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

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

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…

I don’t think you will see President Pierce again.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018)
(SPOILERS) The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and other tall tales of the American frontier is the title of "the book" from which the Coen brothers' latest derives, and so announces itself as fiction up front as heavily as Fargo purported to be based on a true story. In the world of the portmanteau western – has there even been one before? – theme and content aren't really all that distinct from the more familiar horror collection, and as such, these six tales rely on sudden twists or reveals, most of them revolving around death. And inevitably with the anthology, some tall tales are stronger than other tall tales, the former dutifully taking up the slack.

One day you will speak and the jungle will listen.

Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle (2018)
(SPOILERS) The unloved and neglected Jungle Book movie that wasn't Disney’s, Jungle Book: Origins was originally pegged for a 2016 release, before being pushed to last year, then this, and then offloaded by Warner Bros onto Netflix. During which time the title changed to Mowgli: Tales from the Jungle Book, then Mowgli, and finally Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle. The assumption is usually that the loser out of vying projects – and going from competing with a near $1bn grossing box office titan to effectively straight-to-video is the definition of a loser – is by its nature inferior, but Andy Serkis' movie is a much more interesting, nuanced affair than the Disney flick, which tried to serve too many masters and floundered with a finale that saw Mowgli celebrated for scorching the jungle. And yes, it’s darker too. But not grimdarker.

You look like an angry lizard!

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
(SPOILERS) I can quite see a Queen fan begrudging this latest musical biopic for failing to adhere to the facts of their illustrious career – but then, what biopic does steer a straight and true course? – making it ironic that they're the main fuel for Bohemian Rhapsody's box office success. Most other criticisms – and they're legitimate, on the whole – fall away in the face of a hugely charismatic star turn from Rami Malek as the band's frontman. He's the difference between a standard-issue, episodic, join-the-dots narrative and one that occasionally touches greatness, and most importantly, carries emotional heft.

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

A steed is not praised for its might, but for its thoroughbred qualities.

The Avengers Season 3 Ranked - Worst to Best
Season Three is where The Avengers settles into its best-known form – okay, The Grandeur that was Rome aside, there’s nothing really pushing it towards the eccentric heights it would reach in the Rigg era – in no small part due to the permanent partnering of Honor Blackman with Patrick Macnee. It may not be as polished as the subsequent incarnations, but it has the appeal of actively exploring its boundaries, and probably edges out Season Five in the rankings, which rather started to believe its own hype.

Outstanding. Now, let’s bite off all the heads and pile them up in the corner.

Venom (2018)
(SPOILERS) A 29% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes can't be wrong, can it? To go by the number of one-star reviews Sony’s attempt to kick-start their own shred of the Marvel-verse has received, you’d think it was the new Battlefield Earth, or Highlander II: The Quickening. Fortunately, it's far from that level of ignominy. And while it’s also a considerable distance from showing the polish and assuredness of the official Disney movies, it nevertheless manages to establish its own crudely winning sense of identity.

I take Quaaludes 10-15 times a day for my "back pain", Adderall to stay focused, Xanax to take the edge off, part to mellow me out, cocaine to wake me back up again, and morphine... Well, because it's awesome.

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Along with Pain & Gain and The Great Gatsby, The Wolf of Wall Street might be viewed as the completion of a loose 2013 trilogy on the subject of success and excess; the American Dream gone awry. It’s the superior picture to its fellows, by turns enthralling, absurd, outrageous and hilarious. This is the fieriest, most deliriously vibrant picture from the director since the millennium turned. Nevertheless, stood in the company of Goodfellas, the Martin Scorsese film from which The Wolf of Wall Street consciously takes many of its cues, it is found wanting.

I was vaguely familiar with the title, not because I knew much about Jordan Belfort but because the script had been in development for such a long time (Ridley Scott was attached at one time). So part of the pleasure of the film is discovering how widely the story diverges from the Wall Street template. “The Wolf of Wall Street” suggests one who towers over the city like a behemoth, rather than a guy …

A machine planet, sending a machine to Earth, looking for its creator. It’s absolutely incredible.

Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979)
(SPOILERS) Most of the criticisms levelled at Star Trek: The Motion Picture are legitimate. It puts spectacle above plot, one that’s so derivative it might be classed as the clichéd Star Trek plot. It’s bloated and slow moving. For every superior redesign of the original series’ visuals and concepts, there’s an inferior example. But… it’s also endlessly fascinating. It stands alone among the big screen chapters of series as an attempted reimagining of the TV show as a grand adult, serious-minded “experience”, taking its cues more from 2001: A Space Odyssey than Star Wars or even Close Encounters of the Third Kind (the success of which got The Motion Picture (TMP) a green light, execs sufficiently convinced that Lucas’ hit wasn’t a one-off). It’s a film (a motion picture, not a mere movie) that recognises the passage of time (albeit clumsily at points) and gives a firm sense of space and place to its characters universe. It’s hugely flawed, but it bot…