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  • xXx: Return of Xander Cage (United States, 2017)

    January 20, 2017
    A movie review by James Berardinelli
    xXx: Return of Xander Cage Poster

    When the original xXx was released 15 years ago, it was designed as one of several potential franchise properties for a new hot-shot action star named Vin Diesel. In its August 2002 run, the film did respectably at the box office but fell short of the hoped-for blockbuster status. When the cost-conscious producers opted to make a sequel and Diesel wanted a pay raise, they decided to recast the lead, bringing in Ice Cube. The result was disastrous: xXx: State of the Union barely crossed the $70M mark in worldwide gross. It seemed that the franchise was dead before it even started. Now, a dozen years later, with Diesel back on board, a reboot is being attempted. It seems not a lot has changed. Return of Xander Cage plays a lot like the original xXx did - an overamped hybrid of Bond and Bauer, 007 and 24. Jam-packed with tedious, over-the-top action and testosterone-fuel machismo, Return of Xander is a throwback to a time when all action films were made for teenage boys. It’s almost cheesy enough to be viewed as a parody except nearly everyone involved seems to take it at least somewhat seriously. A shift in tone to something like Kingsman might have made this a more entertaining experience.

    After Diesel abdicated the title role, the filmmakers killed his character between installments #1 and #2. At the beginning of Return of Xander Cage, it’s revealed that he faked his death.  The murder of his mentor, Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson in full Nick Fury mode), brings Xander out of hiding.  He is soon recruited by CIA operative Jane Marke (Toni Collette, trying unsuccessfully to appear tough and macho) to locate a group of supervillains who have stolen the uber-dangerous “Pandora’s Box”, which has the capability to weaponize satellites. Led by high-kicking Xiang (Donnie Yen) and exotic Serena (Deepika Padukone), these characters exist not only to entice Asian viewers but to provide Xander with effective foils…until we discover that Xiang’s group was assembled by Gibbons. This revelation muddles the question of who’s an ally and who’s an adversary.

    Return of Xander Cage is cleanly divided into two acts. The first details Xander’s return to active duty and his recruitment of a backup team (Ruby Rose, Kris Wu, and Rory McCann). The second is almost non-stop action as Xander goes first to the Philippines then to Detroit in search of Pandora’s Box and the terrorist threatening to use it. Director D.J. Caruso has learned his action techniques from the Fast and Furious films - they’re outrageous, defy physics and biology, and go on for too long. Caruso, like many current filmmakers, fails to understand that the excitement associated with an action scene has less to do with how big it is than whether there’s any suspense. It’s impossible to generate suspense with invulnerable cartoon characters. If someone can fall off a moving 18-wheeler, get hit by a speeding car, and walk away with only a scratch or two, how are we supposed to care about them? There’s not a single moment in all of xXx: Return of Xander Cage when the film is able to trick us into suspecting the lead character might be in danger. In the Bond movies, we know 007 isn’t going to die but we’re invested. That’s not the case here. Caruso’s hyped action sequences make even the most ludicrous Roger Moore outing seem low-key and grounded.

    There were times when I could almost believe that Return of Xander Cage was intended to be a subversive parody. It’s cartoonish enough to justify that interpretation. Unfortunately, that’s likely giving the filmmakers too much credit and the general seriousness of the tone is at odds with such a reading. Yes, there are some “lighthearted” moments intended to elicit a chuckle but, for the most part, Caruso wants viewers to enjoy his film as a pure action thriller not an action-comedy. Things that might work for the latter often fail for the former especially when too much effort has been put into the spectacle aspect.

    However, it’s hard to heap too much disdain on Return of Xander Cage. It’s a throw-away piece of cinematic fast food. It falls within the parameters of a creatively bankrupt genre that favors excess over story in an overt courting of the overseas audience. The movie is mind-numbing but not sleep-inducing. It’s too loud and bombastic for that. Diesel shows flashes of charisma, although he is outshone by both Donnie Yen, who deserves more screen time, and Ice Cube, whose cameo promises a future team up between the two xXx stars. If additional installments are to come, they will probably have to result from an Asian box office tsunami. It’s hard to see something this stale making much of a domestic splash. Having returned, Xander Cage should do us all a favor and go back into hiding.






    xXx: Return of Xander Cage (United States, 2017)

    Run Time: 1:47
    U.S. Release Date: 2017-01-20
    MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Violence, Profanity, Sexual Content)
    Genre: Action/Thriller
    Subtitles: none
    Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1

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