I am one with the Force, the Force is one with me…
While you can certainly question aspects of Vin Diesel‘s acting prowess, you cannot dispute that he has a talent for getting entrenched in successful franchises: Fast and Furious, Guardians of the Galaxy and, to a lesser extent, The Chronicles of Riddick.
To that end, Diesel is heading back to the world of xXx for the first time in 15 years for xXx: The Return of Xander Cage, which feels unmistakably like a launching point for future installments.
Years after faking his own death, Xander Cage (Diesel) is approached by the CIA’s Jane Marke (Toni Collette) in an effort to bring him back into the fold. When Cage initially refuses, Marke informs him that the man that recruited him, Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson), was killed when a satellite crashed near his location. The lone device capable of such action, known as Pandora’s Box, was stolen by a team of highly skilled operatives, and only Cage can bring them down.
Cage accepts and goes about assembling his own crew: a sniper, Wolff (Ruby Rose), a getaway driver, Tennyson (Rory McCann; The Hound from Game of Thrones), and, of course, a DJ, Nicks (Kris Wu). The four of them have little trouble tracking down the culprits, a group led by Xiang (Donnie Yen), but they soon learn that Xiang and his team were also recruited by Gibbons as part of the xXx program.
Despite their common background, the two crews find themselves on opposite sides of the issue, with Cage wanting to take the box and return it to Marke, and Xiang looking to keep control of the box to prevent its exploitation. Faced with an equally skilled opponent, Cage must figure out a way to get the device while also determining whether or not Xiang was truly behind the attack on Gibbons.
There’s a light-hearted vibe to xXx, even when the theoretical stakes are incredibly high, and it feels surprisingly fresh at a time when so many action films take themselves so seriously — it’s also what makes the Guardians films so different. Diesel’s carefree shtick isn’t all that convincing, but he’s surrounded with people that seem to be having a good time in their roles.
Action, action and more action. While the original movie cast Diesel in a semi-clandestine undercover role, the sequel tosses that aside and turns Cage and company into an ass-kicking ensemble. Again, much of the action is over the top and unrealistic with a ragtag group of “not soldiers” easily mowing down dozens of trained agents, but whatever. It’s stylistically enjoyable.
For better or worse, Return of Xander Cage feels a lot like a co-ed The Expendables. There’s the brawny lead, Tony Jaa (and Yen) in the Jet Li martial arts role, an MMA fighter Michael Bisping in for Randy Couture and so on. By the end it feels like director D.J. Caruso was trying to position the franchise as a younger, more “extreme” Expendables. We like those films, though, so we’re OK with it.
Some of the CGI in xXx is Die Another Day levels of bad, which is rather stunning when you consider that was made 15 years ago. Fittingly, one of those atrocious sequences happens with not-made-for-water vehicles travelling across the water. It’s not as bad as the tsunami surfing, but that’s a low bar. Another late action sequence also gets saddled with the terrible CGI treatment.
When the film embraces its place as a fun popcorn movie, its uninspired dialogue and recycled story tropes don’t really matter. When it tries to adopt a more serious, sombre tone, it simply doesn’t work and only serves to transport you to a place where you start questioning what you were enjoying about the movie to begin with.
Although most of the characters and performances are endearing on some level, Nina Dobrev is brutal. She plays the plucky nerdy tech girl to the hilt, and it’s just too much.
THE BONUS FEATURES
A superficial set of extras await, most of which feel like promotional materials. Probably the best of the bunch is “I Live for This Sh#t!,” a 15-minute look at the film’s stunts and action sequences. The Rebels featurette introduces the cast.
It’s interesting for some of the foreign stars that are largely unknowns here, but it’s weird that well-known domestic roles, like McCann in GoT and Yen in Rogue One, go completely ignored. Like most “gag reels,” this is a waste of time.
xXx: Return of Xander Cage is dumb fun. If you go into it with that in mind you should be fine. If you’re expecting anything more than that, you’ll be disappointed.