October 1, 2003 -- I had low expectations going into this film (I saw it on DVD), but it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be, judging from other reviews. It isn't a bad martial arts film. Unlike many films of this genre, it has a plot that makes sense and it has characters that are least defined, if not developed. The acting is competent. The fight scenes are well-staged by a good fight choreographer, Corey Yuen (“The Transporter”). Good fight scenes are the key to this kind of movie. Think of a martial arts film like a dance movie. The fighters are the dancers. This is nowhere more apparent than in the film “Shanghai Knights” in which Jackie Chan does a fight scene inspired by “Singin' in the Rain.” It is both a fight scene and a dance number at the same time. You don't watch “Singin' in the Rain” because it has a great plot. Ditto for “Cradle 2 the Grave.” All you need is a plot that makes sense and characters who behave consistently.
The story starts with a jewel heist by a team of professional thieves led by Fait (played by DMX of “Romeo Must Die”). The heist goes badly, but the thieves get away with a bunch of strange black diamonds. Then things get worse as a whole bunch of thugs descend on the thieves, trying to steal back the black diamonds. It turns out the jewels are a component of a very powerful weapon which is due to be sold on the black market. One of the many people looking for the black diamonds is a boy named Su (played by Jet Li of “Kiss of the Dragon”). With a name like Su, you just know that his fists have to be hard and his wits have to be keen. Su is a secret agent working for the government from whom the black diamonds were originally stolen. When Fait's daughter is kidnapped, Fait and Su are forced to work together to recover the black diamonds and Fait's daughter.
The action scenes include a battle in a wire cage between Su and about 20 professional Ultimate Fighting Championship fighters. In one of the documentaries included on the DVD, Jet Li admits, “In the original script I was supposed to fight four or five guys in the cage, but Joel (Silver, producer) wanted the stakes to be even higher, so we added more fighters,” Li remembers. “I think in real life they could kill me in a second ...” It is not a bad fight scene. The fighters are very large and obviously skilled. A lot of wire stunts are used in the scene, and in other fights in the film, but the fights don't look as impossible as the ones in “Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle” and similar cartoonish action films.
DMX does a competent acting job in the film. The supporting cast is also pretty solid, including Fait's buddy Tommy (Anthony Anderson of “Kangaroo Jack”), sleazy arms dealer Archie (Tom Arnold of “Exit Wounds”) and the lovely jewel thief Daria (Gabrielle Union of “Deliver Us From Eva”). Mysterious bad guy Ling (Mark Dacascos of “Brotherhood of the Wolf”) makes a good villain, and he has great martial arts skills. Ling's sidekick, Sona (Kelly Hu of “The Scorpion King”) is also a skilled fighter. The big finale, of course, is the showdown between the two old enemies played by Mark Dacascos and Jet Li. There is a similar, simultaneous showdown between Sona and Daria. There is even an army tank in the final battle. Jet Li is not much of an actor, but his fight scene skills are unequaled. In this film, he is required to do a lot of fighting and very little acting. It plays to his strength.
There really aren't any surprises in this film. It is pretty much by the numbers. A movie does not have to be original to be good, however. The question is, how well is the film crafted, not how novel it is. In this case, the film is put together pretty well. I has a decent plot, acting, fight scenes and good music (by DMX, Eminem and others). The editing is not as good as it should be for the fight scenes. The filmmakers are a little too fond of cutting to multiple camera angles, which interrupts the fight scenes too much. The cinematography, by Daryn Okada (“Lake Placid”) is above average. And just what does the title of the movie have to do with the movie? Nothing, that's what. This film rates a C+.
The DVD I saw had quite a few extra features on it. It had the 2:35:1 anamorphic widescreen format. It is also available in a full screen format (which cuts off the sides of the image). The video transfer is good. The sound quality (Dolby 5.1) is above average. Extras include DMX’s “X Gonna Give It To Ya” Music Video, a featurette on the big cage fight scene, another on the way multiple cameras were used in the film, and a featurette on a special computerized wire rig used in a scene where Jet Li drops down a building one floor at a time. The mini-documentaries are pretty informative. There are also a couple of easter eggs. The DVD rates a C+
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