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Rockin' the Cradle 

DMX and Jet Li get down 2 Grave business

Uh ... yo. The word on the street is that the 'Drzej is back at the helm. "Who?" you rightfully ask. Why, cinematographer-turned-director Andrzej Bartkowiak, of course. He's the ... er ... dog who, under the auspices of producer Joel Silver (Richie Rich, The Matrix), created the hip-hop bang-bang chop-socky flicks Romeo Must Die and Exit Wounds. Now he returns with his third such ride, Cradle 2 the Grave, an entertaining and explosive exercise in giving the people what Silver has decided they want.

With several of his previous movies' alumni reunited, Bartkowiak throws down the sketchy story of smooth criminal Tony Fait (DMX) and Taiwanese agent Su (Jet Li). We open with a rousing track of Eminem and DMX barking over a major jewel heist conducted by Fait and his posse, comprising sassy Tommy (Anthony Anderson), saucy Daria (Gabrielle Union) and svelte Miles (Drag-On). Key are some highly coveted and mysterious black diamonds fumbled by Fait, sought by Su and hunted down by baddie Ling (Marc Dacascos), whose prime henchwoman Sona (Kelly Hu) hates kids. This issue gains urgency when Fait's spunky young daughter, Vanessa (Paige Hurd), is kidnapped by Ling, forcing Fait and Su to join forces to deter a common enemy.

Plotwise, that all U gonna get. Fledgling screenwriters John O'Brien (the upcoming Starsky & Hutch movie -- shudder) and Channing Gibson (Lethal Weapon IV -- shrug) couldn't find each other's butts with both hands. Much like Tarantino and his ilk, they're enamored of the ethos of 1970s "kung-funk" cinema, but their ploys are almost entirely laughable. To intercept the heist, for instance, Su drives from Santa Monica to downtown LA in a couple of minutes. Later, Fait instructs his crew by cell phone to pick him up "at that aboveground parking garage in Chinatown." (More hilarious, Tommy responds, "I know the place!") At any given moment, one is keenly aware of a series of action setpieces strung together by more than their fair share of rhyme (rap master Silver raves up his own soundtrack album as "off the hook") but by absolutely no reason.

Nonetheless, a surprising sense of goodwill prevails. These are extremely cool people on LA's real mean streets, and Silver and Bartkowiak have finally derailed their bad habit of lying about location, as with Romeo Must Die (Vancouver as Oakland) and Exit Wounds (Toronto as Detroit). They've signed off on yet another hip, absurd title (suggestion for the next one: Fleecin' da Prolz; royalteez negoshabul, boyz), and above all they've shamelessly delivered a movie that's as much a fantasy as The Lord of the Rings. Heck, Fait hands off precious stolen jewelry to his family and Su literally tosses a dwarf.

Even if you're not fond of watching people mow each other down -- Fait swiftly rescinds his noble "no guns" credo -- there's still plenty of action to enjoy here. Naturally Li is the standard of excellence for wrist-wrecking and patella-popping, but he also generates brutal excitement in a spontaneous cage match against multiple ultimate fighters. It's a shame that this pumped sequence loses some of its juice in being intercut with a preposterous chase featuring DMX on an ATV, but at least we benefit from the delightful line "Hey, that guy's got my fucking quad!" There are worse fates in cinema today.

Only note that something unpleasant must have happened to Bartkowiak after slumming with blues legend Steven Seagal on the otherwise amicable Exit Wounds, because whatever flair he showed for directing Li has faded slightly. This project reigns in terms of energy and action, but it's too busy for its own good, and the fights are squeezed into close or medium shots and cut like crazy, cheating us of the grace of Corey Yuen's martial arts choreography. It's particularly strange to revisit the smoldering, flaming climax from Romeo only to have the director deliver an anemic variation on his own material (made comical by a down-the-throat special effect put to better use in the horror flick Infested). A deep, meditative breath, a smarter script and this movie's repeated theme of "faith" would have served all well.

Ultimately, it's the hip cast that keeps things hopping. DMX is a charismatic leading man, so much so that it's almost not worth mentioning that he shares a dialogue coach with Li for their wisely clipped exchanges. Anderson in his new starter dreads once again makes a fine bickering foil for zany cracker Tom Arnold (here appearing as a pawnbroker-cum-munitions expert), and Union somehow manages to undergo five (count 'em) redundant bosom shots and an up-the-panties lapdance scene without losing her dignity. Silver, who has claimed to prefer his leading ladies "naked or dead," obviously misses Romeo's deceased Aaliyah.

The leads are all fun, but it's Chi McBride as a maverick crime lord who really steals the show. With his pretentious Asian "crib" and vulgar affectations, the character is charming and grotesque, conveying a modern rethink of the now-antiquated age for which the screenwriters so clearly pine. He's a blaring reminder that the '70s ended quite a while ago, but his rich presence also serves as a clarion call for a new generation of kung-funksters.

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