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Non-Review Review: xXx iIi – The Return of Xander Cage

Perhaps the most endearing aspect of xXx iIi: The Return of Xander Cage is how absurd the movie feels, on just about every level.

xXx iIi is the third in a trilogy of films that launched in 2002. xXx is highly unlikely to rank as anybody’s favourite Vin Diesel film, sitting somewhere below The Fast and the Furious and Pitch Black on the “viable Vin Diesel movie franchises” scale. The movie was very much part of that turn-of-the-millennium attempt to craft an American answer to the highly successful James Bond franchise, and as such had arguably been rendered redundant by The Bourne Identity two months before it was released.

Quite Cagey on the matter.

Quite Cagey on the matter.

In fact, xXx was such an underwhelming Vin Diesel vehicle that the performer did not return for the sequel three years later. In xXx II: State of the Union, the extreme sports daredevil was replaced by a veteran marine played by Ice Cube. As such, it seems strange that the third film in the trilogy should be released fifteen years after the original and more than a decade following the only sequel starring a substitute lead. It is very hard to argue that the world was crying out for a xXx sequel promising the return of a low-tier Vin Diesel persona.

In its best moments, xXx iIi actively embraces that absurdity and swivels into the insanity. There are points at which xXx iIi ultimately collapses under its own ridiculousness, as it struggles to fill the gaps between admirably over the top set pieces with terrible dialogue delivered by a fairly weak cast. However, there are also moments when xXx iIi works much better than it should, if only because it recognises the absurdity of its own existence and just runs with it.

It's good to be back.

It’s good to be back.

There are any number of ridiculous concepts baked into the premise of xXx iIi. The idea that the world was clamouring for the return of Xander Cage is just the most obvious, but there is also the fact that the film is built around the idea of forty-nine-year-old Vin Diesel playing Xander Cage as an enfant terrible of the international spy scene. Diesel is the age that Roger Moore was when he made Moonraker, and yet xXx iIi insists on having Diesel play the role of a young turk forced to work within the boundaries set by establishment squares.

This prima facie absurdity helps the movie get away with some of its more gratuitous and indulgent beats. xXx iIi falls apart the moment that the audience is asked to take any of its story points seriously, particularly when it comes to the raw sexual appeal of Xander Cage. At one point, the character has to seduce an entire harem of beautiful scantily-clad twenty-somethings. “The things I do for my country,” Cage mutters to himself, although Diesel stops just short of arching an eyebrow. It is absurd enough that it plays as farce.

First (gren)ade.

First (gren)ade.

xXx iIi is definitely in on the joke. At its best, the movie embraces a freestyle insanity where the plot is not so much a logical sequence of cause-and-effect as a flimsy Rube Goldberg machine designed to get from one setpiece to the next. xXx iIi is primarily a vehicle for over-the-top action sequences, whether it is Xander Cage riding a motorbike into a rip curl or trying to hit a falling satellite with an airplane. It is completely ridiculous, but this is a franchise built on the idea of recruiting extreme sports personalities as spies.

In its stronger moments, xXx iIi feels like a cross between Fast Five and 21 Jump Street. It is a sequel very much on steroids, but it also plays like a spoof adaptation of the original idea. The original xXx took its central idea with a distracting earnestness, asking the audience to believe that the National Security Agency would really entrust an extreme sports personality to go deep undercover. xXx iIi repurposes the idea for the age of irony, resulting in a film that is both bulkier and spongier than the original.

If you ask "why is Vin Diesel riding a motor bike in the ocean?", then this movie is probably not for you.

If you ask “why is Vin Diesel riding a motor bike in the ocean?”, then this movie is probably not for you.

This is a film with a plot that makes no sense, bouncing from one half-formed bad guy to another half-formed bad guy before landing back at the beginning. It is a movie in which one particularly under-developed antagonist threatens to kill cities by launching satellites at them unless every country on Earth abandons their intelligence organisations. It is a movie in which a hugely expensive top secret government plane doesn’t have a door to the cockpit because that would present a problem for the movie’s climax.

