Cinema Signal:

E.A.R.L: The Autobiography of Dmx
by D M X., Smokey D. Fontaine, Earl Simmons

. "Cradle 2 the Grave"

Though many action fans would be content with just the martial arts, the explosions, chases and pure physical dynamics of such chop socky melodrama as this, more serious filmgoers look for a bit of character and a plausible plot line. This fusion of bi-cultural heroes, for all their charisma and stunt skill, actually attempts to deliver the combination but somewhere on the way to a knockout it loses its grip.

Director Andrzej Bartkowiak starts by convincing us of the daring skills of his two leads, taking us through an intricately planned, executed, and frustrated heist accessed through the subway system. With the aid of an irrationally powerful rocket launcher and a well rehearsed gang, the insistently poised Tony Fait (DMX) expertly violates the sanctity of an impregnable vault, proving himself superhumanly resourceful to the point of comic strip, as is his fanciful subway train escape with girlfriend Daria (Gabrielle Union) and the mysterious black diamonds that was their primary quarry. But, not without determined Taiwanese intelligent agent Su (Jet Li) after the same, and tripping up one of Tony's men.

Which pits these two natural antagonists against one another until they see that all the other villains are their common enemy and they join forces, giving us the marquee value of two dynamos on the multicultural action circuit. Moving the plot line between action episodes is Tony's simple businessman's desire to turn a buck by selling the black diamonds, only to have evil crime lord Ling (Mark Dacascos) capture his beloved daughter Vanessa (Paige Hurd) in order to extract them from Tony.

But Tony has conveniently stashed them with master fence and quip artist Archie (Tom Arnold) and, after trying to make a deal with an imprisoned kingpin (Chi McBride) Tony is betrayed by this over-perked twit when his gang strongarms the black gems out of the possession of the easily intimidated Archie. Cross, double-cross.

So, it's a three way chase for the valuables and ample context for action sequences that are inventive and numerous. Martial arts trickery hits a few new variations with sound effects rewarding the senses like bubble gum gratification. It's amusing (if not annoying) to watch these fighters pounded with relentless fists, pipes, iron rods and anything that can be turned into a weapon and suffer no slow down, let alone cuts and abrasions. They just go on fighting with the same level of vitality and without breaking a sweat. Wouldn't Evander Holyfield love this? It's all part of the acrobatic fantasy, which is more about cleverness of choreography than hostile brutality, though the fans might not make the distinction.

There is no denying Jet Li's intensity of presence, nor his martial arts acumen (he was world champion), but he's no Jackie Chan in the personality department. Not that he's incapable of the occasional sprinkling of humor but he seems more attuned to the stoic and single minded. (See him in Zhang Yimou's "Hero", better suited to his penetrating style).

DMX, more talkative but no more expressive, may be a hip-hop legend and a film songwriter ("The Fast and the Furious") who has expanded his commercial universe into acting ("Belly", "Exit Wounds") but he'd do well to lighten up and show more accessibility. You try to get on his side but it's blocked by a grim, humorless style. Oh, never mind, that won't matter to the demographic to which this escapade is targetted.

Which makes Anthony Anderson's comic contributions that much more valuable. As the irrepressible Tommy, who in one funny moment pretends to be gay while running a motor mouth charm school on a susceptible guard to distract him from noticing the heist action on his TV monitors.

Employing multiple cameras, a technique that pays off big in editing, Bartkowiak (cinematographer on "Lethal Weapon IV", "Speed") has delivered what some action fans come for: a thrill-a-minute, one-dimensional gratification. If he was going for depth of character in this stunt heavy thriller, or a special chemistry of charisma that ensures success in the genre, he fell short of effective synthesis. American born Daryn Okada, A.S.C. was his very able director of photography and Derek G. Brechin provided the high-paced editing called for. DMX and Eminem provide some of the musical beat in the soundtrack.

The film makes an earnest attempt to frame the action in an emotional context but, in the final analysis, fantasy smashes credibility to a pulp. What has been achieved is a fleshed-out, juiced up video game exploit that will do its work in terms of boxoffice competition.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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The two dynamos on a mission: DMX and Jet Li

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