Zaki's Review: xXx: Return of Xander Cage

In today's age of studios looking to turn any dormant IP into a chance for synergized, sequelized glory, I suppose it was inevitable that we'd circle bac...

In today's age of studios looking to turn any dormant IP into a chance for synergized, sequelized glory, I suppose it was inevitable that we'd circle back around to xXx. For those of you too young to remember back to fifteen years, this franchise had its first go from Sony during the summer of '02 as star Vin Diesel's follow-up to his first (and at the time only) Fast & Furious installment. Starring Diesel as extreme sports enthusiast/secret agent Xander Cage, xXx was such a clumsy assemblage of boardroom-concocted "cool" and "edgy" cliches that I referred to it at the time as "Poochie: The Movie."

Though it did well enough at the global till to warrant a follow-up, Diesel bolted in favor of 2004's The Chronicles of Riddick. And while Sony tried to keep the fires lit via 2005's xXx: State of the Union (with Ice Cube in the lead), it didn't land with audiences, which would presumably have been the end, were it not for the sustained success of Universal's Furious franchise (which has its eighth installment dropping in a few weeks) convincing studios that audiences will turn out to watch Diesel play anyone other than his street racer alter ego Dominick Toretto.

Now, while you'd think the recent failures of both 2013's Riddick sequel and 2015's The Last Witch Hunter -- star vehicles built entirely on the ineffable appeal of Mr. Diesel -- would have divested the money people of that notion, here we are with the belated xXx: Return of Xander Cage, arriving about twelve years past its sell-by date. Directed by D.J. Caruso (of The Salton Sea and Disturbia) and released by new studio Paramount, xXx 3 isn't so much a fully-formed film as it is an $85 million celluloid monument to Vin Diesel's image of himself.

We begin the story this time around with Diesel's retired superspy believed ead, and living off the grid in Central America while doing the Robin Hood thing for poor people (and by "doing the Robin Hood thing" I mean giving them access free cable, because screw those corporate cable company CEOs, or something). Anyway, when the United States government's satellite control device called Pandora's Box is stolen by a group of spies that are just as extreme as Our Man Xander, the NSA is forced to find him and draft him back into duty. Will he do it? Can you say, "To the extreme"?

(By the way, does anyone else find it amusing that the government would actually call their "evil will be unleashed upon the Earth if this gets out" device Pandora's Box? A little on the nose, no?)

Serving the "exposition" role this time alongside series regular Samuel L. Jackson (whose Augustus Gibbons character was sort of like the 1.0 version of his Marvel Studios spy honcho Nick Fury) is Toni Collette as NSA director Marke, whose platinum mane and white pantsuit evoke a kind of technocratic nightmare version of Hillary Clinton. Also along are such global stars as Donnie Yen, Deepika Padukone, and Kris Wu, on whom the studio is presumably leaning to bring in those international box office bucks.

Unfortunately, other than Yen (who's imminently watchable in just about everything he does), every other actor is adrift in the backwash of Diesel's ego exercise. In fact, it's hard to figure out which audience this picture is even aimed at, exactly. I doubt the folks who made the original '02 flick a moderate hit are holding much nostalgic attachment to the property, and I also don't think kids today are particularly interested in seeing fifty-year-old Vin Diesel skateboarding down a mountain, or being told again and again how desirable he is by women half his age.

The script by F. Scott Frazier is so awash in action pic cliches that it would probably be the most brilliant parody of the genre since Team America: World Police if it had the self-awareness to go all in on that. But then, that was never really the mission statement behind the xXx franchise, so why switch things up now? There's no expression of artistic intent in Return of Xander Cage. It's a Frankenstein's monster lab creation constructed from focus groups, dial tests, and the Peter Pan fancies of its outsized star. Let's hope this "return" is a brief one. D

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