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Friday, May 9, 2003 02:20 pm

Movie Reviews - Cradle 2 the Grave, The Life of David Gale

Cradle 2 the Grave

If anyone can build an acting career on a glower, it's DMX. The vowel-deficient rapper started his film career in the underrated Belly and then moved on to Romeo Must Die and Exit Wounds. He sports a steely, narrow glare and tightly drawn mouth whether shooting bad guys, cracking wise, or "mackin'" the ladies. Director Andrzej Bartkowiak forces the actor to move beyond his trademark look in Cradle 2 the Grave. DMX stars as a Robin Hood-like thief whose latest heist backfires after the nasty Asian crew he's robbed kidnaps his daughter in exchange for the money he's stolen.

Bartkowiak reunites DMX with his Romeo co-star Jet Li, the diminutive Hong Kong action star who could be the heir apparent to Jackie Chan if it wasn't for his lack of charm. Li and DMX careen about Los Angeles in hot pursuit of the film's McGuffin, a bag of black rocks that turn out to be synthetic plutonium, a hot commodity sought after by weapons dealers. Much mayhem ensues as Fait (DMX) and his posse, Daria (Gabrielle Union), Tommy (Anthony Anderson), and Archie (Tom Arnold) track down the rocks. Taiwanese Agent Su (Li) helps by kicking anything that gets in the way.

The story is as thin as it gets, but Bartkowiak gleefully delivers the action. A sequence in which the director crosscuts between a high speed pursuit and a kick-boxing match that finds Li up against 12 bloodthirsty opponents, including a midget who wants his head, proves to be one of the most invigorating and genuinely exciting movie moments I've seen in the past year. These scenes are executed with flair and enthusiasm. The old-fashioned thrills are based on choreography and editing, not computer generated effects.

Bartkowiak seems to be assembling a repertory. He not only reunites DMX and Li, but uses Anderson and Arnold, who both provide reliable comic relief. There's a sense of ease and comfort between the cast mates that contributes mightily to the film's fun. Cradle is not for everyone, but for those longing to see a tuxedo-clad, karate-chopping midget in action, this flick is right up your alley.

(Running time 1:40, rated R)
Grade B

The Life of David Gale

I'm going to commit the cardinal sin of movie reviewing. I'm going to discuss the ending of Alan Parker's The Life of David Gale, a manipulative, nihilistic film that holds itself up as a testament to life but contains such an undercurrent of rage that it undercuts itself. Its climax mocks the very issue it wants to defend. If you intend to subject yourself to this calculated diatribe, read no further. Those who wish to save $7, read on. Believe me, I'm only trying to help.

Parker and screenwriter Charles Randolph want to say that the death penalty is really, really, really bad. They take a melodramatic angle, attack the faults of the penal system, and present their protagonists as fanatics who do more harm than good. David Gale (Kevin Spacey) is one of the zealots, a human rights activist and dynamic college professor who hits bottom. Having lost his wife, job, and custody of his child, he finds himself on Death Row for the brutal murder of colleague Constance Hallaway (Laura Linney). Gale contacts hard-as-nails reporter Bitsey Bloom (a very svelte Kate Winslet, who has regrettably caved into the pressures of Hollywood stardom) to interview him during his final days, during which he claims his innocence and provides Bitsey with clues that are supposed to exonerate him. For a seasoned reporter, Bitsey is swayed far too easily to help Gale. Before you know it, she's doing her best Nancy Drew to uncover the evidence that will set him free.

Parker employs amateurish camera moves to signal the many flashbacks of Gale's history. Whenever he's about to provide Bitsey with another important clue from his past, the camera begins to circle and words such as "guilty," "innocent," and "condemned," among many others appear on the screen. Parker's greatest weakness as a filmmaker has been his preference for sledgehammer techniques. Even more disturbing is a videotape Bitsey discovers that contains Hallaway's murder. Parker goes way past the line of decency, showing the woman squirming on the floor after being handcuffed and having a plastic bag taped around her head.

Unfortunately, even this pales in comparison to the audacious final twist the filmmakers spring on us. Guess what, Gale didn't kill Hallaway! But there's another twist, which leads Gale to willingly take the fall so that he can go to jail, be executed, and then have Bitsey reveal his innocence after the fact to prove the system doesn't work. The most disturbing aspect of the film is that Gale and his cohorts are presented as heroes when they are actually nuts.

Avoid the temptation to be impressed by the machinations Parker and Randolph employ. They use crass manipulative devices to exploit the audience's emotions. Even worse, they trivialize the issue of capital punishment by presenting those who would oppose it as psychotic. The Life of David Gale feels like a cheap parlor trick.

(Running time 2:01, Rated R)
Grade F