X gon’ give it to ya. Deemed “The Next Tom Cruise” by no less an authority than GQ magazine, the prolific, asthmatic, and charismatic Dark Man X continues to power his way into the movies. In Cradle 2 the Grave, he plays Tony Fait, thief extraordinaire, introduced mid-heist. He and his partners—Daria (Gabrielle Union), Miles (Drag-On, X’s Ruff Ryders associate), and Tommy (the irrepressible Anthony Anderson)—break into a diamond exchange, armed with the latest in cutting-and-piercing laser-gizmos and form-fitting black t-shirts. All this under Eminem’s rousing “Go To Sleep”: “I ain’t gonna eat / I ain’t gonna sleep / Ain’t gonna breathe, til I see, what I wanna see.”
At the same time, Su (Jet Li) makes a stunning entrance. He positions himself on a high-rise hotel rooftop, then proceeds to drop from floor to floor, grabbing successive balcony ledges with his fingertips. When he reaches the floor he wants, he smashes through the window, then deftly brutalizes his mark into giving up the heist location. The whole business takes a couple of minutes.
As action-buddy movie aficionados will surmise, this speedy split-intro means that Tony and Su will be working together, soon. And indeed, even as Su cruises to the crime-in-progress scene, he takes a moment to call his seeming adversary, warning him to get out, as he’s also called in L.A. SWAT. Also no surprise, this apparent good sportsmanship stems from Su’s ulterior motives. He’s a Taiwanese Intelligence officer looking to recover the very same black diamonds that Tony and crew are pilfering. As he later tells Tony, these diamonds “aren’t what you think they are” (though again, any action-buddy move fan worth her salt has already guessed that much).
Tony, being a cocky sort who resents being told what to do (a point which will be made again and again, and again), grabs up his crew and the diamonds, plus a special teardrop diamond necklace for his beloved 6-year-old daughter Vanessa (Paige Hurd), and escapes. Or, at least he does until he’s hunted down, first by Su, and then by Su’s own special enemies, the sinister Ling (Mark Dacascos, amazing in Brotherhood of the Wolf, here only revealing his skills in a big dealio “ring of fire” showdown with Li) and his forever fuming henchgirl Sona (Kelly Hu).
When these scoundrels kidnap Vanessa (a refreshingly resourceful victim), the film’s many intersecting but mostly arbitrary subplots start kicking in. For one, Tony and Su visit a crime-boss named Chambers (Chi McBride with fat cigar) in prison, whereupon you learn that Tony enticed Daria away from Chambers, who sustains a major grudge. “It’s my little girl,” Tony pleads. “So make another one,” sneers the big meanie. (Per formula, it’s only a matter of time before this Suge-ish guy gets his.)
In another subplot scene, Daria is dispatched to distract Chambers’ club-managing minion, Odion (The Shield‘s Michael Jace), who looks mighty distracting himself, in his black velvet jacket and deep red shirt. She strips down to red underwear, while Tommy plays a bugman. Literally: he pretends to be an exterminator, oldest trick in the damn book. And this inane ruse bothers him less than playing sexual-object distraction for a male security guard earlier in the film. Let’s just say that the gay flirt-bugman range doesn’t exactly stretch Anderson’s considerable talents.
But he’s only along for a ride here. The third kung-fu-hiphop one-two punch by Bartkowiak, Cradle 2 the Grave is also the second time he’s worked with Li, who is reliably cool (their first film together was Romeo Must Die, which also featured DMX for a minute). Su has a “unique fighting style,” conceived for the film by Li and endlessly inventive Corey Yuen, so brilliant and self-assured that he can beat back challengers with one hand in his pocket.
Li often takes on rooms full of big-bodied blowhards. Here, he does so during a notably incongruous set piece in an Ultimate Fighting Club, where he confronts real-life UFC champions Randy “The Natural” Coture, Tito Ortiz, and Chick Liddell. The battle over-stimulates the bloodthirsty in-house audience, giving the movie audience a standard double chance: you can scorn these losers and also share in their excitement. They roar and sputter, hang on the cage, burst out of their blouses if they are women, and wave fistfuls of cash and beer bottle, as such bloodthirsty audiences are wont to do.
One member of this audience is Tony’s fence, Archie (Tom Arnold, another Bartkowiak veteran, from Exit Wounds, which also featured DMX, in a slightly larger role than in Romeo, as well as Anderson: the reunion omits Steven Seagal, otherwise engaged these days, presumably with his many court dates). Su and Archie make a strange yet familiar team. The former is as fast on his feet as the latter is prodigiously motor-mouthed. (Archie is the only one of Tony’s associates able to identify Su’s badge; when Tony is impressed that he reads Chinese, Archie demurs, “I don’t, but I read ‘cop’ in any language.”) It appears that Su and Archie emulate something of the dynamic that Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker offer in the Rush Hours, except that Li doesn’t use refrigerators or ladders as props, and Tom Arnold is… well, he’s Tom Arnold.
Archie and Su’s teaming also allows Tony some time alone. He puts this to use by fighting a little, fretting a little, getting arrested, then escaping the cops in flamboyant style, namely, by riding all over town—most spectacularly, leaping from rooftop to rooftop—on an All Terrain Vehicle. It’s no small thing that driving ATVs is reportedly one of DMX’s favorite off-camera pastimes, for it suggests that the script is accommodating the star’s disposition.
It hardly matters whether this disposition is substantive or a function of marketing. The point is that DMX, rowdy and respected MC, is now being treated by filmmakers—Bartkowiak, producer Joel Silver—as an important commodity, a name brand. Surely, ever since his breakout as Tommy in Hype Williams’ Belly (1998), DMX has been headed in this direction. And, he has a particular sense of his own strengths. He’s not been so loosey-goosey about his role choices as Ice T (Frankenpenis, Leprechaun in the Hood), so determined to be a bona fide actor as P. Diddy (Monster’s Ball, Made), or so conscientiously entrepreneurial as Master P (Foolish, Lockdown). Instead, he has selected parts built for him, his crossover rough-but-also-upright demeanor, with added martial arts for his hiphop fanbase.
Now that he’s worked his way into a starring role and announced his retirement from music (citing the intrinsic, invincible unfairness of the industry’s treatment of artists), DMX is concentrating on movies. This entails, as the GQ article notes, adjusting to a new culture (where time is quite precisely money). The magazine, in fact, shifts its point from cover to story: its declarative cover caption (“DMX is the next Tom Cruise”) turns into a question inside (“Is DMX the next Tom Cruise?”).
DMX’s notorious decency, hard childhood, and commitment to his family ground his resistance to L.A.‘s customary codes of behavior (“I’m not kissing no fuckin’ ass”). More power to him. He not only expects mutual respect, but he also brings obvious appeal and incipient superstardom (the man single-handedly resurrected Seagal’s career, for a minute). Perhaps it’s more helpful to ask, what does it mean for a hiphop artist with street and jail time behind him, a black man publicly down for his community—however talented, however adored—to be called “the next Tom Cruise”? Does this signal an actual change in the way Hollywood, and by extension, the U.S. entertainment industry, does business? or does it mean more of the same, more exploitation, more pain? Will DMX soon be headlining a multi-bijillion dollar franchise like the Mission Impossibles? Will his production company be able to finance such major league projects?
Granted, From Cradle 2 the Grave, a B-movie even if it does boast some A-movie stunts, can’t begin to answer these broad, industry-shaking questions. But they’re provocative questions. And it’s encouraging that they might even be asked.