Like most DMX fans, I spent last weekend mourning the man through his work. If you’re reading this, I’m sure that “Stop Being Greedy,” or “Slippin’,” or “How’s It Goin Down” or “4,3,2,1” or “Ruff Ryders Anthem” or “Who We Be” or “Get At Me Dog” or any of his harrowing Old Testament rap took over your speakers and earbuds as well.
I read the online elegies that unpacked Earl Simmons’s life as a rapper, man, survivor, Christian, poet, and force of nature in pop music for a half-decade. There’s another, perhaps softer angle into the man’s importance: DMX as a turn of the century action movie star.
On Sunday evening I watched DMX in 2001’s Exit Wounds. Then I decided to stay up late and make it a double feature with 2003’s Cradle 2 The Grave.
And when DMX is at a private airstrip fighting the mob goons who abducted his daughter—as co-lead Jet Li shatters a plutonium capsule inside the lead villain’s throat—I thought that DMX looked at ease. He seemed light. Like he was enjoying himself.
At the climax of the fight, DMX flings a small plane propeller into a goon’s crotch and barks, “Wrong kid! Definitely the wrong father!” The line is lame, but shot through DMX’s hyperbaric chamber of gravel and angst, it’s a legit action movie kicker.
In that moment, it makes total sense that seasoned cinematographer and debut director, Andrzej Bartkowiak, who had worked on everything from accomplished trash (The Devil’s Advocate, Species) to Oscar winners (The Verdict, Terms of Endearment) and genuine blockbusters (Speed, Twins) would make DMX the golden thread that links his set of three millennial action crime movies: 2000’s Romeo Must Die, 2001’s Exit Wounds and 2003’s Cradle 2 the Grave.
For producer Joel Silver, the pitch must have been simple: import the Hong Kong cinematic tactics of swirling camera work, add in the ascendant American pop aesthetic of the moment—late 90s rap and R&B—and attach the brightest (and likely most affordable) stars from all worlds concerned. In all three movies, the results are as if Mario Van Peebles, Tony Scott, and John Woo each pounded a pony keg of Monster Energy and ran head first into each other. That’s a compliment.
The grace in all three movies is that DMX doesn’t fit into a type. When DMX made his film debut in 1998’s Belly, his character Tommy was as volatile as you might expect. But DMX’s cool, seething two-scene performance in Romeo Must Die as a club owner depends on his restraint. When he was co-lead in Exit Wounds and Cradle 2 The Grave he was the self-possessed center of each. His performances—steady eye contact, softening his growl to a stern whisper—gave space for accomplished character actors like Delroy Lindo, Russell Wong, Chi McBride, and Bill Duke to chew scenery and tear through expository dialogue. Add in Bartkowiak’s traveling repertory company of problematic men—Tom Arnold, Isaiah Washington and Anthony Anderson are in two of the three movies each—to play villains and add comic relief, and you have B-movie comfort food for action movie fans and/or rap fans at the turn of the millennium.
DMX crossed all the quadrants of culture in the early 2000s. He could lure action fans who certainly heard “Party Up” on the radio, and he could provide an incentive for 21-year-old rap fans to check out a movie starring Jet Li or Steven Seagal, now a decade past his sell by date.
These films remind you that as timeless as DMX’s music will be, his film career was very much a product of time. At the peak of his fame in the early 2000s he was an emissary: he had already sold over ten million records, the yelped “What?” and “Come On!” were millennial canon, he was handsome and brooding and emotional—rap’s Kurt Cobain—and played well off of female co-stars like Gabrielle Union. And in the moments where DMX’s characters dropped their underworld cool and joined the film’s absurdity, these three manic, unashamed B-movies momentarily took flight.
There’s a moment in Cradle 2 The Grave when DMX takes off on a quad ATV and starts a police chase through LA as “X Gone Give It To Ya” plays. In that meta-textual cross-promotional moment, three faces of the man converge: DMX the rapper, DMX the actor, and Earl Simmons the unlikely action star of the 2000s.
When I look back at these movies now, for all their disposability, I see their influence on today. I see the breathless, plot-optional fury of The Raid and John Wick and the vague gestures toward working class politics in the wave of post-recession so-called Garbage Crime action movies like Brooklyn’s Finest, and I think of these movies and of DMX’s run as a part time action star.
But mostly I love these movies because they seem like places where DMX could relax a bit and make an artistic living with a little less of a toll than music seemed to take.
I took solace in the anecdotes shared on social media of DMX in the world —DMX buying out an entire troop’s cookies; DMX dancing at a wedding in Albania. One video in particular has stayed with me: DMX bounces in a car’s passenger seat as a teenage girl sings along to Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off.” Of course DMX snaps at the beat and snarls a “What!” that still hits like the adrenaline of the gods.
Gabrielle Union’s Twitter told the story behind the video: the girl driving, Paige Herd, a young actress, had played DMX’s daughter in Cradle 2 the Grave in her film debut at 11. DMX became her godfather after the movie and remained a part of her life. “He truly looked out. No sometimey industry bs. He was 1 of 1,” Union wrote.
So maybe these movies didn’t just mean something to us, his fans. Maybe these movies meant something to DMX as well. In a press tour interview for Cradle 2 The Grave in 2003, DMX was open about why he worked with the same people for three movies in row: “They created an environment for me that didn’t put pressure on me to be the greatest actor in the world.”
It’s not material where DMX ranks as an actor. But the first part of that quote is very real. On screen, DMX, a man who seemed to live under incredible pressure for most of his artistic life, found a little bit of relief.