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xXx: Return of Xander Cage

Movies Reviews Xxx: Return Of Xander Cage
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<i>xXx: Return of Xander Cage</i>

We don’t buy tickets to Vin Diesel blockbusters to satisfy intellectual cravings. We buy tickets because we need to see one of Hollywood’s most beloved and bankable action stars demonstrate his machismo by basking in the glow of overlarge eXplosions and giving the laws of physics the finger for an hour and 40 minutes. Diesel’s magic is a dorky, brawny kind of magic: His earnestness and affability undercut any film’s mindlessness, eXtending a hand of madcap goodwill to his audience before yanking us along through one improbable action sequence after another.

So on the strength of the Diesel charm, xXx: Return of Xander Cage succeeds at being (probably) eXactly what it wants to be, regressive qualities be damned. This is a franchise movie that, having observed the limits of big-screen dopiness in two prior releases (2002’s xXx and 2005’s Diesel-less xXx: State of the Union), seeks to push those boundaries past their breaking point and ascend new heights of metateXtual absurdity: People leap out of airplanes sans parachute, Nina Dobrev tells Diesel her safeword (“kumquat”), stealth in espionage is abandoned for bedlam, and graphic title cards are used as both character introductions and punchlines. (The best of these, regarding a certain cameo spoiled by TV spots, is saved for last. The payoff is worth it nonetheless.) There’s a place in the cinematic food pyramid for movies like xXx: Return of Xander Cage, and what it lacks in nutritional content it makes up for in sugariness.

As befits an xXx film, xXx: Return of Xander Cage’s plot is simple: There’s a technological whatsit called Pandora’s Box that lets its user drop military satellites from the sky, which is a handy way of making lots of people dead (most notably Neymar, playing himself, and Samuel L. Jackson, playing the head of the CIA’s xXx spy program, both of whom are engulfed in flames within the film’s first ten minutes). The whatsit is nicked from the U.S. government by Donnie Yen, playing a bad guy named Xiang, who is badass on a molecular level and therefore has no use for subtlety in espionage: He’d rather jump off a roof and right through plate glass to swipe the whatsit than come up with a more traditionally sneaky plan, because he’s just that eXtreme.

So the CIA, represented by no-nonsense agent Marke (Toni Collette) takes the tried and true approach of fighting eXtreme with eXtreme, and thus calls the legendary daredevil and former undercover operative Xander Cage (Diesel) back into action to retrieve the whatsit and defend Freedom™. He’s kept busy for the last fifteen years by engaging in outdoor activities like skiing through rainforests and giving free cable to the people, a modern day Robin Hood with a very low set of civil priorities.

Like any good action hero, though, he’s unable to resist a mission, so he goes about assembling a team of unqualified lunatics and rogues to help him recover that whatsit: Adele Wolff (Ruby Rose), a sniper whose spends her free time hobbling wealthy snobs while they hunt lions; Tennyson (Rory McCann), a stunt driver and conspiracy theorist with a penchant for solving problems by crashing cars into things; and then there’s Nicks (Kris Wu). Nicks is a really good DJ. If there is a mother, and the mother is not turned out, then Nicks is your guy. (You may wonder why Cage needs a mother-turner-outer on his crew, but in the world of xXx: Return of Xander Cage, danger and potential ragers lurk around every corner, which makes Nicks as vital an asset to the cause as Adele.)

Think of xXx: Return of Xander Cage as a blend of The Expendables and The Avengers by way of the Extreme Sports Channel (“The Home of Action Sports”), and you’ve pretty much got it. You know what you’re paying for. If the idea of watching Diesel, Rose, Yen, Deepika Padukone (playing Xiang’s second in command), Michael Bisping (playing Xiang’s third in command) and Tony Jaa (playing Xiang’s fourth in command) perform bonkers, CGI-enhanced stunts (and looking good while doing it) is up your alley, then you don’t need to hear that Diesel and Yen race each other across a lagoon on motorcycle jet skis, that F. Scott Frazier’s script is loaded with delightfully wiseass quips and hambone eXposition, that Rose and Padukone have a seriously awesome back-to-back, guns-blazing moment, that bad guys get flushed out of airplane toilets, or that Yen steals the movie as easily as Xiang steals Pandora’s Box.

xXx: Return of Xander Cage is also rife with logic gaps you can stick a fist through, it’s clumsily structured—with no fewer than three endings—and there might be too many characters? When you get right down to it, there’s nothing honorable about making movies that are stupid on purpose. But xXx: Return of Xander Cage does such a good job installing indulgence as its backbone that it’s hard not to admire the film’s commitment, its gusto and, therefore, its ability to get away with pretty much anything.

Director: D.J. Caruso
Writer: F. Scott Frazier
Starring: Vin Diesel, Donnie Yen, Deepika Padukone, Ruby Rose, Toni Collette, Kris Wu, Nina Dobrev, Michael Bisping, Tony Jaa, Samuel L. Jackson 
Release Date: January 20, 2017


Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He writes additional words for Movie Mezzanine, The Playlist, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.

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