ACTION-ADVENTURE: Cradle 2 the Grave (2003)

Cradle 2 the Grave (USA, 2003)
Directed by Andrzej Bartkowiak
Starring Jet Li, DMX, Gabrielle Union, Mark Dacascos

When cinematographers turn their hand to directing, the films that result often look appealing but lack the substance or storytelling skill of the films which they only helped to shoot. The career of Dutchman Jan de Bont is a classic case in point. As a cinematographer, de Bont lensed some of Paul Verhoeven's finest work, including Keetje Tippel and The Fourth Man, as well as lending his considerable expertise to the likes of Die Hard and Black Rain. With the exception of Speed, his directorial career has been poor, from the largely underwhelming Twister to his totally brainless remake of The Haunting.
It's a very similar story with Cradle 2 the Grave, directed by Polish cinematographer Andrezj Bartkowiak. His reputation within the industry is not as high as de Bont's, with his credits ranging from the engaging Prizzi's Honour to the risible A Stranger Among Us. But compared to the heights of his work in his original trade, this is a disappointingly unremarkable venture which fails to tell an entirely engaging story and doesn't make the most of Jet Li's talent.
In my now-ancient review of Westworld, I talked about the way that films directed by novelists often fall flat because they lack an understanding of how cinematic storytelling works. The issue, I said, was that writers "are so attentive to verbal content that they neglect the visual characteristics of great cinema." With cinematographers, it is to some extent the other way around: they understand how to light and assemble a shot so that it looks gripping or intriguing, but they can't string these shots together to serve a story. Often, as in this case, the story isn't distrinctive enough to merit all their visual labours.
In terms of its plot, Cradle 2 the Grave is pure meat and potatoes. It is a nuts-and-bolts action thriller with a heist at its centre, whose plot involves rival criminals coming together to face off a bigger threat. The supposed drama comes from the different attitudes and approaches of the characters, along with the conflict of being forced to work together. After a few minor skirmishes, including some kind of chase or other set-piece, the different groups finally agree to work together and everything builds up to the final showdown. That has been the template for hundreds of films, particularly since the likes of Lethal Weapon and Beverly Hills Cop.
There's nothing inherently wrong with making a film within clearly defined narrative parameters, or with taking a genre which seems as old as dirt and trying to bring something new to it. Inception worked brilliantly because Christopher Nolan intrinsically understood the mechanics of the heist film; he know where he wanted to push the envelope, and he knew the means by which to achieve this. The point is, if you are going to make a genre film and don't have the talent to reinvent the wheel, you need to have sufficient skill or verve to put your own stamp on it.
The single biggest problem with Cradle 2 the Grave is that it is unremarkable to the point of being tedious. With the exception of one scene (which we'll come onto that later), there really isn't a single shot that you can identify as being unique or distinctive to the director. Bartkowiak is, with the best will in the world, a hack: he can put scenes together efficiently and compently, but he doesn't bring any energy or commitment to the overall project. He's not an utterly talentless hack, in the manner of Brett Ratner or Michael Bay - people who often can't even assemble a shot properly, let alone tell a story. But this film has no creative stamp at all, nothing to indicate that it was anything more than another day at the office.
To be fair to Bartkowiak and to the performers, a lot of the blame for Cradle 2 the Grave's nature lies just as much with the script. Channing Gibson, who developed the screenplay from John O'Brien's story, is at heart a TV writer, best known for his work on St. Elsewhere. Whatever he managed to bring to that series, his film scripts are incredibly formulaic and the dialogue is both unmemorable and unoriginal. His other credits, Lethal Weapon 4 and the remake of Walking Tall, are ample evidence of this.
The film is so much a product of the 1980s that it's a wonder why Bartkowiak didn't simply recruit the like of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone for the main roles. There's no inherent reason for DMX and Jet Li to be in this film: their characters are so generic and stereotypical that there's no reason for them to be of Black or Asian descent. The sub-plot involving the kidnapping of the protagonist's daughter was old hat even before Commando came along, and the film does nothing new or interesting with the buddy movie formula. Even the final showdown between Su and Ling, which is built up to quite a large degree, is very close to the final fight in Lethal Weapon (and makes about as little sense).
As for the performers themselves, they're all completely unremarkable. DMX joins the long list of musicians in general, and rappers in particular, who have a total inability to act. He's neither as obnoxiously annoying as Vanilla Ice in Cool As Ice, nor as goofily hammy as Ice Cube in Ghosts of Mars. Like many musicians who attempt to transition into acting, you never get the sense of him playing a character; he's just posing on screen as himself, as if he was too worried that if he actually gave a performance, people might forget who he was.
Other members of the cast are equally disappointing. Gabrielle Union gave a really good performance in Bring It On three years earlier, but here she has too little to work with and the scenes where she has to play the sexy role are clunky and exploitative. Anthony Anderson was fine in Romeo Must Die (also directed by Bartkowiak), but in this film he's relegated to a more comic background character, playing the sort of role once filled by the late John Candy. Most disappointing of all is Jet Li, who was fantastic in Hero just before this was filmed. While Li has never been Jackie Chan in terms of charisma, Zhang Zimou clearly knew how to channel his talents in a way that Bartkowiak never manages. As a result he's reduced to the 'wise, all-knowing Oriental' stereotype indelibly associated with Pat Morita.
All of this would be possible to tolerate if the action scenes were in any way gripping or memorable. But once again, the film settles for the ordinary (and boring), either acknowledging the fact that it's completely disposable or simply lacking the willpower to make a case for itself. The martial arts sequences are functional, and you can at least see a lot of the choreography play out since these scenes are paced and edited properly. But the chase sequences and the motorcycle jumps are generally uninspired, being a lot less exciting than the bike-based climax of Mission: Impossible II.
When John Carpenter was in his prime, one thing which always set his work apart was its visual style. Even though he was often working on very low budgets, his knowledge of camera angles, faith in special effects and use of anamorphic lenses made his films look like they were made for a great deal more money. Cradle 2 the Grave cost around $28m - around the same as Ghosts of Mars when adjusted for inflation - and yet it looks much cheaper than that in places. Daryn Okada may have lensed Stick It and Mean Girls, but here his angles are unengaging and much of the film looked needlessly washed-out.
The only truly memorable scene in Cradle 2 the Grave involves the death of Ling. Having been forced to swallow a capsule containing synthetic plutonium - our McGuffin for the evening - we see Ling convulse and hoarsely scream as his throat and face are burned into nothingness. The special effects are pretty memorable, falling somewhere between the cancer gun scene in Videodrome and the scene in Return of the Jedi where Han Solo is released from the carbonite. It may be gratuitous and over-the-top, but after all the predictable fodder that has gone before, it's arguably the best scene in the film.
Cradle 2 the Grave is as nuts and bolts as they come, filling 101 minutes with nothing in particular. Its story and execution are functional at best and derivative at worst, and most of the main performances are uninspired. But it serves its purpose as a disposable action film and is by no means the worst cinematic vehicle for a rapper that we've seen. It won't send you to the grave to see it, but you certainly won't be shouting about it afterwards.


NEXT REVIEW: Hairspray (2007)