xXx: RETURN OF XANDER CAGE Review

It is with great pleasure that I report xXx: Return of Xander Cage is as dumb and ridiculous as it should be. First and foremost I guess it is important to state that there was no need for this third outing in the xXx series, but as with so many franchises these days we get a lot of what we didn't think we needed, but that they're going to give to us anyways. It makes sense given the whole "brand recognition" line of thinking within the studio system at the moment, but while many of the fruits of this line of thinking yield final products as pointless and joyless as expected given their inherently unwarranted status it is nice that every once in a while such thinking yields something as fun and self-aware as xXx: Return of Xander Cage. It has been fifteen years since Vin Diesel took on the mantle of a James Bond figure via the X-Games in what was no doubt intended to be a spiritual successor of sorts to the original The Fast and the Furious as Diesel re-teamed with director Rob Cohen for xXx the year after The Fast and the Furious became a surprise smash. Like he did initially with the Fast franchise, Diesel opted not to return for the xXx sequel in 2005, State of the Union, which picked up Ice Cube as Darius Stone to fill Diesel's Xander Cage's spot in the xXx program with it being reported Cage died in Bora Bora a few years after the events of the original film. And now, as he did with Fast in 2009, Diesel has returned to a franchise he started and then abandoned after efforts outside such franchises haven't worked out as well as the actor/producer/social media champion likely hoped they would. It's hard to blame the guy as he approaches the age of fifty this summer and undoubtedly understands he won't be able to make such movies (or such money) for much longer. The persona Diesel pulled off as Cage at thirty-five already feels somewhat strained here-especially in scenes engineered to make Diesel look like the baddest dude on the planet-but director D.J. Caruso (Disturbia, Eagle Eye) and his editors keep things moving along at such a quick pace and with so much energy it's difficult to get caught up on any one detail. It also doesn't hurt that F. Scott Frazier's (The Numbers Station) screenplay layers in multiple team members to take some of the pressure off Diesel carrying this entire thing on his aging shoulders while simultaneously becoming another casualty of the Avengers effect where it's now more lucrative and enticing to have a team of xXx-er's rather than a sole ambassador of bad ass.     

Xander Cage (Vin Diesel) is back and ready for action in xXx: Return of Xander Cage.
Photo by George Kraychyk - © 2016 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
Does story even matter? Is anything relevant here besides the fact that we know Diesel's Cage is going to kick some ass, get the girl, and look dope while he's doing it? I don't think so, but if you're curious-and I should refrain because Frazier does at least attempt some interesting character dynamics despite the genre-the film picks up with Sam Jackson's Augustus Gibbons in present time as he is seemingly breaking the fourth wall and catching the audience members up on what has been going on with his xXx program since we last touched base. It is revealed Gibbons isn't actually talking to the audience, but rather with potential new recruit Neymar, a Brazilian professional footballer who is here to pull in the international crowds along with other cast members we'll touch on momentarily. The conversation is cut short when a satellite comes crashing to earth forcing the suits in charge of every department of every notable world government agency to come together in a single room to listen to Toni Collette talk about a macguffin called Pandora's Box which is more or less a device that looks like a Nintendo DS and can control all the space junk floating around outside our planet. Collete's party is crashed when a group of insanely skilled martial artists and marksman come barging in and steal Pandora's Box. Naturally, Collette and her well-dressed peers need someone just as extreme and well-connected to combat these thieves and who do they turn to but Xander Cage. Why they are able to track down this guy who has been off the grid for twelve plus years when Gibbons was never able to do so isn't explained, but that's mainly because it doesn't matter. Our re-introduction to Diesel's Cage comes as he skateboards down the winding roads of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic after stealing a device from a cell tower so that he might bring the people of his small village the telecast of the big game. Cage is treated as a God among men for doing so and goes home to his tiki hut to make sweet, sweet love to whom we assume is his girlfriend despite the fact we won't see her again for the duration of the running time. There is also the things where Cage makes love with some eight women at the same time then goes on to develop an actual love interest despite there being little to no chemistry between the two and no basis for why Cage all of a sudden feels the need to fall in love; though that's probably because he's approaching fifty. All of that said, it's easy to see where all of this is heading, but that doesn't mean it's not a fun ride.

