Review: xXx: Return of Xander Cage

xxcageBrace yourself, ’cause here comes the early 2000s nostalgia, jacked up on Mountain Dew, covered with muscle tatts and riding a snowboard to the sound of a big beat remix. Oh sure, you could question the need for a second sequel to a 15-year-old film, clearly propped up on Chinese investment money and banking on cultural amnesia, or you could just welcome xXx: Return of Xander Cage as the New Year gift to the current cinema that it is—a Sistine Chapel of transcendent stupidity. For real: “Jacked up on Mountain Dew”—with love and apologies to Talladega Nights—is an actual line of dialogue in this motion picture.

This knucklehead extravaganza would be nothing without the unifying light of Vin Diesel, of course, upon whom time has conferred a kind of Zen bro wisdom. The hulking star—impressively ripped at 49, but with the ancient weariness of the cosmos—is the time-travel vessel connecting us with that turn-of-the-century culture, his ubiquitous presence having now broached four presidencies. The movies may not have needed a new xXx but this sequel slots neatly into the greater franchise that is the cult of Vin Diesel, where all Vins exist in utopian harmony.1 “The world is big,” Diesel tells a young Dominican boy (in fluent Spanish, natch) in an early scene here, “but always fits in your heart.” It’s as though he stepped straight off his monk-like ghost performance in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk.

There’s plenty of retro masculine nonsense in the early sequences of Return of Xander Cage, though, which longs for a time when a gravely-voiced everyman might awkwardly smooch a goddess like Asia Argento; those halcyon days when extreme sports and international espionage were a viable profession and C-list actors with terrible Russian accents were the greatest threat to global security—itself already a ludicrous throwback, even in 2002. Skipping over 2005’s Ice Cube-led non-starter sequel, the new film picks up with an even more nefarious collective of bad people doing sinister things involving Bond-villain satellites—what exactly, it doesn’t matter; the global threat is controlled by a device called a Pandora’s Box that has the look and durability of an old VHS cassette. Samuel L. Jackson reprises his secret spy director guy role, replete with a ghastly wig and an Avengers gag—like this movie needed to justify itself next to inferior Marvel product—before he’s dispatched in favour of new puppeteer Jane Marke (Toni Collette): sleeker, less cheerful, much whiter.

She sets out to re-recruit Xander Cage, who’s retired and busying himself bringing cable sports and universal hope to the “third world.” He’s reluctant to rejoin. “Patriotism is dead,” he grumbles at Collette. “There’s only rebels and tyrants now.” Insert your hackneyed #ageoftrump analogy here. Convinced to return with a new, impressively mixed-race-and-gender crew—who’re ultimately battling a blowhard white dude hell-bent on nuking the planet—the rebooted agent xXx is soon globetrotting and clashing with rogue former colleagues Xiang (Donnie Yen) and Serena Unger (Deepika Padukone). The reasons for this seem unclear and probably boring, but it doesn’t matter because soon everyone’s partying in the South Pacific. Donnie Yen wears a very loud Hawaiian shirt and smokes cigarettes because he’s possibly suspect. Vin mostly doesn’t wear much, because he’s an executive producer and he’s been working out and he wants you to know what a good time he’s having with all that Chinese investment money.

As you’ve no doubt guessed, this narrative is a mere formality to allow for a pile up of deeply ridiculous scenes, which range from the moronic to the sublime—and more often than not, both. A motorbikes-on-water-skis pursuit involving Yen and Diesel culminates with the actors riding a titanic tubular wave via CGI that wouldn’t be out of place in a Frankie and Annette beach party picture, and there’s more than enough of this over the top farce to keep the tedium of the narrative at bay. Director D.J. Caruso (Disturbia, Eagle Eye), a hired workman goosing the Diesel brand, isn’t much with an action sequence—give Donnie Yen some space, man, and why is a bleached-blonde Tony Jaa wasted on the edges of frames doing Michael Jackson moves?—but the film is buoyant and, moreover, very funny; sometimes unintentionally, but mostly, one suspects, with cheerful purpose. It’s the kind of film where lines like “I’m worried he might get dead” are delivered with the fence-balancing precision of camp and calculation. One in which Donnie Yen, amid dispatching a bunch of adversaries in lighting speed, slides atop a table to remove his jacket and bear a white singlet like a boy band star, or where a wunderkind millennial tech assistant—brilliantly named “Becky”, and one makeover shy of She’s All That—actually refers to a mission quandary as “Like finding a needle in a stack of needles.” It works consistently to get the laugh, even among the noise and the non-sequiturs.

The self-aware jokiness also comes with an unfortunate side order of sketchy gender politics, with the positive mixed-race representation sullied somewhat by a lopsided male gaze that doesn’t miss an opportunity to objectify the female actors in long, lingering close ups of body parts (sure, we also get a topless Vin, but where’s the tight slow-mo?). Padukone, a huge star in India and a professed feminist, is reduced here to Caruso’s ogling lens (and, later, that tired girls-and-guns standby), while Diesel’s irresistibility to the ladies is taken to comical extremes that feel like the most desperate attempts to assert heterosexual prowess since this uncomfortable interview. Toni Collette, meanwhile, is the epitome of the feared power bitch, attired in harsh lines and blouses2 that stand in stark contrast to the sexed-up, scantily clad “good girls.”

But you can’t have the light without the dark, and bless Collette for transforming her “resting bitch face” character and wrestling it into a thing of wonder. She’s in on the joke, every time she calls someone an “asshole” in that “Australian actor trying to make it on US TV” accent or chewing out her underlings or complaining about the “nerds at the lab,” and in a just world Collette’s is the kind of performance that will appear on year-end bests. Similarly, the other performers are clearly yucking it up, tossing off hoary one liners with cheery knowingness and that sense of comfort that come with being enveloped by Diesel’s ever glowing, inclusive presence. The world is indeed big, but we all have our place in Vin’s mighty heart.

Originally published at 4:3.

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