There are so many ridiculous contortions in logic necessary to justify anything that happens in xXx iIiIs that really the most efficient way to steal cable? Why does Xander have his own xXx brand, and is it affiliated with the top secret spy organisation operated by the CIA/NSA? Why does the bad guy wait so long to enact their evil scheme, given it seems possible in retrospect to have done so from the beginning? Why do those bikes have water skiis on them? How is that big (and very predictable) final twist even physically possible?

Diesel bike.

Diesel bike.

There is an endearing charm to all of this. In particular, Samuel L. Jackson and Toni Collette are clearly having great fun with the material at hand, demonstrating how skilfully quality performers can elevate even the sketchiest of material. It does not matter that their character arcs make sense. It does not matter that their dialogue is not particularly memorable. xXx iIi is a movie that things the height of storytelling structure is calling back to cheesy one-liners earlier in the script.

There is a certain appealing cheesiness to all of this, most notably in the recurring suggestion that xXx iIi is aware of how ridiculous the concept of a xXx franchise actually is. One surprise guest arrives out of nowhere carrying a grenade launcher, with an on-screen legend informing the audience he has been waiting a really long time to return to the role. At several points, xXx iIi even teases the legal department at Disney by suggesting that Samuel L. Jackson might just be playing a parallel version of Nick Fury. There is a charm to this attitude.

Oh, shoot.

Oh, shoot.

However, there are a number of serious problems that hold xXx iIi back from the dizzying heights of Fast Five or 21 Jump Street. The most obvious is the talent involved. Fast Five had the luxury of a reasonably charming ensemble with a solid dynamic, and then throwing the Rock into the mix. The Rock’s power to resurrect movie franchises has become Hollywood myth, but justifiably so. Similarly, 21 Jump Street features a rake of amazing comedic performers. Unfortunately, the primary cast of xXx iIi is nowhere near that level of talent.

Similarly, the script suffocates under its own irony. xXx iIi plays very well when it comes to its outlandish set pieces, even if D.J. Caruso’s direction is occasionally dizzying and choppy. The set pieces are often genuinely audacious, delivered with the enthusiasm of a twelve-year-old’s unrestrained id. However, xXx iIi struggles in the space between those big beats. The dialogue is woeful. The problem is not that the dialogue is too cheesy; the issue is that the dialogue is just clumsy and banal. It makes the exposition scenes drag.

xXx appeal.

xXx appeal.

xXx iIi works best when it embraces the ridiculousness of what it is and what it is doing. There are certainly moments that work, and an endearingly cheeky attitude underpinning much of the movie’s runtime; it is an extended joke, and the film is definitely in on it. Unfortunately, xXx iIi lacks the raw talent necessary to elevate the film to the heights of the best ironic blockbusters. It lacks that simple “x” factor.

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3 Responses

  1. XXX action looks really good but the story seems sucky

  2. xXx: Profit of Xander Pen (alternatively known as xXx: Reactivated and unmistakable “Triple X”) is an upcoming 2017 American action-adventure cloud directed close to D. J. Caruso, produced at near Vin Diesel, Joe Roth, Jeff Kirschenbaum, and Samantha Vincent, and written via F. Scott Frazier and Chad St. John. It stars Vin Diesel, Deepika Padukone, Donnie Yen, Samuel L. Jackson, Tony Jaa, Nina Dobrev, Ruby Rose, Rory McCann, Kris Wu, and Ariadna Gutiérrez. It is intended to be the third film in the xXx franchise, and thereby a development to both the 2002 layer xXx and the 2005 film xXx: Nation of the Union, albeit more completely with the first film. Distinct from the aforementioned films, which were distributed at hand Columbia Pictures, Give back of Xander Cage liking be released close to Prime Pictures on January 20, 2017 in 2D, RealD 3D and IMAX 3D.

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