xXx: Return of Xander Cage (2017)

xXx: Return of Xander Cage (2017)

Kick some ass, get the girl, and try to look dope while you’re doing it.

Considering that Vin Diesel has become something of a modern-day action icon, it’s hard to believe that he almost blew several of his best chances at a franchise after 2002’s xXx. Hot off the heels of Rob Cohen’s The Fast and the Furious (2001), Diesel (once again) paired up with the (then) crowd-pleasing Cohen to embrace the over-the-top potential of what might happen if James Bond swapped his martini for a Pepsi Max — and I, for one, simply loved it. xXx was, and still is, an absolute hoot. It knows exactly what it is and delivers the practical stunt ‘goods’ in a great well-rounded action-packed flick (for over-the-top fun, it’s actually one of my faves).

What happened after was, well, a bit bizarre, with Diesel refusing to do sequels for both The Fast and the Furious and xXx, this apparently due to unsatisfactory scripts and perhaps even a bit of ego, with Diesel blasting off into space for another franchise in misfire The Chronicles of Riddick (2004). This meant leaving one series in the hands of the late Paul Walker, Into the Blue (2005), and the other to … Ice Cube, 22 Jump Street (2014).

Despite his limitations as an actor, I like Cube and he did manage to invest a bit of the required ‘attitude’ to make xXx: The Next Level (2005) a silly ‘six pack ‘n pizza’ Saturday night movie (just don’t try to make sense of the plot, it’s actually never clear at all). Thing is, it’s hard to get past the fact that ‘xXx’ is Vin Diesel (it’s what’s tattooed on the back of his neck after all) and his extreme sports loving character is what made the original such a blast.

'You had a pretty big cameo ... but I just ate it up ...'

‘You had a pretty big cameo … but I just ate it up …’

And blast is what they did to poor Xander Cage in the ‘so bad it’s good’ short The Final Chapter: The Death of Xander Cage (2005), which is worth watching if only to see how much the producers were hating on Vin Diesel’s attitude at the time, grabbing his stunt double Khristian Lupo, Blade (1998), shaving his head and shooting him from angles that never showed his face — a technique akin to z-grade director Ed Wood’s way of keeping actor Bela Lugosi ‘alive’ after his passing.

Following the emotional marathon required to complete and release Furious 7 (2015) in the wake of Paul Walker’s tragic death, Diesel apparently wanted to kick back and have fun again, this leading him to finally commit to a real xXx sequel. While a reunion with director Rob Cohen was on the cards, it disappointingly never came to be, the project eventually falling into the hands of a director I love to hate — D.J. Caruso, I Am Number Four (2011).

If you look at Caruso’s filmography, you may come to see much conceptual potential, but if you actually watch the movies themselves, you’ll find that despite some style, they’re a real fizzle-fest — one example is Eagle Eye (2008) which could’ve been a scary paranoia thriller for the noughties, but instead, winds up as laughably disposable. I will say that while hardly memorable, Caruso’s Two for the Money (2005) is, at least, consistent, possibly due to its script, written by the reliable Dan Gilroy, Nightcrawler (2014). So how did Caruso go with Return of Xander Cage? Not bad actually! The plot goes a little something like this …

'Things are about to get Vinsane ...'

‘Things are about to get Vinsane …’

A satellite crashes into a Brazilian cafe, killing NSA Agent Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson) while he’s attempting to recruit star footballer Neymar Jr. (who’s playing himself) into the xXx program. But this was no accident. You see, there’s a device called ‘Pandora’s Box’ that allows its user to crash satellites into Earth (sorta like warheads). While addressing the troubling situation to her colleagues, CIA Agent Jane Marke (Toni Collette) is attacked by four individuals — martial artists Xiang (Donnie Yen) and Talon (Tony Jaa), all-round fighter Hawk (Michael Bisping) and the brains of the operation Serena Unger (Deepika Padukone) — who steal Pandora’s Box in the process.

Desperate to retrieve the dangerous tech, Marke tracks down the apparently deceased Xander Cage (Vin Diesel), who’s living off the grid in the Dominican Republic, urging him back into his former ‘xXx’ role. Cage agrees on the condition that he can recruit his own team to help out — enter punk sniper Adele Wolff (Ruby Rose), ‘sick’ DJ Nicks (Kris Wu), and wild stunt driver Tennyson Torch (Rory McCann). As the two opposing teams come to a head, it soon becomes apparent that there is a far bigger threat looming over their shoulders, one which calls the very existence of Pandora’s Box into question.

