xXx: The Return of Xander Cage - Review: The Fast and the XXXpendables
Do you ever have a DVD turn out? Whether it’s because you’re moving house, cash strapped or just trying to declutter, every now and then the DVD shelves need a good going over. Then it is a scientifically proven fact (probably) that you’ll always have at least one of these moments in the process. Picking up a DVD, having genuinely forgotten you owned it. Sometimes you can’t even recall liking the film but there it is in your possession. The last time I had such a turn out, I had that very moment with a copy of 2002's xXx. I can remember kind of likely when it came out (Vin was gold for me after Pitch Black) but any such fondness for it certainly dwindled out over the years and I certainly wasn’t looking forward its belated 3rd outing. Now though the “Return of Xander Cage” is here, reuniting the series with its titular star, and although it justifies some lacking enthusiasm, it may actually have saved itself and its status as a continuing franchise.
When a satellite crashing Pandora’s Box device is threatening the free world, the supposedly dead and on the run Xander Cage (Vin Diesel – Fast & Furious, Riddick) is recruited by the new head of the xXx program (Toni Collette – Little Miss Sunshine, Kampus) to track down the team that stole it, led by Xiang (Donnie Yen – IP Man, Rogue One).
Now once we’ve coughed and shuffled over the last film killing off Xander Cage (they even made a preceding short called The Death of Xander Cage), one thing quickly becomes clear over where xXx has set its sights. This isn’t just a one more time sequel. Revolution Studios wants to re-structure and redesign it into their equivalent of the Fast & Furious franchise with a heavy emphasis on developing a larger team and character base rather than the one man spy adventures of the last 2 films. This involves bringing in many new allies and enemies with varying extreme skills (including being a sick DJ?) for almost an xXxpendables affair. In fairness, by the end, it does achieve this goal but the trouble is the film that transpires along the way is frequently an utter mess. Let’s start with the script.... assuming it was anything beyond a list of existing catchphrases and instructions to just wing the rest of it. While there are some funny one-liners most laughs come from the lines being so bad they make you laugh. Next there’s the story. A nonsensical McGuffin based affair that gets completely lost in endless side-switching and revealed bad guys. Yes, playing with sides can be great but it needs to carry weight and in this case, it’s more of a “Martha moment” (Yes BvS, that’s a thing now) of just suddenly becoming friends or enemies. Even some of the extreme sport elements make more of a Point Break remake run of it. Downhill skiing through a jungle.... yeah, I’ll buy that. Dirt bikes with convenient water skies that happen to be just sitting there.... now you’ve X’d yourself in the foot. Yet the worst feature of all? That’s introducing every character with Suicide Squad style on-screen graphics and factoids. It just feels the wrong kind of dumb, even if having real life footballer Neymar thinking he’s joining The Avengers raises a chuckle.
Yet just when you think this film will be 3 strikes and out for the franchise, along comes its final act. It’s still a mess.... but my God, it actually becomes a very enjoyable mess! It couldn’t care less about the story and just goes all out devolving an almost constant onslaught of acrobatic insanities, frantic gun fights and cool moves but if you’re able to let it all roll off you into a highlight reel of badass moments, it all becomes very fun. The expanded team of xXx recruits allows the action to keep switching from one cluster of characters to the next without losing any moment and when you’ve got people like Donnie “I am one with The Force” Yen and Tony Jaa busting out moves left, right, centre and way up there you’re never going to be bored. It still pushes things too far in places and in particular the plane based final sequence feels like we’ve shifted gears into the Transporter franchise lunacy. Yet balancing against that are certain “legacy” moments that will not fail to get you smiling. Despite the action/combat emphasis of this final act it still manages to deliver the film’s best incorporation of its extreme sports concept and by getting with the times too. Following traffic gridlock, things develop into a parkour style city crossing foot race towards an objective. Not only does it feel organic to the story without injecting tricks for the sake of it, it delivers no shortage of thrills too as Diesel and Yen dodge/fight their way through oncoming cars.
This was never Diesel’s best character (ultimately Cage is too shallow to drown in) so it’s not surprising that his performance is below his typical standards but he makes the action count. Toni Collete also struggles to make her character feel anything but generic. However, some of the new faces do contribute to the film well. The aforementioned Yen and Jaaa are electric whenever they’re allowed to let rip. Ruby Rose (Orange is the New Black) is rather enjoyable as the sniper extraordinaire Adele, and eventually pairing her with Deepika Padukone’s (huge Bollywood star) Serena creates a good lethal lady combination. Roy “The Hound” McCann shows up as a grizzled stunt driver along with The Vampire Diaries’ Nina Dobrev as the team’s enthusiastic tech geek and even UFCs Michael Bisping gets in the fight.
At the end of it all, we handbrake turn back around to the Fast & Furious franchise comparison and their 4th cast reuniting venture. It wasn’t a great film but it many ways it sacrificed itself to over hall the franchise which ultimately gave us the mad delights of 5, 6 and 7. I walked away from xXx 3, feeling like this franchise had done something similar. It certainly wasn’t the glorious comeback it might have wanted but it finished on a positive and if you told me tomorrow they were making a 4th film with this cast returnin, I would be excited about that (which is supposedly a done deal and could even start filming this May). If you want a decent “brain off” action fix with plenty of adrenaline-fueled antics, this X might mark the spot.