Skip to main content

You can look dope, can’t you? Sure you can.

xXx: The Return of Xander Cage
(2017)

(SPOILERS) Is there a new “Vin Diesel model” for movie successes? The xXx franchise looked dead in the water after the Vin-less 2005 sequel grossed less than a third of its predecessor. If you were to go by the US total, xXx: The Return of Xander Cage was a similar flunk. And yet, a sequel is guaranteed. The key to this rehabilitation appears to be borrowing from the Fast & Furious franchise rule book (or the one operating since entry No.5, at any rate): bring on the international casting and sit Vin at the top as their leader. The only difference being, here Diesel is having appreciably more fun.


Which isn’t to say Xander Cage is better than the F&F movies, but it definitely has its tongue even more firmly in its cheek, to the extent you’d think Diesel has been scrutinising the Roger Moore Bonds for inspiration, along with classic era Bruce Willis for delivery (think Hudson Hawk, just not nearly as irreverent, alas). When xXx3 is revelling in its own inanity, it’s quite something to behold, and its only really during the final third, where it becomes a more standard-issue shoot ‘em up, one even the rapturous welcome Ice Cube’s “surprise” appearance receives can’t alleviate, that it stumbles.


So xXx3 made less than 20% - a measly 13%, to be exact – of its $346m total gross in the US but nearly half in China. Trace this backwards, and you have Fate of the Furious also taking less than 20% in the US but nearly a quarter of its $1.24bn total in China. Even The Last Witch Hunter, which no one is going to guarantee a sequel, followed the line of marginal US takings failing to reflect the international reception. The only regularly comparable franchise to this is the Resident Evil series, where you’d almost have been better off not releasing the last one Stateside (8% of the $312m, half of which came from China).


Diesel can reportedly be quite the pain in the ass on the Furious movies, but his willingness to engage in near send-up here is entirely to his credit, and if the picture adopts a nominal “family” tag with its “X takes care of its own” motto, it avoids becoming a noose around its neck. I only wish director DJ Caruso (showing versatile action chops) and screenwriter F Scott Frazier had thrown even more caution to the wind. The picture can never quite sustain the near meta-introduction in which Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L Jackson having a ball) explains to potential new recruit Neymar (“Thought he was being recruited for The Avengers” explains the on-screen introductory notes; Gibbons “Singlehandedly stopped World War III”) his entirely dappy reasons for beginning the XXX programme (skateboards and swimming pools figure heavily).


Xander Cage: Oh boy, here we go again.

The gags here are never in danger of becoming classy, but there’s a breezy-goofy quality to the set ups and delivery that is frequently irresistible; “Wow, you really do look different Gibbons. Did you lose weight?” asks the called-out-of-retirement Cage when he meets his new boss Jane Marke (Toni Collette, pitch perfect). This following an opening action spectacle in the aid of getting decent TV reception for a footie match. Xander next needs to stop off in London so he can pick up his hilariously over-sized sheepskin pimp coat, during which he outdoes Moore’s 007 by leaving a room full of sexually-satisfied ladies in his wake the next morning (“The things I do for my country”), even more amusing if you’re vaguely aware of the rumours that have followed Vin around Hollywood for the last two decades.


This bedroom dynamo rep continues with the arrival of a scene-stealing Nina Dobrev as Marke’s assistant Becky Clearidge, an unabashed Xander groupie (“Please take your time, I know mouth-to-mouth if necessary” grins the cheese-frothing chrome-dome, as Marke raises her eyes heavenwards) who isn’t immune to berating Cage when necessary (“That’s not going to come off, you know that, right?” she admonishes Xander when he applies permanent marker to a monitor screen). “There are a lot of unmarked graves on the island” Xiang (Donnie Yen) informs Cage, closing in on prized MacGuffin Pandora’s Box. “And I bet whoever sold you that shirt is in one of them” quips our tattooed hero.


