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(2003) (Jet Li, DMX) (R)

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Action/Adventure: When criminal types kidnap his daughter, a jewel thief joins forces with a Taiwanese government agent to rescue her and retrieve a set of black diamonds that are more valuable than they initially seem.
Tony Fait (DMX) and his crew -- Miles (DRAG-ON), Daria (GABRIELLE UNION) and Tommy (ANTHONY ANDERSON) - have gone to elaborate lengths to rob a vault of various jewels, including some rare black diamonds.

The actions and efforts of Taiwanese Intelligence Officer Su (JET LI), however, disrupt their plan. They do manage to get away with the black diamonds, but since their buyer, Christophe (PAOLO SEGANTI), is now dead, Tony goes to his fence, Archie (TOM ARNOLD), to see what the diamonds are worth. It's not long before the diamonds are stolen and thugs working for crime boss Ling (MARK DACASCOS) try to kill Tony and kidnap his 8-year-old daughter, Vanessa (PAIGE HURD).

Despite their disparate intentions, Tony and Su then team up to figure out what's going on and find out who's responsible. After a brief stop to visit an imprisoned crime boss, Chambers (CHI McBRIDE), Su, Tony and his team set out to rescue Vanessa and retrieve the diamonds that turn out to be far more valuable and dangerous than they initially seem.

OUR TAKE: 3 out of 10
After years of reviewing movies, I've come to the realization that I wasted a great deal of time in the past while writing screenplays. It's not that others have succeeded or beat me to the punch with story ideas. Nor is it that I'm jealous of the quality of what's written. Instead, it's that I obviously spent too much effort trying to make my scripts and all of their specific details work, make sense and be believable to viewers.

Case in point is "Cradle 2 the Grave," the latest rap and martial arts combo from the director of "Exit Wounds" and "Romeo Must Die." Beyond the bad and stilted dialogue, the recycled plot, and the third act development that's inane and ludicrous, it's the revelatory elements written by screenwriters John O'Brien (making his debut) and Channing Gibson ("Lethal Weapon 4") that blew me away.

At various points in the film, characters suddenly announce that they've figured out an important point about someone or something. When questioned about how they came to that conclusion and/or knowledge, they simply reply something along the lines of "I just know." Think how much screenwriting time and effort could be saved by simply having characters utter those three little but assured words rather than building credible clues and information for on and off-screen "detectives" to use in solving some cinematic mystery.

Of course, action films like these - where more thought apparently goes into writing the various rap songs on the soundtrack - have never been known for their Oscar-caliber scripts. Instead, the plot, dialogue and resultant acting - or what's standing in for all of that - are designed just as filler to pad all of the action and martial arts sequences that the target audience wants and expects to see.

The film has plenty of that, but the way in which cinematographer turned director Andrzej Bartkowiak and editor Derek Brechin ("Thirteen Ghosts," "Exit Wounds") have interwoven and strung such material together prevents it from being as effective as it might have been.

Rather than allowing the sequences to play out before moving on to the next, the filmmakers have layered them together. As a result, certain sequences have up to four segments simultaneously unfolding on the screen (not in split-screen, but cutting back and forth between them).

Although that's worked in the past in other films, Bartkowiak's effort to ratchet up the energy and/or suspense actually backfires. All of the cutting between the scenes robs their individual and collective momentum, resulting in a busy but messy and less than engaging experience.

Speaking of cutting, the editing is in music video style overdrive. Although that might appease the attention deficit disorder of some of the target audience, it shows that the director has no faith in allowing his performers to do their thing. That's understandable for those who might not be proficient doing long fight or martial arts sequences, but what does that say about star Jet Li ("The One," "Kiss of the Dragon")?

He's certainly capable and delivers a few fun stunts, but all of the rapid-fire editing detracts from his abilities. Those don't include real acting, however. Although his English has vastly improved and he's been given a few action-style one-liners, he's still as stiff as a board in trying to portray a real person.

DMX ("Exit Wounds," "Romeo Must Die") comes off better at that. Even so, he can't do much with his poorly drawn and written character who's supposed to become the good guy despite his previous actions as a criminal. The same holds true for Gabrielle Union ("Deliver Us From Eva," "Two Can Play That Game") and Miles (Drag-On ("Exit Wounds") in supporting roles.

The various villains -- Mark Dacascos ("Brotherhood of the Wolf," "The Island of Dr. Moreau"), Kelly Hu ("X-Men 2," "The Scorpion King") and Chi McBride ("Paid in Full," "Undercover Brother") - fare even worse and are about as flat, boring and stereotypical as they come.

The big multi-fight showdown at the end has no weight or impact since we know next to nothing about the characters, have nothing vested in them, and certainly know how it's all going to turn out (although the level of lameness and ludicrousness is a bit of a surprise, even for a movie like this).

Meanwhile, Tom Arnold ("Exit Wounds," "True Lies") and Anthony Anderson ("Kangaroo Jack," "Barbershop") are present as the salt and pepper comic relief. While they get a few funny lines of dialogue and Arnold does his normal shtick where he comes off looking like he's on speed, they alone can't save the effort.

Despite its bad acting, horrendous script, over-editing and lack of sizzle in the action scenes, I'm sure the film will nevertheless be a decent-sized hit and probably spawn other similar efforts. How did I come to that conclusion, you might ask. It's simple -- I just know. Deserving of ending up in the latter part of its title, "Cradle 2 the Grave" rates as just a 3 out of 10.

Reviewed February 25, 2003 / Posted February 28, 2003

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