xXx: Return of Xander Cage is a Glorious Mess [Review]

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When does a film transcend its actual substance and become about what it wants to be, or even what it could be? It shouldn’t right? A film is a film; the rest is hype.

I find the substance of xXx: Return of Xander Cage to be wanting. To a certain extent, it feels like Paramount looked at the Fast & Furious movies, realized that Vin Diesel also did a successful movie for them a while back that was supposed to launch a franchise, and brought him in to dust it off and recapture the magic. The problem is, a lot of that Furious magic comes from getting to know those characters over several entertaining movies. (Hell, the series didn’t really click for me until Fast Five.) xXx, as a franchise, has one movie that didn’t age particularly well, and one (State of the Union) that didn’t have a chance to age because it was so godawful that we, as a country, managed to put aside our differences and near-collectively agree that it never existed. On top of that gross disadvantage, the movie feels overcrowded, overplotted, and overedited. It’s like the filmmakers, in the XXXTREME spirit this movie wants to project, applied the “anything worth doing is worth overdoing” philosophy in all the wrong places.

I loved it anyway.

I loved it, to paraphrase Dorothy Boyd, for the movie it wants to be and the movie it almost is, and for all it gets wrong, I feel like invoking white-bread chick flick Jerry Maguire in my review is suitable payback.

Let’s start by talking about what exactly it gets wrong. The MacGuffin of the movie is a piece of hacker equipment that CIA/NSA/Whatever-A agent Jane Marke (Toni Collette) calls “Pandora’s Box” because fuck it, it sounds ominous. Pandora’s Box has the power to take control of any one of the thousands of satellites within Earth’s orbit and send it crashing back down. This is how Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson) gets taken off the board at the beginning of the film; Deep Blue Sea-style, in the middle of a pitch to a prospective agent. Marke figures that Xander Cage is going to have something to say about his mentor’s death, so she quickly tracks him down and brings him back into the fold to hunt down the crew (Donnie Yen, Deepika Padukone, Tony Jaa) that stole Pandora’s Box. Xander agrees, on the condition that he recruits his own team: super-sniper Adele (Ruby Rose), batshit stunt driver Torch (Rory McCann), and Nicks (Kris Wu), who is…a DJ. That’s it. Hilarity, double-crosses, and extreme sports-as-spycraft ensue.

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One of the many, many things I dinged the Kevin Costner thriller Criminal for last year was its needlessly complicated plot with multiple antagonists, and Return of Xander Cage ends up having a similar issue. Credit where it’s due, this movie is not content to rehash the plot of its progenitor, and it’s not nearly as much of a problem here, even though the logic of this thing seems to be held together with a single strained safety pin. Still, my conversation with Max about The Last Boy Scout comes to mind, where he theorizes that simple, straightforward plots give movies more room to establish and arc their characters. That certainly couldn’t have hurt here, for reasons I’ll expound upon in a moment.

The bigger problem is that the “action” part of this action film fails to deliver. Director D.J. Caruso shoots much of the action in close-ups, cutting too quickly to allow the audience to absorb the full impact of what’s happening on screen. The approach is similar to the original Bourne trilogy (Dan Bradley, the 2nd unit director/stunt coordinator of Paul Greengrass’ Bourne films, was Caruso’s action guy here), but instead of conveying a sense of chaos, it just feels chaotic. Potentially awesome beats feel lesser because there’s no momentum behind them, and there’s no momentum because there’s no buildup, no established rhythm, no clear idea of what the hell is going on. As bad as that is on its own, there’s a particularly special place in hell for filmmakers who pull that shit in works that co-star Donnie “Ip Man” Yen and/or Tony “The Protector” Jaa.

Crazy action is all this movie has to offer at first glance; you’re not buying your ticket for the sumptuous production design, the clever and culturally relevant plotting, or Vin Diesel’s chameleonic acting talents. If the movie can’t satisfy the audience on the very simple goal of “kick some ass, get the girl, and try to look dope while doing it,” there’s no value to it.