If Vin’s on towering form, the rest of his co-stars are more variable. Yen’s having a lot of fun and has a good rapport with his lead. Ruby Rose (Adele Wolf) might not be quite as impactful as in her silent turn in John Wick Chapter 2, but she brings relish to her environmentalist sharpshooter. Deepika Padukone is Cage’s sort of love interest, but not in a limiting way, while Rory “The Hound” McCann is amusing as a stunt driver celebrating his 200th crash during the proceedings. Tony Jaa is suitably energetic in a bleach job, but Kris Wu is entirely lifeless. Likewise, while Neymar is surprisingly pretty good in his bookend scenes with Jackson, fellow football player Michael Bisping is definitely more from the Vinnie Jones school of acting chops.


Jane Marke: Time to be a patriot.
Xander Cage: By whose definition?

Caruso keeps the proceedings zipping along, although he’s probably better with the rhythmic interplay (a game of hot potato with a grenade for example) than the all-out, CGI-assisted action (Cage freefalling from an exploding Boeing is the most glaring example that this came in on a non-titanic budget). If xXx3 had played up its comedic side more, it had the potential to become a minor classic. As it is, it’s merely diverting. There’s a nice line in irreverence towards the powers-that-be that doesn’t go in for the (tiresome) Bond-ian resignation bullshit, taking in indifference towards national pride (above), insane government spending (“Wow, no wonder our country’s in debt trillions of dollars” observes Cage of a decked-out Boeing) and conspiracy theories (“Can you tell me what really happened to Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie?” Asks McCann’s Torch. “Yes” replies Becky).


I’m not sure how well Vin and Cube will get on for xXxX (hopefully better than Vin and Dwayne), since they didn’t exactly seem to have natural chemistry during their scenes here, but anything pushing towards ever-greater absurdity is good in my book, particularly when we had to rely mostly on the Stat for that fix in the slightly disappointing Furious 8.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

Move away from the jams.

Aladdin (2019)
(SPOILERS) I was never overly enamoured by the early ‘90s renaissance of Disney animation, so the raves over Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin left me fairly unphased. On the plus side, that means I came to this live action version fairly fresh (prince); not quite a whole new world but sufficiently unversed in the legend to appreciate it as its own thing. And for the most part, Aladdin can be considered a moderate success. There may not be a whole lot of competition for that crown (I’d give the prize to Pete’s Dragon, except that it was always part-live action), but this one sits fairly comfortably in the lead.

He made me look the wrong way and I cut off my hand. He could make you look the wrong way and you could lose your whole head.

Moonstruck (1987)
(SPOILERS) Moonstruck has the dubious honour of making it to the ninth spot in Premiere magazine’s 2006 list of the 20 Most Overrated Movies of all Time. There are certainly some valid entries (number one is, however, absurd), but I’m not sure that, despite its box office success and Oscar recognition, the picture has a sufficient profile to be labelled with that adjective. It’s a likeable, lightweight romantic comedy that can boast idiosyncratic casting in a key role, but it simply doesn’t endure quotably or as a classic couple matchup the way the titans of the genre (Annie Hall, When Harry Met Sally) do. Even its magical motif is rather feeble.

Why would I turn into a filing cabinet?

Captain Marvel (2019)
(SPOILERS) All superhero movies are formulaic to a greater or lesser degree. Mostly greater. The key to an actually great one – or just a pretty good one – is making that a virtue, rather than something you’re conscious of limiting the whole exercise. The irony of the last two stand-alone MCU pictures is that, while attempting to bring somewhat down-the-line progressive cachet to the series, they’ve delivered rather pedestrian results. Of course, that didn’t dim Black Panther’s cultural cachet (and what do I know, swathes of people also profess to loving it), and Captain Marvel has hit half a billion in its first few days – it seems that, unless you’re poor unloved Ant-Man, an easy $1bn is the new $700m for the MCU – but neither’s protagonist really made that all-important iconic impact.

Bleach smells like bleach.

Million Dollar Baby (2004)
(SPOILERS) I’d like to be able to say it was beyond me how Clint’s misery-porn fest hoodwinked critics and the Academy alike, leading to his second Best Picture and Director double Oscar win. Such feting would naturally lead you to assume Million Dollar Baby was in the same league as Unforgiven, when it really has more in common with The Mule, only the latter is likeably lightweight and nonchalant in its aspirations. This picture has buckled beneath the burden of self-appointed weighty themes and profound musings, which only serve to highlight how crass and manipulative it is.

