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XXX: RETURN OF XANDER CAGE: Threequel Is Too Little, Too Late

xXx: Return of Xander Cage, the long-awaited sequel to 2002’s xXx is finally here, finally being the operative word. It’s been fifteen years, in fact, long enough for the first movie to have had endless cable TV airings, and for nearly everything about the current marketplace to change.

xXx: RETURN OF XANDER CAGE: Threequel Is Too Little, Too Late

xXx: Return of Xander Cage, the long-awaited sequel to 2002’s xXx is finally here, finally being the operative word. It’s been fifteen years, in fact, long enough for the first movie to have had endless cable TV airings, and for nearly everything about the current marketplace to change. Why only the middle X is capitalized, other than to make it annoying to type, is still not explained.

A renegade extreme sports athlete being blackmailed into working for a covert spy agency wasn’t a half bad idea then, but the formula has aged about as well as a lime green polyester leisure suit. Vin Diesel’s Xander Cage character might as well have been in cryofreeze with Austin Powers. During that decade and a half, the young, male audience that made xXx a hit have practically become middle-aged fathers. So has its star. Will the critical young male audience turn out to buy tickets?

God only knows why they should. This clumsy afterthought has virtually nothing to offer but retreaded scenes offered up in the interest of franchise formula and stock action set pieces that we’ve seen done before elsewhere and better.

Warning! It’s a threequel!

And this isn’t even the first xXx sequel. It’s that most dreaded of franchise installments, the threequel. Threequels are often the death knell of franchises, and this may be a case in point. Vin Diesel inexplicably turned down initial sequels to both The Fast and the Furious and xXx, while doing an overblown sequel to the B sci/fi potboiler Pitch Black.

The studio wanted a sequel to xXx, though and went ahead with a sequel/spin-off hybrid, xXx: State of the Union, with rapper Ice Cube stepping in as a former special ops commando named Darius Stone, broken out of prison by Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury-esque character Gibbs. That movie, released in 2005, would be far enough in the far-flung past to make this entry seem a tad overdue. Nonetheless, xXx: State of the Union, directed by Lee Tamahori, was muscular, glossy, frenetic and gleefully implausible. The first movie’s largely practical key stunts were replaced by special effects, CGI and green screens, but the movie was entertaining. The same cannot be said of this sad and cynical sequel.

Threadbare plot just a loose framework to hang action scenes on

Main character Xander Cage was killed off-screen in the second movie, a fact to which the threequel barely pays lip service. And yes, that’s exactly the sort of logic you can expect from the rest of the movie, which offers up a threadbare plot that is nothing more than a loose framework to hand the action scenes on.

xXx: RETURN OF XANDER CAGE: Threequel Is Too Little, Too Late

source: Paramount Pictures

The plot could be outlined on a cocktail napkin, and probably was. It has something to do with weaponizing satellites and dropping them on people, which seems rude, but don’t worry. It really isn’t all that important. Substandard action movies tend to suffer from two primary kinds of bad scripts: either the plot detours distractingly for an action sequence or makes you suffer through it to get to an action sequence. We have the second variety on our hands here. Everything that happens between action sequences is insufferably dull, predictable, and boneheaded, while the action sequences themselves are for the most part mediocre.

A substantial amount of the stuff that happens in-between the action scenes is devoted to making a team out of the characters, including, of course, ones that started out looking like bad guys. That’s a clear, and cynical, nod to Diesel’s more successful Fast and Furious franchise, which has all but been taken over by Dwayne Johnson, and Paramount’s Mission: Impossible series, which has increasingly taken the same approach.

Direction only competent

Director D.J. Caruso’s past outings, including Eagle Eye, Disturbia and I Am Number Four, have been workmanlike but not outstanding products, and that’s exactly what he’s done here. Much like the current cops and robbers movie Sleepless, xXx: Return of Xander Cage is competently but unimaginatively executed. It doesn’t have the reckless, if mindless, enthusiasm of the first movie, nor does it have the comic book energy of the second. It does have a fair amount of drab Detroit location shooting, which seems oddly out of place in an international spy thriller. Gritty cop movies can make great use of the inner city – spies get Caribbean beaches and alpine ski resorts. Don’t come whining to me. Ian Fleming set the rules.

Vin Diesel’s not getting any younger and… he’s outclassed by supporting cast

No one ever confused Diesel’s delivery with Cary Grant, but it went over better when he was younger. His physique remains impressive, but he hasn’t gotten any younger and he hasn’t gotten any better. He pretty well mugs his way through the movie; not that much of a performance is needed. He is not helped by the fact that his stunt double is detectable in a couple of scenes.

xXx: RETURN OF XANDER CAGE: Threequel Is Too Little, Too Late

source: Paramount Pictures

Acting wasn’t exactly essential to either of the first two xXx movies, although Nina Dobrev (TV’s The Vampire Diaries) doesn’t seem to be in on that secret, playing the movie’s otherwise stock tech support geek with verve, humor and energy. The requisite glasses that are supposed to make her look geeky work almost as well as the ones they used to put on Lynda Carter when she played Wonder Woman alter-ego Diana Prince.

Diesel is also easily outclassed here by co-stars Deepika Padukone, who practically steals the film, and Hong Kong martial arts superstar Donnie Yen, whose charisma and martial arts skills are certainly adequate for him to do a Hollywood franchise of his own. Yen has made an occasional Hollywood appearance here and there, most recently in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and his time is, if anything, overdue. Rory McCann, who’s recently gotten a ton of exposure on HBO’s Game of Thrones, is largely wasted, though entertaining when he’s given the chance.

Less well-served by the material is two-time Academy Award nominee Toni Collette, who solemnly stalks through the entire movie glaring from behind an impenetrable bitch face mask. Maybe she was promised a rewrite that would provide her character with more depth than a two-dimensional suit that the audience instinctively distrusts from her first entrance. If so, they lied.

More women onscreen, but with no more to do

It might be noted with approval that at least there are a number of women characters in the movie, but then you might have to remember the same could be said of most Roger Moore James Bond movies. Most of them have to at least act as if their sole motivation is to jump between the sheets with Diesel (though Collette doesn’t). Diesel in fact uttered a Bondian rip-off line, “The things I’m going to do for my country,” in the first movie. It wasn’t all that funny then and actually a little pervy now, with the man pushing fifty.

xXx: RETURN OF XANDER CAGE: Threequel Is Too Little, Too Late

source: Paramount Pictures

No spoiler warning needed here, as it’s all over the trailers – the most entertaining moment, in many ways, is a cameo by Ice Cube reprising his Darius Stone character. They make you wait for that one. Although the stage is set for Diesel and Ice Cube to costar in a further installment, somehow that doesn’t seem all that likely.

Conclusion

Unimaginative, uninspired and unentertaining, xXx: Return of Xander Cage is a threequel no one was waiting for, and one there’s absolutely no reason to pony up theater ticket prices for. What it does, more than anything else, is make its predecessors look better than they probably were.

What do you think? Is xXx: Return of Xander Cage a threequel whose time has come and gone? And why do they only capitalize the middle X?

xXx: Return of Xander Cage is currently playing in the United States and the United Kingdom.


Film Inquiry supports #TimesUp.

“The clock has run out on sexual assault, harassment and inequality in the workplace. It’s time to do something about it.” Read the Letter of Solidarity here. Make a donation to the legal fund here.

Opinions expressed in our articles are those of the authors and not of the Film Inquiry magazine.

Jim Dixon retired from practicing law not a moment too soon, and now works as a freelance writer and film critic. A lifelong and unrepentant movie geek, he firmly believes that everything you need to know in life you can learn at the movies. He lives in upstate New York.

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