" didn't look as good to him anymore as it once did. I went back to my copy and likewise discovered it was a bit more grainy and blurry than I had remembered. Had the old disc changed, deteriorated? I don't think so. Like Tim, I'm just more used to better picture quality lately.
Such is the case with "Cradle 2 the Grave," one of those movies where the excellence of the video is inversely proportional to the lousiness of the story. The video, presented in a 2.17:1 ratio anamorphic widescreen, is, in fact, excellent. There are a few faint halos and some minor line fluttering, but otherwise we get a fairly sharp image with very little grain. Overall, the picture is a touch soft, but realistically so, nicely detailed, and, above all, natural. Too bad I didn't find anything worth watching.
My only concern about the Dolby Digital 5.1 sound is the service to which it's put. Most of the soundtrack is made up of loud, often distracting rap and rock music, exploding cars, and helicopter flyovers. What difference does it really make that the sound displays excellent, fully discrete directionality in all five speakers, that the bass vibrates not only the room but the whole house, or that the front-channel stereo is wide and the transient impact is strong? When the sound is as boisterous as this is, I'd rather it be in mono. Besides, the sound is typically movie-house bright, too, and not a little nerve-wracking after a while. Moreover, there's the problem of the dynamic range, the difference between loudest and softest notes. The audiophile wants a wide, realistic dynamic range, to be sure, but in a movie like this it means that dialogue, sometimes spoken softly, has to be turned up to be heard, resulting in the music and car crashes being elevated to earsplitting levels. A guy can't win.
Not only do we get better audiovisual qualities with this mediocre movie, we also get more bonus items than usually accompany far more important films. Life is not always fair. Not that you'd want to watch most of the extras, anyway, unless you really, really liked the movie. Anyhow, the DVD extras start with a music video from DMX, "Goin' Give It To Ya." Then, there's an eight-minute segment called "Ultimate Fighting Champions: Profiles of the Movie's Martial Artists" in which we get a glimpse of some of the real-life Ultimate Fighting Championship competitors and how they trained for their sequence in this film. In addition, there are a few featurettes, the "Choreography of the Camera," a seven-minute, multi-angle viewing of the climactic fight scene; and "The Descender Rig," a three-minute segment on a new camera invention developed specifically for the film; plus two hidden featurettes, "Time Lapse Montage" and "Rear Projection." Finally, we get some cast and director highlights, twenty-eight scene selections, and a widescreen theatrical trailer. English and French are the spoken language options, with English, French, and Spanish for subtitles.
I suppose any film is as good as you want it to be. If you're interested in a brainless action flick with a vacuous plot and even emptier characters, "Cradle 2 the Grave" may be just what you're looking for. If you want a good action picture that doesn't take its far-fetched plot machinations or exaggerated characters in deadly earnest, this isn't it.