XXX: State of the Union
United States, 2005
U.S. Release Date:
PG-13 (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Theatrical Aspect Ratio:
Ice Cube, Willem Dafoe, Samuel L. Jackson, Scott Speedman, Peter Strauss, Nona Gaye, Sunny Mabrey
Where's the Kryptonite?
What many movie producers fail to realize is that one of the keys to making a superhero interesting is to give him an Achilles heel - Kryptonite, so to speak. And one of the big problems with XXX: State of the Union is that the protagonist is essentially invincible. He has no weaknesses. During those rare moments when he finds himself in a tight scrape, we have no doubt he will come out blasting. This isn't Indiana Jones, with his numerous too-human failings. This is The Terminator, only without the snappy one-liners and the weird accent. How can there possibly be suspense when the outcome is never in doubt?
In order to construct this train crash of a movie, the producers have brought on board director Lee Tamahori, the man who single-handedly brought the James Bond franchise to a (temporary) screeching halt with his inept direction of Die Another Day. While the XXX movies don't yet classify as a "franchise," Tamahori makes Rob Cohen's first installment appear stronger by comparison. This isn't the finest hour for anyone involved, including Tamahori, who has on his resume the gut-wrenching drama Once Were Warriors.
Few action films are grounded in reality, but it's rare for one to achieve the gleefully absurd heights of preposterousness attained by XXX: State of the Union. The action set pieces in this film are so over-the-top that they invite the viewer to deconstruct them. How much is CGI? How much is editing? How much is stunt work? These aren't the things we're supposed to be thinking about during the film, but XXX: State of the Union does such a poor job of promoting the suspension of disbelief that such analysis becomes a refuge from boredom. Cardboard characters, a pointless plot, and impossible-to-swallow stunts do not make for an entertaining evening at the movies. This is video game material without the interaction.
The plot is simplistic, with convict Darius Stone (Ice Cube) being recruited by Agent Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson) to be the new super-agent, XXX. (It seems the old one, played by Vin Diesel, who wisely chose not to reprise the role, was killed in between movies. See the new Collector's Edition DVD if you want to know more.) His job: kill bad guys, uncover a nefarious plot against the United States government, romance a couple of women, and save the liberal President (Peter Strauss). This is the kind of thing Jack Bauer does every 24 hours or so, but, compared to what's going on in XXX: State of the Union, the plot contortions of "24" are credible. Darius has a few allies, including the series' versions of "M" and "Q." There are a couple of XXX girls, played by Nona Gaye and Sunny Mabrey. And there's a short-term sidekick, Agent Steele (Scott Speedman). The villain is Secretary of Defense George Deckert, who is portrayed by one of those actors with a reliable sneer, Willem Dafoe.
XXX: State of the Union provides an important public service function. Next time I'm driving on I-95 and am passed by someone weaving from lane-to-lane at 160 mph, I must remember that this may not simply be a drunk lunatic bent on suicide, but it could be a secret agent racing against time to save the President's life. Without XXX: State of the Union, that possibility never would have occurred to me.
I am occasionally asked why I sometimes find action films to be dull, and this is a perfect case study. The storytelling is simplistic and uninteresting; there are no well-developed characters worth rooting for; the action sequences, although frequent, are perfunctory and uninspired; and the uneven tone varies from plodding to frenetic. There isn't a fresh moment in the entire 100-minute running time. The tediousness is impossible to dispel. I was not a fan of the original XXX. It was an inferior 007 rip-off. With respect to the sequel, however, even referencing the name "James Bond" is an insult to the venerable British super-spy. One can give Ice Cube props for attitude, but not much more. And, please, never let Lee Tamahori get near an action film again.