This year marks the 20th anniversary of The Matrix, arguably one of the most groundbreaking action/sci-fi films that Hollywood has ever produced. It catapulted the Wachowskis to international stardom as filmmakers, and made Keanu Reeves an even bigger star than Speed had done almost five years prior. Blending martial arts action, sci-fi, and a few dashes of eastern philosophy, The Matrix was certainly ambitious in its attempt to simultaneously wow audiences with spectacle, while making them question the nature of their own existence.
Now while I’m sure we could do a deep dive into everything from the production of the original film, to its ultimate success, and how it changed the landscape of action movies for the next five years (. . . until the Jason Bourne movies would turn everyone into krav-maga shaky cam fetishists, that is!), I wanted to focus specifically on what I’ve come to call . . . The Bastard Children of the Matrix. Namely the films Romeo Must Die, Exit Wounds, and Cradle 2 the Grave. All of which were produced by Joel Silver, directed by veteran cinematographer, Andrzej Bartkowiak, and all of which feature DMX (and Anthony Anderson, for that matter) among the cast. **Sidenote**: We have to talk about how unfortunately titled these movies are. The latter two have NOTHING to do with the plots of the films, and any cool factor from naming a movie about two individuals from warring crime families working together to unravel the mystery of their murdered siblings “Romeo Must Die”, is ruined by making it one of the most awkwardly shoehorned pieces of dialogue ever heard in a movie!!! “Sorry Romeo, but you’ve gotta die!” . . . “Straight-to-cable after skinemax” action movies have better dialogue.
In any event, with the success of The Matrix, producer Joel Silver had a pretty clear goal . . . he was gonna make DMX an action star!!!! . . . Kidding aside, Silver did seem bound and determined to take advantage of the intersection of martial arts films and urban culture. To preface this, we have to look back on what was happening in film and music in the years leading up to the release of The Matrix, and shortly thereafter. Easily one of the most notable examples is the emergence of the Wu-Tang Clan. The blending of hip-hop and martial arts may have seemed like a mere gimmick to the casual observer, but it spoke to a generation of urban adolescents who grew up on Kung Fu movies on Saturday afternoons back in the late 80s and early 90s. And as the 90s progressed, there was a growing resurgence in the interest in martial arts films in America that would give rise to the popularity of a handful of Hong Kong action stars in Hollywood, and a number of independent film studios were looking to cash in.
Despite a number of attempts to break onto the Hollywood scene throughout the early 80s, it was 1995’s Rumble In The Bronx that kick-started American audiences’ interest in Jackie Chan on a wide scale. Chan would then go on to have a monster hit in 1998, teaming up with comedian Chris Tucker in the buddy cop action comedy Rush Hour. That same year would see future Matrix producer Joel Silver introduce American audiences to another Hong Kong martial arts powerhouse in the form of Jet Li, in Lethal Weapon 4. Artisan Entertainment subsequently commissioned an English version of Li’s 1996 film Black Mask, released just two months after that of The Matrix, but with an all-new soundtrack that featured hip-hop artists.
1998 would also see the release of a little film called Blade. Outside of being the first commercially successful theatrical release based on a Marvel comic, Blade was something so unique in its influences and execution, and spoke directly to me as a black teenager, combining martial arts action, science fiction and horror, hip-hop and techno music, and afropunk aesthetics in such a way as to be truly ahead of its time. With veteran martial artist Wesley Snipes in the lead role, Blade harkened back to the era of blaxploitation films where stars would make martial arts a defining element of their characters. The film also boasted a soundtrack that included popular artists in the rap and dance music genres such as Mystikal, Junkie XL, New Order, KRS One, and M.O.P.
This synergy of hip-hop and martial arts arguably came full circle with the release of Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, scored by the Wu-Tang Clan’s chief architect, The RZA. The film couldn’t be more removed from the balletic action of martial arts films as a genre, and was instead a meditative and introspective drama about a hitman, played by Forest Whitaker, who lived his life by the way of the samurai.
