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xXx: Return of Xander Cage

xXx: Return of Xander Cage Movie Review
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How excited ought one get about a sequel in an action franchise that never got off the ground, featuring the return of the leading man whose refusal to appear in the second installment was part of why the franchise never got off the ground, that finally sees theatrical release almost a decade after the intention to produce it was announced? I suppose it depends. Speaking strictly for myself, Vin Diesel, here coming back to play Xander Cage, the James Bond of skateboarding character he originated in 2002’s “XXX” is the least exciting component of this 3D slam-bang fest.

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The movie opens with Samuel L. Jackson as the outré spymaster Augustus Gibbons, sitting at a Chinese restaurant trying to convince real-life soccer sensation Neymar to join the XXX team. A disaster ensues, and stern buttoned-up spymaster Marke (Toni Collette, here probably earning more to merely maintain an erect posture than she usually does when she’s actually being an incredible actor) calls a meeting at an appropriately eerily-lit CIA boardroom. Here is introduced the McGuffin, here referred to as a Pandora’s Box, which is immediately snatched up by a crack team of black-clad perhaps villains who can leap tall buildings in a single bound, that kind of stuff. One of their number is played by Hong Kong action star Donnie Yen, who made a strong impression in another blockbuster, “Rogue One,” a little while back. Who can retrieve the deadly thingie? Marke has to track down the presumed-dead Xander Cage, who’s now spending his faked-own-death hours providing satellite television to impoverished Latin American children. (Don’t ask.)

The plot, with its multiple double-crosses and “this group must somehow form a you-know-what” plot beats, could have been written on the back of a cocktail napkin. More thought, but not that much more, was put into the cast of characters, the “rebels” that embody the triple-X ethos (which is a thing—remember that, absent Vin Diesel, there was a 2005 sequel, starring Ice Cube, subtitled “State of the Union,” in 2005). These include a more than fair number of women, which is commendable in theory. Less commendable in practice is that maybe a quarter of them are obligated to behave as if they’re dying to fall into bed with Diesel. When Cage goes to London to track down the identities of the interlopers of the eerily-lit boardroom, he spends time sauna-side with an intelligence expert, name of Ainsley, who’s played by Hermoine Caulfield, an actress in her mid twenties who looks about fifteen, and whose bikinied torso is practically drooled upon director of photography Russell Carpenter’s camera. Things get a little less distasteful with the introductions of punky sniper Adele (Ruby Rose) on Xander’s team and fast draw Serena (Deepika Padukone) on the opposite (but not for long). These two are almost enough to make up for Nina Dobrev’s Becky, a geek girl who provides Xander with her “safe word” within minutes if not seconds of their meeting.

Anyway, Xander doesn’t sleep with Ainsley; rather, she provides him access to about six of her girlfriends (in porn this is called a “reverse gangbang,” and while what’s depicted is hardly explicit, this is what the audience is meant to believe went on), after which Cage makes an observation on the lengths he goes to for his country that wasn’t particularly funny when it first was heard, in, yes, a James Bond movie.

Vin Diesel is going to be fifty this year. His body is still toned, but facially he’s starting to look like a cross between Harpo Marx and that poor fellow who played the Amazing Colossal Man. In medium close-ups, his head takes up two thirds of the screen. And his line readings haven’t gained added suavity over the years. Forcing his character to be what they used to call catnip to the ladies here is just a lot of leading-man aggrandizement that serves no end for the actual viewer.

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D.J. Caruso’s direction, for the most part, is second-tier Bayhem, with the camera swerving from a low angle as, say, a truck takes flight and pirouettes above it. However. The last forty minutes of the movie do come together in a pretty diverting way. Xander’s motley crew musters a “Ohana means family” vibe familiar to fans of the other franchise Diesel abandoned and then returned to, that “Fast and Furious” thing. There’s a bit of “A-Team” zaniness thrown in as well, and this makes the intercut parallel action sequences of the climax—with Xander’s crew on the ground while Diesel and Yen fight out the real bad guys on an intimidating government plane—work pretty well. And Yen, despite being cut away from too quickly, too often, really delivers the martial arts goods. (Diesel’s stunt double is frequently detectable.) There’s also a fun cameo I won’t spoil here, although I’ve seen a trailer that spoils it, but that’s life—it’s still kind of fun. And of course the whole thing ends with a setup for a sequel, which I hope gets to screens before Vin Diesel is about to hit sixty, although seeing him on a skateboard at that age might be pretty diverting. 


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