Get Cradle to film grave

Director Andrzej Bartkowiak keeps the movie disasters coming

The beginning of 'Cradle 2 the Grave' may fool you into thinking you've settled in for an exciting cinematic experience. The whiplash-fast title sequence leads to a smartly conceived jewel heist, followed by a thrilling chase through some subway tunnels É but then the real movie kicks in, and it's a mess.

Director Andrzej Bartkowiak previously attempted to create a marketing niche with the hip-hop-meets-kung-fu follies 'Romeo Must Die' and 'Exit Wounds.' These were loud, dumb, testosterone-drenched movies that struck a chord with young urban audiences Ñ despite the fact that 'Exit Wounds' marginally starred washed-up tub o' goo Steven Seagal.

'Cradle 2 the Grave' Ñ whose title reads like it was written by Prince and has nothing at all to do with the plot Ñ features many of the same actors as 'Exit Wounds.' Seagal is, thankfully, excluded. Unfortunately, this haphazard train wreck of a film isn't the better for his absence.

The empty, emotionless script centers on genius diamond thief Tony Fait (rapper DMX) and his photogenic criminal gang (Gabrielle Union, Anthony Anderson, Drag-On). Thanks to a mysterious Chinese fellow with cool clothes and hot martial-arts moves (Jet Li), they lose the black gems they've just nabbed from the Diamond Exchange.

The diamonds also are being sought by a very evil bad guy (Mark Dacascos), who kidnaps Tony's daughter as a bargaining tool, leading Tony to team up with Martial Arts Guy to find the lost gems and get the kid back.

The film itself is a study in chaos, zipping back and forth between hectic situations where things crash, shatter, careen and explode while hip-hop songs blare in the background.

The many fight scenes are edited so hyperkinetically that it's impossible to tell at times just what the heck is going on (note to Bartkowiak: Jet Li is not Steven Seagal Ñ you don't have to edit around his slow-moving bulk to make him look like he knows how to fight).

Li is a fairly lousy actor, but then English isn't his native tongue. He is, however, a breathtaking athlete. Early in the film, he leaps backward off the top of a high-rise and then drops one story at a time, hanging by his fingers off apartment balconies until he swings gracefully into the one he's looking for.

He also takes on about 20 pumped-up, sweaty bar fighters in a ridiculously contrived cage match, putting the smackdown on every last one of 'em.

Broody and macho, DMX wears his baggy pants and untied shoes with style, but he renders his lines as if he learned them phonetically. The man, to put it bluntly, just isn't an actor. And speaking of those shoes Ñ how is he able to run so fast and beat people up when his shoes are about to fall off, anyway?

The stunning Kelly Hu plays the baddie's girlfriend, and Anderson and Arnold Ñ 'Exit Wounds' veterans Ñ are brought back to provide comic relief. None of this helps. With its sloppy script, mostly uninvolving fight scenes and cardboard characters, 'Cradle 2 the Grave' is a spiritless disappointment.