All of this, in conjunction with the success of the Matrix established the necessary framework for producer Joel Silver to move forward with Romeo Must Die in 2000. While it features the least amount of DMX of the three movies being spotlighted in this piece, it has to have one of the most memorable intros of a character to kick off the decade, as X plays a club owner who breaks up a fight between rival gangs by firing an automatic assault rifle in the air before declaring, “Guns don’t kill people! People kill people!!!!” Which, when you think about it, was totally on-brand for the Ruff Ryder camp’s flagship member. However, the film focused primarily on Jet Li as a disgraced cop turned convict who escapes prison in Hong Kong and travels to California (as played by Vancouver, British Columbia) to hunt down his brother’s killer, and crosses paths with Aaliyah as the daughter of the mob boss Li suspects was behind his brother’s murder. Naturally, Li has to fight his way out of a few sticky situations, relying on the same “wire-fu” fight choreography that had been used in The Matrix, complete with dramatically ludicrous whooshing sound effects. He even uses Aaliyah like a puppet when he has to face off against a female assassin. It makes for a fun bit of choreography that Aaliyah and Li would partially recreate for her music video for the song “Try Again” which was featured on Romeo Must Die’s soundtrack. The film may not have been a critical hit, but on a 25 million dollar budget, the film grossed over 90 million, and has long since earned a cult following. Aaliyah received a fair amount of praise for her acting debut, which led to Silver bringing her on as the vampire villainess Akasha for the Anne Rice adaptation, Queen of the Damned. She even landed a role in the Matrix sequels, but tragedy struck in summer of 2001, when Aaliyah and several others were killed in a plane crash in the Bahamas. The singer had been filming a music video in support of her third album. She was only 22 years old.
With the modest success of Romeo Must Die, Jet Li’s dance card got pretty full with Kiss of the Dragon and The One in 2001. The latter film actually saw him re-team with Romeo Must Die costar, Delroy Lindo. In the meanwhile, Joel Silver figured it was time to not only give DMX the spotlight, but also try and breathe life into the career of once-prominent action star Steven Segal. Segal’s popularity had waned somewhat in the late 90s, so it’s not surprising that he would sign on for a film like Exit Wounds. Joel Silver and company were looking to strike gold once again, with the Segal playing Orin Boyd, a cop in Detroit (as played by Toronto, Ontario) who has to team up with a street hustler played by DMX to expose a drug operation spearheaded by corrupt cops in Boyd’s precinct. In a bid to make the plot even more outlandish than Romeo Must Die’s, it’s eventually revealed that DMX’s character is secretly a Dot-Com mogul who cashed out a massive fortune before the bubble burst, and is using his vast resources to expose police corruption and exonerate his falsely-accused brother. Why was this necessary for a movie where your biggest selling point is already Steven Segal and DMX in a movie together? The world may never know! With a slightly larger budget of 33 million dollars, Exit Wounds bowed out with roughly 80 million dollars at the box office when all was said and done.
Jet Li would return to the fold for 2003’s Cradle 2 The Grave, a film which was allegedly supposed to be a remake of the 1931 Fritz Lang crime thriller M. Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be a great deal online as to how the project developed into the even more ludicrous plot involving DMX as a high-end jewel thief who unknowingly steals weapons-grade plutonium pellets fashioned to resemble black diamonds. After the film’s villains kidnap his daughter in a bid to get the stones back, he’ll have to team up with Jet Li, who’s playing a Taiwanese intelligence operative tasked with getting the stones back for his government. Even with a scaled back budget, I have to admit that Cradle 2 The Grave looks and feels like a far more expensive film than it actually is. Yes, most of the wire stunts are still terrible, especially one scene where DMX runs up a brick wall to backflip behind two rottweilers that were chasing him. However, the scene of him evading police on an ATV while featuring his own song from the soundtrack, “X Gon’ Give It To Ya”, is easily a high point for the film. Once again, TOTALLY on-brand for DMX!!! And the climactic battle in and outside of an airfield hangar was blissfully stupid in the best way possible. The leaking gas of a helicopter forming a ring of fire around Jet Li and Mark Dacascos before they fight was “chef’s kiss” perfect! A shame, however, as Cradle 2 The Grave was the weakest performer of producer Joel Silver and director Andrzej Bartkowiak’s collaborations, earning a mere 56 million dollars worldwide. And with that, Joel Silver’s experiment to fuse hip-hop with martial arts on film came to an end.
Joel Silver remains one of the biggest producers in Hollywood, responsible for such films as the V for Vendetta, Sherlock Holmes, RocknRolla, Book of Eli, The Nice Guys, and served as a producer on the television series Veronica Mars. Bartkowiak’s directorial career started to stall with the “not nearly as terrible as people make it out to be” video game adaptation Doom in 2005, only to be followed up four years later with the legitimate dumpster fire that is Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li. But from 2000 to 2003, these two delivered some pretty enjoyable schlock-fests. There was a “so bad it’s good” kitch factor to these films that was undeniable. They had a self-awareness about their own level of quality and never took themselves too seriously. And back in the early aughts, you could definitely count on audiences to like two things; DMX and martial arts movies. What more could you really ask for?