Review – The Ironic Goofiness of xXx: Return of Xander Cage

The Ironic Goofiness of xXx: Return of Xander Cage

An enjoyably bad action movie that also gets points for inclusion.

When the original xXx opened in 2002, Pierce Brosnan was still playing James Bond, a character relatively unchanged for decades. So the Vin Diesel-led action movie began with the satirical death of a tuxedoed 007 type before introducing his Xander Cage as a cool spy for a new generation. He had tribal tattoos, a real problem with authority, and a snowboard instead of boring old skis. He was Extreme.

Fifteen years later, past a forgettable 2005 sequel that Diesel skipped out on, xXx: Return of Xander Cage seems to have no purpose. In Cage’s absence, Bond has gotten grittier, numerous other spy movies from the Bourne franchise to the hip Kingsman: The Secret Service have additionally taken over, and frankly the Harold and Kumar movies lampooned the extreme sports dudes thing to a point where they couldn’t be any more ridiculous.

Or so I thought. There’s a moment in Return of Xander Cage where Diesel is pursuing Donnie Yen to retrieve the movie’s MacGuffin, and they’re both on motorbikes that suddenly sprout skis as the chase continues into the sea, then they climax the sequence by tube-rinding a wave on those ski-bikes in what might supplant both Escape From L.A.’s surfing bit and Die Another Day’s tsunami stunt as the silliest of its kind for all time.

There is a great irony to the action of Return of Xander Cage, the plot of which is not even worth exploring in this review. Just as any dance musical or martial arts movie should showcase the moves of their stars with as little editing as possible, so should stunts of the sort we should find in the xXx franchise. Extreme sports are physically impressive. They’re unbelievable but real. The action sequences in this movie are instead some of the worst offenders against the laws of physics using sloppy green screen ever seen.

Among the bonkers moments in Return of Xander Cage there’s the sequence where the title character skis down a Brazilian jungle mountainside – though only slightly less laughable is the immediately subsequent image of the nearly 50-year-old Diesel skateboarding downhill – and there’s the time where he jumps over whole cars while fighting in the middle of a highway. Much of the time it looks like the characters are in the Matrix rather than the real world.

Maybe Diesel, who is also a producer, figured the best way to bring xXx back and compete with stuff like Kingsman and his own Fast and Furious is to go full ludicrous (as opposed to full Ludacris). There’s definitely a comparison to make with the latter movies, which Diesel also helped kick off before dropping out after one movie only to return later. And which are contrarily celebrated for their practical stunt spectacles (put their cargo plane sequences side by side and it’s downright embarrassing). The first xXx has a very similar Point Break-ish extreme-dudes-gang infiltration plot. In this movie, Cage has a diverse team not unlike the one assembled in the later Fast and Furious movies, though there’s no special relationship with any on the level of his bond with Paul Walker’s character.

There are highlights among the ensemble, including Game of ThronesRory McCann as an xXx operative obsessed with crashing vehicles, Ruby Rose as a smart-ass sniper, and Thai action icon Tony Jaa as a sort of high energy henchman who seems to have leaped right out of a video game or cartoon. Or a heightened, over-the-top Chinese action blockbuster, which could be the tone aimed for here. Unfortunately, if so, it’s still not wacky enough.

And then there are those we could do without, including Toni Collette’s perpetually eye-rolling intelligence agency head and former kpop boy band star Kris Wu as an xXx operative whose specialty is DJing. As in, that’s not just his subculture background; his one contribution as a team member seems to be hitting the turntables to fire up a crowd as an obstacle for bad guys. Indian megastar Deepika Padukone is a mixed bag, most of the time just there to look gorgeous, but she does get in some decent action at times.

The cosmopolitan casting of Return of Xander Cage, even more than other action movies of late, including the worldly mix in the Fast and Furious movies, is not just good for global box office. It’s a good way to appeal to foreign audiences, yet it’s also a good way to introduce Americans to foreign talent like Padukone and Yen, maybe leading to viewings of their better movies, such as those where Yen’s skills are properly showcased.

The Return Of Xander Cage is 2017’s First Essential Film

Winning the most points on inclusion, however, is Rose’s rare Queer action hero, a character who is a delight from her entrance as a hunter of lion hunters to one of the few presumably practically achieved stunts, involving her disembarking a treetop perch. If this attempt to resurrect the xXx franchise is a success and there wind up being more sequels, Diesel could take another break and let her lead an installment. Please. Or at least keep her on as an essential component. She’s reason enough for further returns.

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