At least, you would think.

This is what vexes me about Return of Xander Cage: it gets more wrong than right by far, but what it gets right very nearly makes up the difference. The opening scene of the film is Gibbons bringing a prospective agent (soccer superstar Neymar, acting as a proxy for the audience; we are literally in his POV when the movie starts) up to speed on what xXx is via a fantastic monologue that invokes Dogtown and Z-Boys. Title cards fill in the rest of the blanks; normally an obnoxious device, they do a good job of establishing the film’s relaxed, slightly self-aware attitude. (This movie had me, for instance, when Neymar’s card revealed that he thought he was joining The Avengers.)

That’s the watchword here: Attitude. Not necessarily the kind that comes with the lifestyle the xXx films romanticize, but the kind that comes with a thorough understanding of the film being made. It’s as much of a curse as a blessing, as it leads to the sort of complacency that probably kept this film from being as good as it could have been. But with that understanding comes a refusal to take itself too seriously. There’s a scene where the man who stole Pandora’s Box reveals himself to be Augustus’ killer, and he’s got a big ol’ monologue prepared to explain his motivations. Yet we only hear bits and pieces of it because the film keeps cutting back to Adele, trying to get a bead on the guy through her sniper scope, and Xander, who keeps trying to quietly guide her while he goads this jackass into running his mouth. We don’t get the whole thing because we don’t need the whole thing; it’s the same old “did you know the government is actually EVIL?” speech you’ve heard a million times before, and the film’s essentially making the same jerkoff motion that you would if you were forced to listen to the whole thing. It’s that kind of attitude that makes issues like the incoherent seat-of-the-pants plotting easier to excuse than it normally would be. More importantly, though, it gives the cast more room to play.

Casting is the other thing this movie gets right in a big, big way. Obviously, Diesel is Diesel; if you can’t roll with him, then you’re probably not interested in this movie anyway. The best I can say about him is that he makes you forget he’s pushing 50 even though his character pulls stunts most people outgrow in their mid-thirties. Donnie Yen turns out to be an inspired choice for a heavy; he and Diesel develop a fun rapport between their characters that’s based on an ever-growing mutual respect. Ruby Rose walks away with nearly every scene she’s in. It’s not that there’s anything particularly inventive about her character (aside from her being openly gay); she just plays the archetype real damn well. And Nina Dobrev is clearly having a blast as both the Q and the Moneypenny of the team. Her Becky is “Hollywood geeky,” but again, the film is very aware of that and gives her a flirtatious edge that Dobrev is more than game to play.

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Those are the standouts, but really, the whole cast just works. Even when they don’t have much to do—like, regrettably, Tony Jaa—they’ll find ways to stand out in what little screentime they have, creating fun, whole characters with tiny little brushstrokes. Padukone is the only one that comes up short; she plays Xander’s love interest in the film and is saddled with the bulk of its moral argument. It’s the kind of character we’ve seen in a million other action movies, and for whatever reason, Padukone just can’t do anything interesting with it. Still, she’s not extraneous, and even at her worst, she merely comes off as “the other boss bitch in the crew.” That’s not much of a shame when the rest of the cast is lifting so much weight.

That’s what won me over in the end. The end of the film, while definitive in its own way, sets up a path for the franchise going forward. And I realized that even though I was ultimately disappointed by Return of Xander Cage, I would absolutely be down to watch another xXx, even with the same writer and director attached. These characters are just too much fun to be around, and the anti-authoritarian themes of the series feel more necessary than ever.

But, you know, if Paramount could get the next one directed by someone who knows how to shoot action, like Tim Miller, David Leitch, or hell, Francis Lawrence? Even better.

xXx: Return of Xander Cage is in theaters now.

Post By Chuck Winters (42 Posts)

Film school graduate who never learned how to bitterly hate half of everything he watches. He lives in noted cultural hotspot Suburban Long Island, where he is working on his first novel.

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