From the get-go there is an explosive energy the movie carries that never really lets up except to allow our teams of thrill seekers a moment to breathe before jumping right back in. In essence, xXx: Return of Xander Cage, is a movie of action sequences strung together with a paper thin plot that doesn't always make sense and more times than not doesn't care if you're following along or not. All it needs you to know is that it's fully aware of how cheesy and over the top it is and that it can deliver some solid action set pieces that justify you buying a ticket to see it on the biggest screen near you, preferably an IMAX one. Speaking to these action sequences there is enough creativity in each and enough talent involved to make the majority of them show-stoppers even if sometimes it's not hard to see the restricted budget peeking around the corner of the green screen. In the aforementioned excursion that sees Cage navigating through the jungles and streets of Santo Domingo there are more than a fair share of shots where it's clearly not Diesel on a pair of skis as he jets his way through the jungle or on the skateboard as he ollie's off passing vehicles, but they are well executed stunts if not consistently convincing in that it's our star performing them. The film really kicks it up a notch with the assault on Collette's team though, as this introduces the likes of Donnie Yen, Tony Jaa, and Deepika Padukone to the mix. Not only will each of these names draw more global audiences to the film, but the fight sequences including Yen and Jaa are especially astounding in a physical sense and creative in a visual sense. Though I complimented the editing for not lingering too long earlier so as to not allow the viewer to get caught up in the unnecessary technicalities of the plot it would have been nice had Caruso not shot so much coverage on his martial arts experts and rather allowed their scenes to breathe a bit more. They are impressive as they are, of course, and easily some of the most exhilarating moments in the film, but the question always lingers of how much better could they have been were someone who knew the fighting styles given the opportunity to capture those who have mastered them? Joining Yen, Jaa, and Padukone is Kris Wu, a Chinese-born Canadian actor, rapper, singer, and model, whose special skills here include DJing and being fun to hang out with (seriously), as well as sniper Adele (Ruby Rose), and car crashing aficionado Tennyson Torch (Rory McCann).  None of these individuals are trying particularly hard to single themselves out though Padukone comes to the forefront due to her love angle with Cage while Nina Dobrev is actually attempting a character of sorts, but fails rather miserably because it only becomes increasingly obvious throughout just how hard she is trying.

Cage talks with enemies Xiang (Donnie Yen) and Serena (Deepika Padukone) to try and obtain some peace.
Photo by George Kraychyk - © 2016 Paramount Pictures. All Rights Reserved.
But what more is there to say about a film that prides itself on being the antithesis of subtle? You get what you pay for, it is what it is, your expectations will be met and likely little more, but the good news is that if you're hoping for an action packed romp across multiple continents where Vin Diesel rides a motorcycle across a wave, skydives out of an exploding air craft carrier, and plays chicken with one, two, no three grenades then this movie is totally for you. Were Return of Xander Cage not so aware of itself and thus not so purposefully a parody of the type of movie it's meant to be then we might have some qualms with it being flat out bad, but because this sequel that comes twelve years after the last incarnation of xXx in any form is more than willing to admit what it is and take off the serious edge that brought the original down-there is enjoyment to be had. Diesel isn't even particularly charming in the lead role anymore, but in fact he's somewhat awkward and this whole thing sometimes feels like a vanity project to reaffirm the action star he still has what made him so appealing seventeen years ago, but the saving grace of the film is this approach to the team dynamic. It may feel cliché at this point given it's the obvious route following the success of cinematic universes, but this film in particular uses it as a mechanism to mix up an otherwise stale action movie template. Having the government suits run the show and initially pit Cage's crew against Yen's Xiang only to have each leader realize they are a part of a conspiracy that points to collusion at the highest levels of government, thus forcing the two to come together to form a super xXx team is rather fun and ultimately makes the film more exciting to see unfold. Sure, the character introductions and inevitable team-up in Return of Xander Cage could have been stretched out into two or three more films, but why waste all that time on putting the team together when you can establish all of that here, pull in Ice Cube for a third act cameo, and set the stage for the further adventures of the goofy Suicide Squad xXx crew next time around? There isn't a reason and Diesel and co. are smart enough to know as much. They know if they want their characters to see the light of day again it's best they throw everything at the wall in this one, see what sticks, and utilize what they've learned should they be lucky enough to make another. And if they can keep the budgets under $100 million I don't see why this can' serve as a perfectly subpar secondary series for Diesel to steer in his off time between Fast films.