xXx: Return of Xander Cage Review

Vin Diesel is back as the world’s most exxxtreme spy in xXx: Return of Xander Cage. Too bad it also brings the Zzzs.

There’s no point in beating around the bush on this: xXx: Return of Xander Cage is one big dumb movie. Any film that features a central set-piece in which two characters pursue each other on motorcycles through massive waves — in other words, surfing on bikes — is not just giving you permission to turn off your brain; it’s reaching into your head and flipping the switch for you. Just how much your intellect powers down while watching the picture is probably determined by how much of this nonsense you can take. You may feel invigorated and even exhilarated by the sheer outrageousness of the thing by the end, or you may be struggling to keep your eyes open as the tedium quickly sets in.

For me it was the latter. Despite its bravado, and the filmmakers’ welcome decision to fully embrace the movie’s ridiculousness, it ended up for this viewer being a cliché-ridden, difficult to watch slog. But the woman three seats down from me was applauding and shouting wildly at the right moments, so it’s fair to say your mileage will vary. The fact that Return of Xander Cage knows exactly what it is, is both a help and a hindrance. The movie never takes itself very seriously, but anything that can engage the viewer on a level beyond that of simple visual pyrotechnics is utterly absent.

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As you may know, this is the third entry in the series and features — as the title proclaims — the return of Vin Diesel as Xander Cage, the extreme sports enthusiast and general daredevil turned government extreme sports spy who we first met back in the 2002 original. After the ill-advised 2005 xXx: State of the Union featured a different agent in the form of Ice Cube, Diesel is back as both star and producer and is clearly interested in porting over some of the elements that have made his other franchise, The Fast and the Furious, such a pop culture colossus. Despite its title, The Return of Xander Cage is all about team-building, and I could swear I heard the word “family” mentioned at least once toward the end (there’s also at least one fairly clever nod to the Avengers and a third act hint that we’re looking at a nascent Xanderverse here).

After an incident involving his original mentor, Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson, walking through and waving to the audience), the long-missing and presumed-dead Cage is found hiding out in a tropical paradise where he does things like ski down a mountain on a skateboard to bring a TV to the local kids. New boss Marke (Toni Collette, almost squirming to get off the screen and go cash the check) sends Cage out to find Pandora’s Box, a device that can bring satellites crashing down to Earth for some reason. Cage assembles his team, finds out there’s another team — of ostensible bad guys — who want the box as well, and mayhem ensues.

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The rest of the plot? Who cares? Diesel and director DJ Caruso certainly don’t. Once again borrowing heavily from the Fast and Furious template, the rest of Return of Xander Cage is a string of increasingly over-the-top action sequences and fight scenes that would be fun to watch if they weren’t so incoherently edited. And it’s a shame too, because with the likes of Donnie Yen and Tony Jaa in the cast, you know that you will at least get some great fights — if only the camera would linger on any given shot for more than a few seconds (Caruso, who can do and has done some solid work in the past, seems determined to out-Bay Michael Bay here).

The cast is actually one of the points the movie has in its favor; it may well be the most inclusive and international crew ever assembled for a Hollywood action movie, and while not a single character comes within a mile of anything resembling actual development, some of them still manage to shine.

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At the top of that list, as you might expect, is Yen. As he did with his paper-thin, quasi-Jedi in Rogue One, Yen somehow imbues his Xiang with an inner life purely by sheer force of will. Also highly watchable is Ruby Rose (Orange is the New Black) as the sexually ambiguous and magnetic assassin Adele, and Bollywood star Deepika Padukone as Xiang’s right-hand person Serena (it’s kind of weird to note that a film which ogles so many scantily clad women in several scenes — and has Xander get busy with a number of them at one point — actually also passes the Bechdel test and gives its main female characters things to do).

As for our star, Diesel is content to rumble through his half-heard dialogue and flash that lovable grin of his, although it starts to curdle into an expression of smug self-satisfaction as the movie goes on. He certainly believes in what he’s doing, even if the movie does its worst to keep us from doing so.

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There is nothing wrong with gonzo action adventures that don’t require a lot of deep thought or provide any thematic subtext, and Return of Xander Cage does help its cause a little by parking itself (as much as a film like this can be said to be “parked” anywhere) right next to the border of pure camp. But it defeats itself with its jittery, bombastic style, careless approach to story and continuity (watch out for one sudden “night turns into day” scene near the end), and we’ve-seen-this-before lifts from other franchise playbooks. Xander Cage may be back, but he may have worn out his welcome already.

xXx: Return of Xander Cage is out today.

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Rating:

2 out of 5