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xXx: The Return of Xander Cage

 

An Un-x-eptional Return

Vin Diesel
Vin Diesel
Paramount Pictures
 107 Minutes
Rated: PG-13
Directed by: D.J. Caruso
Starring: Vin Diesel, Samuel L. Jackson
D+
xXx The Return of Xander Cage

Watching xXx: The Return of Xander Cage brought back memories for me. Not of the 2002 original film in the franchise, of which I blissfully have only vague memories, or of the 2005 sequel, in which Ice Cube replaced a wisely departing Vin Diesel in the lead role. And not of any of the other films in Vin Diesel’s filmography, such as the not too dissimilar Fast and the Furious movies. No, Return of Xander Cage reminded me of the Burt Reynolds Cannonball Run movies from the 1980’s. In those movies, Reynolds essentially hung around the set for a month or so with his buddies like Dom DeLuise, Jerry Reed, and Hal Needham (plus whatever other actors he could convince to show up) and coasted by on what was left of his charisma and star appeal. The eventual result was two hours of self-indulgent, stunt-filled drivel on screen.

 

The musical accompaniment has definitely changed in the 30 years since the Cannonball films from country to alt rock, and the guest martial arts experts have evolved from Jackie Chan to Donnie Yen, but xXx: The Return of Xander Cage is a successor in spirt to those earlier Reynolds films. Diesel has surrounded himself with his own eclectic group of supporting players, all of whom seem to be in on some inside joke with Diesel that does not show up in the script or on screen. Add to that a plot that makes almost no sense, even grading it on a very relaxed curve, some extremely overedited action sequences that seem shot for the primary purpose of disguising the fact that Diesel himself is conspicuously MIA in these sequences, and a pulse pounding techno soundtrack and the result is the same type of mess that eventually derailed Reynolds’ career.

 

For those unfamiliar with the xXx franchise, the acronym refers to a group of off-the-grid, unconventional secret agents whose methods are so unorthodox that they defy conventional means of detection. The project was the brainchild of Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson), whose first successful recruit was Xander Cage (Diesel), an extreme sports enthusiast with a disdain for conventional authority. After helping Gibbons save the world in the franchise’s first movie (appropriately called xXx), Cage has dropped out of sight again.

 

Once again, however, the world needs saving, this time from a McGuffin doomsday device called Pandora’s Box, which can seize control of orbiting satellites and send them crashing back into earth at specified locations. A group of specialized operatives led by martial arts expert Xiang (Yen) break into CIA headquarters, wreak havoc, and steal the Box. Gibbons is dead, killed in the first ten minutes of the movie by the first crashing satellite, but his replacement, Jane Marke (Toni Collette) tracks down Cage and persuades him to help recover the box. Cage naturally recruits his own team to help him.

 

What follows is an hour or so of double crosses, team-ups, break-ups, and re-team-ups as virtually everyone in the cast winds up at odds with someone else at one time or another. Cage eventually finds out that Xiang stole the Box to keep it from falling into the wrong hands, so, naturally, it gets stolen from Xiang and does wind up in the wrong hands. In this case, it’s the hands of a middle-aged CIA official who sweats a lot and was chosen because he was portrayed by about the least charismatic actor (Al Sapienza) in creation so as to contrast him as much as possible from Diesel and his fellow hipsters. In any event, the CIA official has holed up in a dingy, abandoned office building in downtown Detroit, from which he plans his next attack.

 

While Return of Xander Cage pays lip service to the notion of keeping the world safe from—I’m not sure exactly what, other than falling satellites which everyone agrees are bad for the environment—what it really stands for is the notion of Diesel and his co-stars either looking as cool (Diesel), as hot (the female cast members), or as weird (the other male cast members) as possible. To that end, the film has a veritable United Nations in its supporting cast, including martial arts expert Tony Jaa, singer Kris Wu, Bollywood star  Deepika Padukone, and professional athletes Neymar and Tony Gonzalez. With a cast this eclectic, the acting quality varies wildly. Not surprisingly, the only ones to make an impression are the actual old pros Jackson (who is unfortunately absent for the bulk of the film) and Collette (who wholeheartedly throws herself into the silliness). 

 

Of course, audiences don’t go to see a movie like Return of Xander Cage for either the acting or the storyline. Instead, they want to see action, both the extreme sports variety (such as the skateboarding in the clip below), and the martial arts variety. And here’s where director D.J. Caruso drops the ball. Too many of the cast members don’t have the skills for this type of stunt action, and, while that’s no slight on them (although one wonders what went into the casting of people like Kris Wu), it requires a deft directorial touch to sell the action scenes. Here, it’s pretty obvious in scene after scene that Diesel is being doubled, and some of the others “sell” their stunt work by means of the usual over-edited nonsense accompanied by a heavy metal soundtrack. Those who can do this type of stuntwork, like Yen and Jaa, get relatively little to do. (Yen has one fight sequence on a plane that brought back memories of his turn in Rogue One, but it’s otherwise slim pickings for action fans.)

 

Return of Xander Cage does have a lot of supposed humor, albeit little actual humor. Most of the humor is based on the notion that Diesel’s Cage character is the ultimate lady’s man and the epitome of cool, sort of James Bond on steroids with a shaved head. Almost all of Diesel’s lines are delivered with the same expression, a bemused smirk, as he tosses off zingers like “Does this mean you’re not making breakfast in the morning?” when he’s turned down by a potential bedmate.

 

Surprising as it might seem, xXx: The Return of Xander Cage comes off far worse than Vin Diesel’s Fast and Furious films do. Perhaps it’s because Diesel and the rest of the cast have always treated the Furious franchise with respect, even when having fun. The talk of family was real (Diesel became good friends with Paul Walker in real life). In xXx, the characters spout nonsense and treat the entire venture as a joke. Sadly, the joke winds up being on any of those in the audience paying to see the film.

In this scene, Vin Diesel's stunt double shows off his skateboarding moves.

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