Thursday, February 02, 2017


It’s safe to say the world didn’t need another sequel to XXX, nor did it probably want one. After all, the novelty of watching an extreme sports spy adventure wore off about 45 minutes into the thuddingly bland 2002 original. So why does The Return of Xander Cage exist then, you ask? Well, based purely on the evidence at hand, it exists entirely to serve as a big dumb tribute to the glowing majesty of Vin Diesel. For this movie argues the 49-year-old action star (who also produced) is both our greatest living athlete and a breathtaking specimen of pure perfection. Oh, and he’s utterly irresistible to all women, despite the fact the film’s love scenes have about as much carnal passion and raw sexuality as the famous Seinfeld bit where Kramer makes out with an Elaine mannequin. I’ll leave it to you to determine who the mannequin in this equation is. 

To be fair, Diesel in midlife crisis mode still usually works. But does it work here? Not so much, sadly. The problem really lies in the fact that, whereas the star’s Fast and Furious franchise has matured and evolved with the times, the XXX series has not. Yes, the family theme has been majorly boosted, with an appealingly diverse, albeit hit-or-miss, supporting cast put in place, yet the movie itself feels like a B-level effort from the last decade. The dialogue and scripting by F. Scott Frazier is flat at best, groan-inducing and dimly misogynistic at worst, and there’s not much wit or imagination to make up for the overwhelming lunk-headedness of the entire endeavor. If you’re not going to push the insanity of the dopey premise to feverishly crazy places, why really bother?

The Return of Xander Cage does raise hopes in its early moments, though, as we’re introduced to its apparent antagonists; a badass parkouring quartet of wild cards (Donnie Yen, Deepika Padukone, Tony Jaa and Michael Bisping) who crash CIA headquarters in order to steal an electronic gadget called Pandora’s Box. What is this all-important McGuffin, pray tell? It’s a handheld electronic device capable of bringing down satellites like guided missiles. All that really matters, however, is that CIA head honcho Jane Marke (Toni Collette, camping it up like a true pro) wants it back and recognizes there’s only one man capable of retrieving it.

She finds our tattooed savior in Latin America, where he’s performing Robin Hood-like feats for local villages using little more than a skateboard and, uh, snow skis. Although reluctant to re-align with the government, Cage ultimately enlists, bringing with him an alternative-styled squad of his own: sharpshooter Ruby Rose, madman driver Rory McCann, nerdy techie Nina Dobrev and rave DJ (yes, you read that correctly) Kris Wu. While the mission seems pretty straight forward at first, it’s isn’t long before the two opposing sides’ relentless series of stunt spectaculars and acrobatic displays of hyperkinetic fisticuffs give way to the staggering revelation there could be more going on than they initially realized. Gadzooks!

Unlike Rob Cohen’s series opener, or Lee Tamahori’s deservedly forgotten Ice Cube-led sequel State of the Union, The Return of Xander Cage actually manages to deliver a memorable action beat or two. The showcase sequences, such as Diesel’s aforementioned jungle skiing/skateboarding getaway, and a massive ocean-bound motorcycle chase between him and Yen, are cleanly staged by director D.J. Caruso (Eagle Eye) – who was previously notorious for his over-frenzied and incoherent on-screen action – and don’t suffer from the cartoony CG overload that occasionally sneaks in to the later bits. Sure, their overt goofiness detracts from any potential exhilaration, nevertheless they’re different and represent the film’s rare willingness to think outside the box. And it’s impossible to ignore the fact they all occur in the first half, leaving a second hour that relies far more on boring shoot-outs and passably-shot brawling. The climax, aboard a jumbo jet, offers some fun ideas without ever quite delivering the knock out we hope for.

Whereas Diesel’s engaging credibility as a physical presence is indisputable, he lacks the light touch charisma to really pull off this breed of character. He’s better at playing more emotionally burdened figures like Dom Toretto or Riddick, where his rumbling vocal affectations and tortured moodiness tap into a certain poetic tough guy gravitas. Xander Cage lacks those qualities, and relies more on playful flash and verve to get by. The actor does what he can with very dated material, firing off terrible puns and dire jokes dutifully, but never truly commands the screen like he should. Instead of being the magnetic anchor the movie needs, like spiritual predecessor James Bond, he’s often totally overshadowed by more compelling players like Yen, Collette, Samuel L. Jackson or his absurdly fluffy coat.

Unlike 2011’s fantastically amusing Fast Five, XXX: The Return of Xander Cage fails to succeed in its bid to persuade us this is a Diesel franchise in need of a renaissance. Back in 2002 the first entry attempted to advertise to the world that Bond was a tired relic in need of a more youthful and edgier replacement, and now we have a third sequel that seems to unconsciously aspire to ape the final Pierce Brosnan 007 film Die Another Day. That ain’t progress and it sure isn’t relevant, no matter how much hip hop music you add to the mix.

2 out of 5