Dir: Andrzej Bartkowiak. US. 2003. 99mins.
Having successfully applied the formula first in Romeo Must Die and then in Exit Wounds, producer Joel Silver and director Andrzej Bartkowiak reassemble many of the talents from those two $50m-plus domestic hits for another slick yet moderately budgeted package of hip-hop/martial arts action for Warner. The action feels a little rote this time out, but judging by Cradle 2 The Grave's $17.1m US opening - from 2,625 sites - last weekend the domestic box office result will be equally satisfactory. And Warner might, this time, be able to do more with the package internationally: Jet Li's success in Zhang Yimou's Asian smash Hero should help in that region, while a soundtrack album - already in the US top ten - featuring music from DMX, 50 Cent and Eminem will provide added promotion in many territories.
Rapper-turned-actor DMX, who had a small role in Romeo and played the moody villain to Steven Seagal's hero in Exit Wounds, takes centre stage as Tony Fait, a hi-tech thief who prefers to work without guns and gets home in time to say goodnight to his eight-year-old daughter. After lifting what he thinks is a stash of black diamonds from an LA bank vault, Fait finds himself pursued by taciturn but athletic Taiwanese special agent Su (Li). The stones, it turns out, are potentially lethal weapons that rogue agent Ling (Dacascos), Su's former colleague, wants to peddle on the black market. When Ling kidnaps Fait's daughter as a bargaining chip for the stones, Fait and Su team up to rescue the kid and - yes - the world.
DMX does a decent job with his most substantial acting role yet and makes the most of his brooding screen presence. Li (who starred in Romeo but gave way to Seagal in Exit Wounds) remains stone-faced throughout, and his martial arts skills are curiously under-utilised. In other roles, Dacascos (the former martial arts champion whose movies have included Brotherhood Of The Wolf) is an under-developed villain, Kelly Hu (The Scorpion King) is his cold-hearted accomplice, and Gabrielle Union (Two Can Play That Game) does a sexy turn as Fait's sidekick and would-be girlfriend.
Mildly funny comic relief comes - as it did in Exit Wounds - from token klutzy white guy Tom Arnold, as a bumbling local fence, and Anthony Anderson as another member of Fait's crew.
The set pieces are what really count, of course, and though the major action sequences here are all expertly staged and suitably fast-paced they sometimes lack spark. The best segment has Li using his acrobatic skills (choreographed by Hong Kong veteran Corey Yuen) in an illicit extreme fighting club. The opening robbery scene has a nice, Mission: Impossible-style tension, but DMX's escape on an all-terrain motorbike is standard chase stuff.
For the big climax, Bartkowiak and editor Derek G Brechin (also from the Romeo and Exit teams) inter-cut three separate mano-a-mano fights and though the technique is effective, the fights themselves are short on flair. Asian martial arts fans might be especially disappointed by the relatively pedestrian confrontation between genre heroes Li and Dacascos.
Prod cos: Warner Bros, Silver Pictures
US/int'l dist: Warner
Exec prods: Herbert W Gains, Ray D Copeland
Prod: Joel Silver
Scr: John O'Brien, Channing Gibson
Cinematography: Daryn Okada
Prod des: David Klassen
Ed: Derek G Brechin
Music: John Frizzell, Damon 'Grease' Blackman
Main cast: Jet Li, DMX, Anthony Anderson, Kelly Hu, Tom Arnold, Mark Dacascos, Gabrielle Union