‘xXx: The Return of Xander Cage’ Review

xxx-the-returnI won’t pretend I have any idea what goes on in Vin Diesel’s mind, but now he’s made all of the money with the resurgence of the Fast & Furious films the producer-star has revealed that he apparently wishes to resurrect the other properties he led early in his career, first with 2013’s awful Riddick sequel/reboot, and now he’s turned his eyes on xXx, his mostly forgotten 2002 “extreme sports James Bond” actioner that started another franchise he promptly exited after a single film. Who knows why, but he has the clout to get it made, so get it made he will.

Similarly, he has no such concerns about the fact that his character, tattoo-covered, anti-authority extreme sports enthusiast Xander Cage was unceremoniously killed off screen in the even lesser-remembered, Ice Cube starring 2005 sequel, xXx: State of the Union, as he soon reveals that he faked his death to go back off the grid, now living it up in the Dominican Republic. However, when a rogue satellite crashes to Earth, seemingly deliberately, high ranking CIA Agent Jane Marke (Toni Collette, presumably picking up a large paycheck for playing a standard unlikeable authority figure) tracks him down to recruit him to the Triple X program once again.

Soon, it becomes quite obvious what Vin is trying to do with this film, to repeat the fluke resurrection and ascension of the Fast & Furious movies. He has one problem though, while they were always more ensemble focused, xXx revolved entirely around him, so he needs a team. He’s hired a commendable diverse, international bunch of actors to make up his potential new crew, including Tony Jaa, Deepika Padukone, Kris Wu and Nina Dobrev. Some of them bring obviously useful skills to the table, such as Ruby Rose’s sharpshooter, others totally baffling (Game of Thrones’ Rory McCann plays an associate whose primary skill appears to be crashing his car into things with himself inside). Unfortunately, while some get a few good moments here and there, none are given anything close to equal footing with Diesel himself, who remains front and centre throughout and completely lacks the charisma required to carry a big franchise solo.

There is another aspect to Vin’s ego that’s more troublesome, and more prevalent than ever in this movie though, and that’s his apparent desire to cast himself as being completely irresistible to women. There’s nothing quite as nauseating as Riddick’s implied lesbian conversion moment here, but at every stage of the movie, attractive young women just throw themselves at him. After his introduction the film cuts to him getting it on with an attractive young local in the Dominican Republic, then later he literally has sex with 4 women at once, none of whom have even spoken to him previously, then makes a cringe-worth quip about “the things he does for his country”. When he meets perky tech-girl Becky (Dobrev) she fawns over him so much she’s barely able to construct a sentence, and on top of all this the film attempts to thread a thoroughly unconvincing romantic sub-plot in which Padukone completely falls for him after briefly bonding over his nipple tattoo (no joke!). Bear in mind as well that all these women are around half the age of Vin, who turns 50 this year, and coupled with his aforementioned complete lack of any discernible onscreen charm, it goes way beyond excessive self-indulgence.

Maybe I’m too harsh on Vin though, as he is again, like with Fast Five, willing to cast a primary co-star who is more talented than him in every conceivable respect; in this case Donnie Yen. Yen plays the primary antagonist and is the only other star to get an amount of screen time close to Diesel’s. He’s in pretty much all the best action scenes and actually gets a fairly interesting character arc to boot. You might wonder why they don’t just make Yen the actual lead in a film like this but then again that’s Hollywood for you.

The actual plot of the film is barely relevant; it involves the team searching in various locations around the globe for an unimaginatively named McGuffin called ‘Pandora’s Box’, which is able to make satellites crash to Earth as happens at the film’s opening. It’s all over the place regarding who’s chasing who for a lot of the time, several characters switch from being good guys to bad guys throughout the film and vice versa.

Ludicrous, over the top action scenes are what’s really required of this film though, and it partially delivers on that. Director D.J. Caruso (Disturbia, I am Number Four) stages a few such moments, with an amphibious jet-ski chase through crashing waves and an early infiltration scene being the stand-outs, but they’re never as big, inventive or silly enough to take this film to the heights it need to reach to justify its existence. There is admittedly still some fun to be had with the climactic action scene which also boasts a surprise cameo that could have come across as a cop-out but works very well in context here.

At the time of writing, I don’t know if this film has generated enough success to warrant the follow-up it’s so blatantly hoping for, as a quasi-reboot that embraces most of what came before while introducing some better new characters, it might be able to generate a superior sequel in a Fast & Furious – Fast Five manner, and there’s enough potential in this new group for that if they up the action ante a bit, but overall I’m not left with much desire at all to see more of Xander Cage himself, which probably wasn’t quite the desired effect.

2.5/5

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