Film, Film Review

REVIEW: xXx: Return of Xander Cage (2017) dir. D. J. Caruso

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Vin Diesel is a cultural anomaly. From an offbeat turn in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) to a recurring role in the absurd yet fun series of Fast & Furious films, he continues to coast through a subpar career with little interest in advancing.

The exception here is Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016), a film which Vin was keen on promoting through his social media presence, Vinbook, in late 2016. I’m not entirely convinced his involvement expresses a desire to transition his career to something more serious and involved, or if it was simply, as Vinbook claimed, a desire to work with Lee and his role model, Steve Martin.

xXx: Return of Xander Cage (2017) throws a wrench in my understanding of Vin. From his clearly-drunk interview to his shamelessly over-the-top promotion of the picture, I knew I was in for a different beast this time. I knew the sweet, lovable bald man I knew from Vinbook and the “family” oriented Furious films had clocked out in favor of someone more masculine and, in turn, someone more vile. 

For the uninitiated, the original xXx (2002) debuted as a response to the boring nature of spy-action films. It was an explicit attack on the James Bond films of this era (presumably those of Pierce Brosnan), to create something more thrilling, more active, and less wordy, thanks to Vin’s Xander Cage character, an expert in BMX and high-velocity sports.

But with several Bond films defying the convention of the prim and proper hero thanks to Daniel Craig and company, I’m left wondering why we needed the xXx series to return this time. This film does little to convince me it had any intention beyond doing the exact same shit it did fifteen years ago, as it plays beat for beat like something straight out of the early 2000s. And I guess if there’s one thing this movie must be applauded for, it’s the fact that it somehow emulates that same overproduced schlock I saw over a decade ago.

So, as I sat through the first hour of the film, I thought whatever this film was responding to was lost in translation. xXx had failed to bring anything new to the table.

But as the explosions went on and on, I realized… this wasn’t a response to spy films.

It’s a response to the superhero genre.

***SPOILERS AHEAD***

Let’s read this plot for a second…

Samuel L Jackson’s character, Augustus Gibbons, was an agent who put together a specialized program of highly-trained sports-savvy agents called xXx. In the first few minutes of the film he is apparently vaporized by a terrorist attack conducted by hacking into satellites and sending them crashing into earth. This prompts some big government meeting which is inevitably ambushed by Donnie Yen’s Xiang, the supposed villain of the film who later reveals that he is also part of the xXx program in a bait-and-switch move that leaves us with a shittier one-dimensional villain.

Cut to Xander Cage doing dumb shit. He’s taken by the government and told he has to save the day. They give him a flying base within some souped-up airplane and ask him to form a team. This devolves into a ten minute sequence that feels very much like the first twenty minutes of Suicide Squad (2016), in which we’re introduced to the other avengers, played by Ruby Rose, Rory McCann, and Tony Jaa. Xander greets them and they go to save the day through over-done theatrics and a world-spanning journey.

Cut to the ending, where we learn Sam Jackson is secretly not dead (much like another film series in which he faked his death).

***SPOILERS OVER***

I guess I’m just confused why this franchise had to go this way (and why it had to come back at all) when the Fast & Furious films do this so much better. The final scenes of Furious 7 feel more like a superhero film than the entirety of xXx; the action is more outlandish, the characters are fun, and the direction actually went somewhere instead of providing the audience with gratuitous scenes of “implied” sex (example: Xander wakes in a pile of 30 women and walks away with a smile) and horrible one-liners.

I wanted to have fun here, I really did. I’m a sucker for dumb action films if they can win me over with some charm. But xXx simply tries too hard, between Vin Diesel’s cringeworthy acting, Ruby Rose’s borderline-predatory behavior, and action scenes that felt like they were ripped straight out of Sonic Adventure 2 – I’m looking at you, opening ski scene.

As an aside, my other gripes with this whole thing include the film’s millennial character, who is socially inept and faces Xander’s advances with lines like “I know mouth to mouth if necessary.” Likewise, the soundtrack is just garbage (with the exception of one Ice Cube song) and Toni Collette sucks in this movie and the technology makes no sense and everything looks like it was borrowed from 2002 and… This movie sucks.

That’s not to say there isn’t one moment of clarity. This film gets something right.

***SPOILER AHEAD***

There’s a scene near the end of the film where the main characters are pinned down by a Call of Duty-esque battle in which people are blindly firing guns and the action revolves around shooting and rolling to cover. Thankfully, this ends with my favorite reveal of Ice Cube’s character, Darius Stone, returning with a grenade launcher and a one-liner that will go down in action film history…

“Rock, paper, scissors… grenade launcher.”

His inclusion was a welcome change, as it broke the action, provided a genuine surprise for viewers, and made members of the audience laugh for once. It was honestly the most sincere and charming moment. This continues in the exchange between Xander and Darius as they talk about riding off together and looking for the next big mission. It’s an ending that felt right out of a film where many things felt wrong. Unfortunately, there was still another seven minutes afterwards, thereby short-selling any shot of Ice Cube and Vin Diesel riding off together to be best buddies and stuff.

Thinking back, that’s the movie I wish I saw – a Vin Diesel and Ice Cube road trip.

But I guess this all brings me to my original point: I have no idea who Vin Diesel is.

I once saw him as what this film offers: a jackass with guns and bad acting. He was just another gross masculine icon of the early 90’s flaunting muscles over intelligence.

Only recently (in the past 3 years) has that view been challenged with his response to Paul Walker’s death, the amount of emotion he’s shown in the public eye, and the continuing revelations we hear about him, either through Vinbook or other media outlets. I ask myself almost daily whether this sincere picture of him is genuine, or if it is the cover for obnoxiously toxic behavior. In short, what makes Vin Diesel tick?

I’ll never know why Vin does what he does or why he’s passionate about playing assholes in film. I somehow still support him unconditionally after seeing his sweetness but… I have to acknowledge his shortcomings and apparent inability to pick a project that will get him anywhere off the ground.

For now, I can only say with confidence that xXx: Return of Xander Cage is one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. It’s not fun and it will mentally hurt you how dumb everything is.


Anyways, here’s hoping you find your way, Vin. I’m rooting for you (maybe).

xXx: The Return of Xander Cage
2017
dir. D.J. Caruso
107 min.

Now playing at Your Favorite Multiplex!

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