Cradle 2 the Grave

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I don’t know why directors even bother including Jet Li’s reaction shots in movies. Regardless of what other people in the scene have said or done, Li’s face will have the same expression: stony indifference, followed by reluctant butt-kicking. He is a handsomer, calmer version of Jackie Chan.

“Cradle 2 the Grave” plays to Li’s strengths — ultra-cool demeanor and extraordinary fighting skills — and wisely avoids his weakness in the area of emotive dialogue. It pairs him with his “Romeo Must Die” co-star, rapper DMX, and reunites both with “Romeo” director Andrzej Bartkowiak, whose penchant for testosterone-rich filmmaking (he gave us Steven Seagal in “Exit Wounds,” too) comes to full fruition here.

Li plays Su, a Taiwanese Intelligence agent who has come to Los Angeles in search of a batch of mysterious black diamonds — deadly in the wrong hands — that have gone missing. Begrudgingly, he joins forces with Tony Fait (DMX), the leader of a well-organized gang of high-tech jewel thieves whose daughter has been kidnapped by yet another group of bad guys who want the diamonds for their own nefarious purposes.

Evil is a question of degrees here. Fait is a thief, yes, but he gives his daughter pretty necklaces and says prayers with her at bedtime. The REAL bad guys, on the other hand, slap little girls around and occasionally kill people.

Fait’s crew includes the amusing Anthony Anderson as the requisite guy-who-will-put- on-disguises-to-provide-distraction, and Gabrielle Union (“Bring It On”) as the requisite hot-woman-who-uses- sex-to-distract-people. Tom Arnold is on board, too, as a pawnshop owner with ties to the underworld.

The film gets sillier as it goes, leaving reality behind and venturing into full-fledged outrageousness. Witness the cross-cutting between two scenes: In one, Fait is leading police and others on a high-speed ATV chase through L.A., captured by news cameras and viewed live by his kidnapped daughter, whose abductors are not so inhuman as to have denied her TV privileges; in the other, Su is taking on all comers, including a midget referee, at an underground fight club so brutal that spectators hold plastic sheets over their heads to avoid being spattered with blood. (If Britney Spears were the star of this movie, the bad guys would own an underground karaoke bar; since it’s Jet Li, it’s a fight club.)

My other favorite scene has the bad guys demonstrating the powers of the black diamonds for the world’s top black-market arms dealers, in what amounts to a trade show attended by the Legion of Doom.

Soon enough, people are delivering lines like, “It’s time to end things MY way,” and, “You were lucky last time; you won’t be lucky again.” It’s all an exercise in high-energy absurdity; the question is how seriously the film wants us to take it. Well, in Jet Li’s impenetrable expression I see a man who is aloof to his surroundings. And if the star doesn’t think any of this matters, why should we?

B- (1 hr., 40 min.; R, abundant harsh profanity, a lot of strong violence, some partial nudity, some sexuality.)

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