Let’s get a few things out of the way — xXx: Return of Xander Cage is goofy as hell with a handful of the actors playing it way too ‘badass’ to the point where some of it doesn’t work. Celebrated Aussie actress Toni Collette, The Sixth Sense (1999), dials in what could go down as the worst performance of her career as the ever-frowning monotone CIA Agent Jane Marke — she looks uncomfortable and only seems interested in the paycheck. Additionally, I would’ve liked to have seen more of Samuel L. Jackson, The Hateful Eight (2015), as he’s clearly having a blast in his few scenes, his character Augustus Gibbons being as much of a xXx staple as Xander Cage himself. I’m not sure as to the reasons behind the dramatic shrinking of his presence, but it’s a shame nonetheless.

X Marks the Spot

X Marks the Spot

xXx: Return of Xander Cage is over-the-top and crazy — I burst out laughing while watching Vin Diesel and Donnie Yen chase one another on motorbikes … on the ocean … into a wave. But this kind of stunt work is what xXx is all about, so it’s either an enthused ‘surf’s up!’ or maybe skip this one altogether. If you can embrace that amount of ridiculousness, you’ll find this to be pretty good ‘bang for your buck’ whichever way you look at it. Directing wise, D.J. Caruso keeps the thrills coming at a decent pace while utilizing some lovely locations including a stunning beach in the Philippines and a tall, hair-raising mountain in the Dominican Republic. The MacGuffin, ‘Pandora’s Box,’ is so amusingly stupid that it doesn’t ever feel like the stakes are especially high, but hey, this is a fluffy popcorn flick after all and would feel right at home in a drive-in cinema for instance.

Although the subtitle reads Return of Xander Cage, this is an ensemble piece, taking its narrative cues from the team vs. team aspects of Fast & Furious 6 (2013). That said, this one has something for everybody, whether it’s the daring stunts of Diesel, the gunplay of rising star Ruby Rose, Around the Block (2013), and Deepika Padukone, Chennai Express (2013), the slick martial arts of Donnie Yen and Tony Jaa, Furious 7 (2015), or … the standing around of Rory McCann, Game of Thrones (2011), and Kris Wu, Sweet Sixteen (2016). With this otherwise honorable attempt to gather an action cast on the scale of The Expendables 2 (2012), it’s probably inevitable that there would be a few superfluous additions — if someone can explain to me the importance of recruiting a DJ and a driver who just wants to crash himself into things, I’d love to hear it. Infamous UFC fighter Conor McGregor would’ve been a great presence had he not dropped out, but Michael Bisping steps up, doing okay as tough guy Hawk.

'Russian Roulette anyone?'

‘Russian Roulette anyone?’

Ironically, with all these added side players, Xander Cage himself is actually quite irrelevant. There’s nothing especially unique about him when you have equally daring types who can run about the big backdrops. Cage may be a welcome conduit for the other characters to orbit around (and unashamedly worship during the most cringe-worthy moments), but outside of a thrilling solo mission that reintroduces him atop of a relay tower, you could probably use just about any other team member to get the same results.

Thrown in for pure eye candy are Hermione Corfield, Fallen (2016), in a hilariously unnecessary bedroom seduction scene and Nina Dobrev, Let’s Be Cops (2014), who perhaps overplays the cute, sheltered nerd in CIA Agent Becky Clearidge — a character to replace series quartermaster Toby Lee Shavers, in the aftermath of actor Michael Roof’s death. (I gotta hand it to him, Caruso knows how to cast the hotties). Finally, for the sake of good will and franchise potential, there’s even a well-timed cameo by Ice Cube, which certainly entices a wild series ahead. Can we throw rapper DMX in there somewhere, too, so we can get a new version of ‘X Gon’ Give It To Ya’?

From this massive cast, only two particularly stand out. The first is Donnie Yen, riding high on the success of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2015) and finally cracking the American mainstream in a way that he just couldn’t back in the early 2000’s with Blade II (2002) being his closest shot yet. Here, Yen demonstrates his flexible stunt skills and a charisma which isn’t as annoyingly ‘look at me!’ showy as it was back in Highlander: Endgame (2000). I sincerely hope the opportunities he gets next will use the best of him and avoid the dreaded bargain basement disposability of some martial arts stars. The second of note is Melbourne DJ-turned-actress Ruby Rose. She looks great, has an effortless charisma and has an all-in commitment to her turn as cheeky sniper Adele Wolff. Give this woman her own action series pronto.

A crash course in the Xtreme!

A crash course in the Xtreme!

As far as the prospect of checking this one out, you’ll already know which end of the spectrum you’re on — either eye-rolling and groans or a curious smirk. For me, it was definitely the latter. As Ruby Rose so gleefully spells it out for us in the trailers — ‘Guns, girls, global domination … Xander Cage is back!’

3 / 5 – Good

Reviewed by Steve Ramsie

xXx: Return of Xander Cage is released through Paramount Pictures Australia