You're reading a comic book? What are you, retarded?

Watchmen: The Ultimate Cut (2009)
(SPOILERS) It’s a decade since the holy grail of comic books finally fought through decades of development hell to land on the big screen, via Zach Snyder’s faithful but not faithful enough for the devoted adaptation. Many then held the director’s skills with a much more open mind than they do now – following the ravages he has inflicted on the DCEU – coming as he was off the back of the well-received 300. Many subsequently held that his Watchmen, while visually impressive, had entirely missed the point (not least in some of its stylistic and aesthetic choices). I wouldn’t go that far – indeed, for a director whose bombastic approach is often only a few notches down from Michael Bay (who was, alarmingly, also considered to direct at one point), there are sequences in Watchmen that show tremendous sensitivity – but it’s certainly the case that, even or especially in its Ultimate Cut form and for all the furore the change to the end of the story provoked,…

I’d kill you too, Keanu. I’d kill you just for fun, even if I didn’t have to.

Always Be My Maybe (2019)
(SPOILERS) The pun-tastic title of this Netflix romcom is a fair indication of its affably undemanding attributes. An unapologetic riff on When Harry Met Sally, wherein childhood friends rather than college attendees finally agree the best thing to be is together, it’s resolutely determined to cover no new ground, all the way through to its positive compromise finale. That’s never a barrier to a good romcom, though – at their best, their charm is down to ploughing familiar furrows. Always Be My Maybe’s problem is that, decent comedy performers though the two leads may be – and co-writers with Michael Golamco – you don’t really care whether they get together or not. Which isn’t like When Harry Met Sally at all.

You're always sorry, Charles, and there's always a speech, but nobody cares anymore.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019)
(SPOILERS) To credit its Rotten Tomatoes score (22%), you’d think X-Men: Dark Phoenix was a travesty that besmirched the name of all good and decent (read: MCU proper) superhero movies, or even last week’s underwhelming creature feature (Godzilla: King of Monsters has somehow reached 40%, despite being a lesser beast in every respect). Is the movie’s fate a self-fulfilling prophecy, what with delayed release dates and extensively reported reshoots? Were critics castigating a fait accompli turkey without giving it a chance? That would be presupposing they’re all sheep, though, and in fairness, other supposed write-offs havecome back from such a brink in the past (World War Z). Whatever the feelings of the majority, Dark Phoenix is actually a mostly okay (twelfth) instalment in the X-franchise – it’s exactly what you’d expect from an X-Men movie at this point, one without any real mojo left and a variable cast struggling to pull its weight. The third act is a bi…

They went out of business, because they were too good.

School for Scoundrels (1960)
(SPOILERS) Possibly the pinnacle of Terry-Thomas’ bounder persona, and certainly the one where it’s put to best caddish use, as he gives eternally feckless mug Ian Carmichael a thorough lesson in one-upmanship, only for the latter to turn the tables when he finds himself a tutor. School for Scoundrels is beautifully written (by an uncredited Peter Ustinov and Frank Tarloff), filled with clever set pieces, a fine supporting cast and a really very pretty object of the competing chaps’ affection (Janette Scott), but it’s Terry-Thomas who is the glue that binds this together. And, while I couldn’t say for sure, this might have the highest “Hard cheese” count of any of his films.

Based on Stephen Potter’s 1947’s humorous self-help bestseller (and subsequent series of -manship books) The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship (or The Art of Winning Games without Actually Cheating), which suggested ungentlemanly methods for besting an opponent in any given field, gam…

I should have mailed it to the Marx Brothers.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
When your hero(es) ride off into the sunset at the end of a film, it’s usually a pretty clear indication that a line is being drawn under their adventures. Sure, rumours surfaced during the ‘90s of various prospective screenplays for a fourth outing for the whip-cracking archeologist. But I’m dubious anyone really expected it to happen. There seemed to be a natural finality to Last Crusade that made the announcement of his 2007 return nostalgically welcome but otherwise unwarranted. That it turned out so tepid merely seemed like confirmation of what we already knew; Indy’s time was past.