Bad movies kill you incrementally, but "Cradle 2 to Grave" is so egregiously slipshod, so flamboyantly awful, that it might get the whole job done in one sitting.
Most poor-quality cinema simply wastes your time and money, but the new Jet Li and DMX vehicle seems to go out of its way to insult your intelligence and social sensibilities. Even bombs "Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever" and "The Transporter" seem like sensitive dramas compared to "Cradle 2 the Grave."
How offensive is it? Star Jet Li tosses a little person around in a cage match, using him as a weapon. Then comedian Anthony Anderson, posing as an exterminator, gains access to a building because he's spraying for bugs and diseases brought in "by foreigners." Within the first few minutes, the filmmakers even suggest gay men are vulnerable to corruption because of their unchecked sexual desires. (Straight Anderson flirts with a gay security guard.) Staying on this course, "Cradle" elicits as many (unintentional) giggles as painful moans - if you don't walk out during the first half-hour.
Director Andrzej Bartkowiak, who previously worked with DMX in "Exit Wounds" and Li in "Romeo Must Die," continues his signature abuse of plot coupons instead of building characters within believable stories. Plot coupons are Interzone magazine critic Nick Lowe's term for cheap plot devices that send characters on an endless quest for objects or information.
DMX plays Tony Fait, head of a gang of gem thieves whose contracted diamond heist goes awry when Taiwanese cop Su (Li) steps in. Fait gets away long enough to say prayers with his 8-year-old daughter and show her a magic trick. However, Fait lost all the loot but the black diamonds (see plot coupons), and now he's hunted by warring factions who killed his boss.
When plot threads break, characters are forced to make large, logic-free jumps to the following scene. "I know, I can just feel it," says DMX when he predicts that the diamonds are hidden in his rival dance club. If the director thinks his audience might have missed something obvious, even pre-stated, more dialogue can't hurt - unless his villain, when talking to the world's foremost arms dealers, actually begins a speech with "You are the world's foremost arms dealers."
Li, who found popular acceptance with the flashy but empty "Romeo Must Die," deserves better. The Asian director and star of classics "The Legend of Fong Sai Yuk" and "Once Upon a Time in China" hasn't been cast well since hitting Hollywood in "Lethal Weapon 4." If, like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jackie Chan, he improves his English, Li could take on more complex roles. Right now, Li's heavy accent restricts him to roles of limited dialogue and little character development. As with Chan, American cinema hasn't learned to shoot Li's kung-fu skills in longer takes. Instead, we get chopped up cuts of his kicks, so subtle in some scenes that his upper body doesn't seem to move at all.
And if Li finds some subtlety, DMX uses "Cradle 2 the Grave" to flaunt his own vain, atomic machismo. The hip-hop star turned actor wants to be all things to all people, thereby making himself and his characters silly and transparent.
As Fait, he's the muscle-bound criminal with a "no guns" policy and a loving curtain-tugger. In "Exit Wounds" he played a similar moralistic everyman, a menacing rule breaker but ultimately a moral character. All this posing exposes DMX to be neither believable nor empathetic.
Traveling from cradle to grave would be an actual movement forward. But "Cradle 2 the Grave" goes nowhere, wandering in a circle of bodies, explosions and jumbo plot holes while chasing its own tale. Replete with audience-insulting writing and blatantly hateful jokes, storytelling like this makes most video game plots look like "Moby Dick."
zero stars (out of 4) "Cradle 2 the Grave"
Directed by Andrzej Bartkowiak; screenplay by John O'Brien, Channing Gibson; photographed by Daryn Okada; edited by Derek G. Brechin; production design by David Klassen; produced by Joel Silver. A Warner Bros. release; opens Friday, Feb. 28. Running time: 1:40. MPAA rating: R (violence, language and some sexual content).
Su - Jet Li
Tony Fait - DMX
Tommy - Anthony Anderson
Sona - Kelly Hu Archie - Tom Arnold
Robert K. Elder is a Tribune staff writer.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times