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…

Rejoice! The broken are the more evolved. Rejoice.

Split (2016)
(SPOILERS) M Night Shyamalan went from the toast of twist-based filmmaking to a one-trick pony to the object of abject ridicule in the space of only a couple of pictures: quite a feat. Along the way, I’ve managed to miss several of his pictures, including his last, The Visit, regarded as something of a re-locating of his footing in the low budget horror arena. Split continues that genre readjustment, another Blumhouse production, one that also manages to bridge the gap with the fare that made him famous. But it’s a thematically uneasy film, marrying shlock and serious subject matter in ways that don’t always quite gel.

Shyamalan has seized on a horror staple – nubile teenage girls in peril, prey to a psychotic antagonist – and, no doubt with the best intentions, attempted to warp it. But, in so doing, he has dragged in themes and threads from other, more meritable fare, with the consequence that, in the end, the conflicting positions rather subvert his attempts at subversion…

Exit bear, pursued by an actor.

Paddington 2 (2017)
(SPOILERS) Paddington 2 is every bit as upbeat and well-meaning as its predecessor. It also has more money thrown at it, a much better villain (an infinitely better villain) and, in terms of plotting, is more developed, offering greater variety and a more satisfying structure. Additionally, crucially, it succeeds in offering continued emotional heft and heart to the Peruvian bear’s further adventures. It isn’t, however, quite as funny.

Even suggesting such a thing sounds curmudgeonly, given the universal applause greeting the movie, but I say that having revisited the original a couple of days prior and found myself enjoying it even more than on first viewing. Writer-director Paul King and co-writer Simon Farnaby introduce a highly impressive array of set-ups with huge potential to milk their absurdity to comic ends, but don’t so much squander as frequently leave them undertapped.

Paddington’s succession of odd jobs don’t quite escalate as uproariously as they migh…

Never compare me to the mayor in Jaws! Never!

Ghostbusters (2016)
(SPOILERS) Paul Feig is a better director than Ivan Reitman, or at very least he’s savvy enough to gather technicians around him who make his films look good, but that hasn’t helped make his Ghostbusters remake (or reboot) a better movie than the original, and that’s even with the original not even being that great a movie in the first place.

Along which lines, I’d lay no claims to the 1984 movie being some kind of auteurist gem, but it does make some capital from the polarising forces of Aykroyd’s ultra-geekiness on the subject of spooks and Murray’s “I’m just here for the asides” irreverence. In contrast, Feig’s picture is all about treating the subject as he does any other genre, be it cop, or spy, or romcom. There’s no great affection, merely a reliably professional approach, one minded to ensure that a generous quota of gags (on-topic not required) can be pumped out via abundant improv sessions.

So there’s nothing terribly wrong with Ghostbusters, but aside from …

What I have tried to show you is the inevitability of history. What must be, must be.

The Avengers 2.24: A Sense of History
Another gem, A Sense of History features one of the series’ very best villains in Patrick Mower’s belligerent, sneering student Duboys. Steed and Mrs Peel arrive at St Bode’s College investigating murder most cloistered, and the author of a politically sensitive theoretical document, in Martin Woodhouse’s final, and best, teleplay for the show (other notables include Mr. Teddy Bear and The Wringer).

Are you drinking the water?

A Cure for Wellness (2016)
(SPOILERS) Well, this is far more suited to Dane DeHaan’s slightly suspect shiftiness than ludicrously attempting to turn him into an outright action hero (Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets). It’s not, though, equal to director Gore Verbinski’s abilities. One of Hollywood’s great visualists but seemingly languishing without a clear path since he was cast adrift from collaborating with Johnny Depp, unfortunately, he must cop most of the blame for A Cure for Wellness, since it was his idea.

There’s a whiff of Shutter Island’s pulp psychodrama tonally, as DeHaan’s unscrupulous finance company executive Lockhart is sent to a Swiss health spa to fetch back a board member vital to pressing ahead with a merger. No sooner has he reached the alpine wellness centre, resplendent in the grounds of historic castle with a dark past, than he’s involved in a car accident, leaving him with a leg in a cast and “encouragement” to recuperate on site, taking the waters …

Space is disease and danger wrapped in darkness and silence.

Star Trek (2009)
(SPOILERS) If JJ Abrams’ taking up the torch of the original Star Wars trilogy had been as supremely satisfying as his Star Trek reboot, I’d have very little beef with it. True, they both fall victim to some incredibly ropey plotting, but where Star Trek scores, making it an enormously rewatchable movie, is that it gets its characters right – which isn’t to suggest it’s getting The Original Series characters right, but it’s giving us compelling new iterations of them – and sends them on emotional journeys that satisfy. If the third act is somewhat rote, its achievements up to that point put it comfortably in the top rank of Trek movies.

This here's a bottomless pit, baby. Two-and-a-half miles straight down.

The Abyss (1989)
(SPOILERS) By the time The Abyss was released in late summer ’89, I was a card carrying James Cameron fanboy (not a term was in such common use then, thankfully). Such devotion would only truly fade once True Lies revealed the stark, unadulterated truth of his filmmaking foibles. Consequently, I was an ardent Abyss apologist, railing at suggestions of its flaws. I loved the action, found the love story affecting, and admired the general conceit. So, when the Special Edition arrived in 1993, with its Day the Earth Stood Still-invoking global tsunami reinserted, I was more than happy to embrace it as a now-fully-revealed masterpiece.

I still see the Special Edition as significantly better than the release version (whatever quality concerns swore Cameron off the effects initially, CGI had advanced sufficiently by that point;certainly, the only underwhelming aspect is the surfaced alien craft, which was deemed suitable for the theatrical release), both dramatically and them…

You just keep on drilling, sir, and we'll keep on killing.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (2016)
(SPOILERS) The drubbing Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk received really wasn’t unfair. I can’t even offer it the “brave experiment” consolation on the basis of its use of a different frame rate – not evident in itself on 24fps Blu ray, but the neutering effect of the actual compositions is, and quite tellingly in places – since the material itself is so lacking. It’s yet another misguided (to be generous to its motives) War on Terror movie, and one that manages to be both formulaic and at times fatuous in its presentation.

The irony is that Ang Lee, who wanted Billy Lynn to feel immersive and realistic, has made a movie where nothing seems real. Jean-Christophe Castelli’s adaptation of Ben Fountain’s novel is careful to tread heavily on every war movie cliché it can muster – and Vietnam War movie cliché at that – as it follows Billy Lynn (British actor Joe Alwyn) and his unit (“Bravo Squad”) on a media blitz celebrating their heroism in 2004 Iraq …

Don't give me any of that intelligent life crap, just give me something I can blow up.

Dark Star (1974)
(SPOILERS) Is Dark Star more a John Carpenter film or more a Dan O’Bannon one? Until the mid ‘80s it might have seemed atypical of either of them, since they had both subsequently eschewed comedy in favour of horror (or thriller). And then they made Big Trouble in Little China and Return of the Living Dead respectively, and you’d have been none-the-wiser again. I think it’s probably fair to suggest it was a more personal film to O’Bannon, who took its commercial failure harder, and Carpenter certainly didn’t relish the tension their creative collaboration brought (“a duel of control” as he put it), as he elected not to work with his co-writer/ actor/ editor/ production designer/ special effects supervisor again. Which is a shame, as, while no one is ever going to label Dark Star a masterpiece, their meeting of minds resulted in one of the decade’s most enduring cult classics, and for all that they may have dismissed it/ seen only its negatives since, one of the best mo…