DMX and Jet Li get down to Grave business.

Rockin' the Cradle 

DMX and Jet Li get down to Grave business.

Uh ... yo. The word on the street is that the 'Drzej is back at the helm. "Who?" you ask. Why, cinematographer-turned-director Andrzej Bartkowiak, of course. He's the ... er ... dawg who, under the auspices of producer Joel Silver (The Matrix) created the hip-hop, bang-bang chop-socky flicks Romeo Must Die and Exit Wounds. Now he returns with his third such ride, Cradle 2 the Grave, an entertaining and explosive exercise in giving the people what Silver decides they want.

With several of his previous movies' alumni reunited, Bartkowiak throws down the sketchy story of smooth criminal Tony Fait (DMX) and Taiwanese agent Su (Jet Li). We open with a rousing track of Eminem and DMX barking over a major jewel heist conducted by Fait and his posse, composed of sassy Tommy (Anthony Anderson), saucy Daria (Gabrielle Union) and svelte Miles (Drag-On). Key are some highly covetable and mysterious black diamonds fumbled by Fait, sought by Su and hunted down by baddie Ling (Marc Dacascos), whose prime henchwoman, Sona (Kelly Hu), hates kids. Of course, Fait's spunky young daughter, Vanessa (Paige Hurd), is kidnapped by Ling, forcing Fait and Su to join forces against a common enemy.

Plotwise, that all u gonna get. Fledgling screenwriters John O'Brien (the upcoming Starsky & Hutch movie -- shudder) and Channing Gibson (Lethal Weapon IV -- shrug) couldn't find each other's butts with both hands -- even given their penchant for gay humor. Much like Tarantino and his ilk, they're enamored of the ethos of 1970s Kung Funk cinema, but their ploys are almost entirely laughable. At any given moment, one is keenly aware of a series of action set pieces strung together by more than their fair share of rhyme (rap master Silver raves his own soundtrack album as "off the hook") but by absolutely no reason.

Nonetheless, a surprising sense of goodwill prevails. These are extremely cool people on L.A.'s mean streets, and Silver and Bartkowiak have finally halted their habit of lying about location, as with Romeo Must Die (Vancouver standing in for Oakland) and Exit Wounds (Toronto as Detroit). They've signed off on yet another hip, absurd title (suggestion for the next one: Fleecin' Da Prolz; royaltiez negoshabul, boyz), and above all they've shamelessly delivered a movie that's as much a fantasy as The Lord of the Rings. Heck, Fait hands off precious stolen jewelry to his family, and Su literally tosses a dwarf.

Even if you're not fond of watching people mow each other down -- Fait swiftly rescinds his noble "no guns" credo -- there's still plenty of action to enjoy here. Naturally, Li is the standard of excellence for wrist wrecking and patella popping, but he also generates brutal excitement in a spontaneous cage match against multiple ultimate fighters. It's a shame that this pumped-up sequence loses some of its juice by being intercut with a preposterous chase featuring DMX on an ATV. At least we benefit from the delightful line "Hey, that guy's got my fucking quad!" There are worse fates in cinema today.

Something unpleasant must have happened to Bartkowiak after slumming with blues legend Steven Seagal on the otherwise amicable Exit Wounds, though, because the flair he showed for directing Li has faded slightly. This project has plenty of energy and action, but it's too busy for its own good, and the fights are squeezed into close or medium shots and cut like crazy, cheating Corey Yuen's graceful martial-arts choreography. It's particularly strange that the director revisits the smoldering, flaming climax of Romeo with an anemic variation made comical by a down-the-throat special effect put to better use in the horror flick Infested. A deep, meditative breath, a smarter script and this movie's repeated theme of faith would have served everyone well.

Ultimately, it's the hip cast that keeps things hopping. DMX is a charismatic leading man, so much so that it's almost not worth mentioning that he shares a dialogue coach with Li for their wisely clipped exchanges. Anderson, in his new starter dreads, once again makes a fine bickering foil for zany cracker Tom Arnold (here appearing as a pawnbroker-cum-munitions expert), and Union somehow manages to undergo five (count 'em) redundant bosom shots and an up-the-panties lap-dance scene without losing her dignity. Silver, who once claimed to prefer his leading ladies "naked or dead," obviously misses Romeo's deceased Aaliyah.

The leads are all fun, but it's Chi McBride's maverick crime lord who really steals the show. With his pretentious Asian "crib" and vulgar affectations, the character is charming and grotesque, a modern rethink of the now-antiquated age for which the screenwriters so clearly pine. He's a blaring reminder that the '70s ended quite awhile ago, but his rich presence also serves as a clarion call for a new generation of kung funksters.

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