Paramount Pictures

xXx: Return of Xander Cage

xXx: Return of Xander Cage

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Somewhere along the way, Vin Diesel transformed from the seemingly accidental star of generically stupid films into the commanding leading man of transcendently delirious stupid ones, the kind that leave behind all laws of taste, logic, and fundamental physics in service of constantly trying to top themselves. In this respect, xXx: Return of Xander Cage has much in common with the last few Fast and Furious films: Diesel, having left the xXx franchise when his star dwindled, comes back to the amped-up series a changed man, the ugly duckling who didn’t shed the uncharismatic awkwardness of his early work so much as grow into it. Xander Cage, like Dominic Toretto, is a thrill junkie-cum-hero whose traits are best suited to a cocky twentysomething, yet the actor at last nails the character only in middle age.

Xander is reluctantly pulled out of hiding in the Dominican Republic when his old NSA recruiter, Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson), is killed by a satellite brought down from orbit by a hacking device known as Pandora’s Box, which has been stolen by a highly trained, impossible-to-trace team of criminals. The difference in Xander’s demeanor between the first and third film in the series is immediately apparent and says more about the shift in social perspective between 2002 and 2017 than the script’s occasional lapses into political commentary. Where xXx largely endorsed the surveillance state as a necessary reaction to WMDs and global terrorism, this film presents Xander as someone even less eager to work for the man than he was as a punk kid, and his wariness reflects a pervasive distrust of that same security apparatus in the wake of the last 15 years of foreign policy. Many of the film’s weakest moments come from drawing too much attention to this fact verbally when Diesel’s sardonic interactions with National Security Agency chief Jane Marke (Toni Collette) convey plenty of disgust without being too explicit.

The action builds to such a head that even the serious stakes of the film’s motivation give way to pleasant vibes.

In classic working-class-hero fashion, Xander immediately, and literally, jettisons the team of elite military soldiers assigned as his backup, opting instead to use his own crew. And what a team it is, resembling a group of people abducted from a Vans Warped Tour in 2004 and cryogenically frozen until they were needed again. Compared to the usual specialist variety brought to such teams, Xander’s crew is more personality-oriented than tactical: Tennyson Torch (Rory McCann), a madman crash enthusiast; Nicks (Kris Wu), a DJ whose talent, as listed in one of the film’s many freeze-frame fact sheets for its characters, is being “fun to be around”; Adele Wolff (Ruby Rose), a skilled sniper who’s simultaneously the most developed and stereotypical of the group. Adele is a cavalcade of pithy sayings framed by hot-blue, cropped hair—coded as sexually ambiguous in much the same way that you can spot a boat if you stare long enough at a J.M.W. Turner painting.

Return of Xander Cage’s supporting players don’t go in for monologues or backstories—all the better to leave more time for the action scenes. Director D.J. Caruso doesn’t adopt a single style for the film’s sequences, instead approaching each scene on its own terms. Thus the introduction of Xander skiing and skateboarding down a mountain to effectively steal cable on behalf of a Dominican village has a light-hearted, buoyant energy that’s missing in the elegant, coherent, but nonetheless swift choreography of Donnie Yen, who plays villainous ringleader Xiang. (On top of that, compare the longer shots afforded to Yen to the jagged editing that captures MMA star Michael Bisping, as henchman Hawk, nastily beating a guard.) Later sequences involve such highlights as Xander expanding his range of vehicles-as-weapons by fighting with a motorcycle, as well as a skirmish inside a plummeting plane that simulates zero gravity while a full-on battle rages on the ground below.

There are always limitations to this type of film. The dialogue frequently dips into humor at the level of a Roger Moore-era James Bond flick, and sometimes the plot, not to mention shot-to-shot continuity itself, breaks down as Caruso sprints from sequence to sequence. But such quibbles dissipate in the face of the giddiness of the action, which builds to such a relentless head that even the serious stakes of the film’s motivation give way to a largely pleasant vibe.

Some of those in Xander’s diverse crew are barely allowed to make an impression, but Deepika Padukone brings emphatic honor to the thieving Serena Unger and Yen pointedly makes clear that disgust, not money or power, is Xiang’s primary motive. Nina Dobrev is also great as Becky, Xander’s enthusiastic and unfiltered supply specialist, but it may be Collette who stands out above all others as the laconic but domineering Marke: She plays such an ice queen that it looks like her hair froze to her scalp. The original film’s Russian villains (who ironically seem much more relevant today) are forgettable, but Collette makes Marke stick as an ostensible good guy whose detached, bureaucratic indifference is the best attempt to date of a blockbuster to reflect the vacant, unfeeling soul of the surveillance apparatus.

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DVD | Soundtrack
Distributor
Paramount Pictures
Runtime
107 min
Rating
PG-13
Year
2017
Director
D.J. Caruso
Screenwriter
F. Scott Frazier
Cast
Vin Diesel, Donnie Yen, Deepika Padukone, Kris Wu, Ruby Rose, Tony Jaa, Toni Collette, Nina Dobrev, Samuel L. Jackson