XXX: Return of Xander Cage Review

THE GOOD, THE EXTREME,

AND THE COMPLETELY INSANE


 

Before The Fast and the Furious movies took off and became super popular film franchise that it is currently, actor Vin Diesel tried to his hand at another potential franchise. Yes, I’m talking about the thrill-seeking action XXX movies. Created back in 2002, the first movie that was simply titled XXX followed the story of a rebellious / extreme daredevil Xander Cage, who gets recruited through the NSA to inflate a group of Russian terrorists. While the movie was met with mixed reviews, the film did find its success at the box office, grossing over $270 million, which is pretty good for a “B-rated” action flick (at that time). In 2005, the franchise was resurrected, but not with Vin Diesel or his of character Xander Cage, finding a new hero in rapper / actor Ice Cube’s character Darius Stone in the film XXX: State of the Union. State of the Union was pretty much the same as the last movie, (tweaking stuff here and there), and followed the story of a renegade that gets recruited by the NSA to take down some bad guys, with some elaborate actions stunts thrown in. As one would imagine (with sequels), State of the Union was heavily criticized by critics and moviegoers and underperformed at the box office, barely making over its production cost. It’s been fifteen years since we’ve seeing Diesel’s Xander Cage on-screen and now he’s back for another round crazy action stunts as Paramount Pictures and director D. J. Caruso present the new movie XXX: Return of Xander Cage. Are audiences ready for the return of Xander Cage or would they rather just see Diesel’s Dominic Toretto return in a new Fast and the Furious movie?

THE STORY


When a satellite crashes to Earth and causes the deaths of many civilians, the NSA learns that the incident was a planned strategic attack by terrorists who have acquired a device called Pandora’s Box, a tech device that has the ability to control military satellites. Fearing that more strikes will happen, NSA suit Jane Marke (Toni Collette) takes charge of the machine, but is caught off guard when a group of mercenaries, led by Xiang (Donnie Yen) and his followers Talon (Tony Jaa), Serena (Deepika Padukone), and Hawk (Michael Bispring) infiltrate their New York headquarters and take Pandora’s Box for their own nefarious ways. Seeking assistance to find and comfort these radical group of specialized mercenaries, Marke recruits the famous Xander Cage (Vin Diesel), pulling the rebellious extreme stunt man out of retirement (and supposedly back from the dead) and back on a mission to save the world. Xander quickly builds his own team around him, including Adele Wolff (Ruby Rose), Tennyson Torch (Rory McCann), and Harvard “Nicks” Zhou (Kris Wu), to aid him in recapturing Pandora’s Box for the NSA. However, things may not be entirely what they seem as Xander and his friends quickly find themselves caught deep in a conspiracy that run all the way to the top of the food chain.

THE GOOD / THE BAD


I remember I saw the first XXX movie in theaters. Yes, I was a 15-year-old teenager back then and was caught up in all the action movies of that time period (whether they were good or bad). I liked Vin Diesel in Fast and the Furious and was interested in seeing in XXX. After seeing it, I thought that XXX was just okay (a sort of one and down type film). Then came State of the Union, with a new XXX character (Ice Cube). I skipped seeing this movie in theaters and saw it on TV some years later. To be honest, it was a bit disappointing. But again, the first film was just okay and really didn’t warrant a sequel. Then, like many, I was a bit shocked to hear that they (the studio heads) were resurrecting the XXX franchise with a third installment, that installment being this new movie. The movie trailers looked cool, with plenty of action thrills (much more than the previous ones) and I was interested in seeing this movie because it had Vin Diesel returning to reprise his character as Xander Cage. On the other hand, I really didn’t expect much from this movie, so I kept my expectations low. After seeing the movie, I felt that XXX: Return of Xander Cage was well-executed in its over-top-action stunts, which might please fans and / or action flick junkies, but the rest of the film fails to ignite excitement and feels derivate to what’s coming before. Action is strong supply, while substance and a good story is not.

Return of Xander Cage is directed by Director D. J. Caruso, who’s previous works include directing Eagle Eye, Disturbia, and I am Number Four. From the get-go, Caruso makes sure that viewers know that this movie is not be taken seriously, with most of the movie have a throwback action style film from the late 90s or early 2000s. The movie is self-aware of this and makes for a mindless entertainment romp through elaborate set pieces and various action nuances. Of course, the highlight of the movie, is all the stunts and action scenes, which are dialed up and set between extreme to ridiculous. Some are really good and well-done, while others are good, but mixed with a splash utter disbelief (you’ll catch yourself saying “come on, man!”). There’s plenty in the movie for some interesting sequences, so they movie never has pacing issues. Even scenes with exposition (story plot) or trimmed down and are usually met with more action scenes. So, despite the world need saving, the film knows it’s being over-the-top with its crazy stunts and action frivolities and there’s always something happen on-screen to catch your eye.

While I do praise the movie for not taken itself too seriously, Return of Xander Cage is still a hollowed feature that doesn’t rise to the challenge or elevate itself from the “status quo” action movies. As I said, you have to take this movie with a grain of salt, which I did and also doing in reviewing it, but its shortcomings are glaring and noticeable. The film’s script, which is penned by F. Scott Frazier, is a shell of a story, manufacturing a thinly-written narrative for the film to play out. Basically, the movie’s narrative (on top of the heavy action sequences) plays out like a storyline from one of the Call of Duty video games (i.e. a sketchy tale of good vs. bad guys, fighting sequences in zero gravity, extreme chases through various locales, a plethora of bad guy “cannon fodder” shootouts, etc.). While it may work in the Call of Duty games and in its fan-base (the age of 10-14), the end result in Return of Xander Cage is simply plain, generic and, boring, feeling like it’s been done before. This brings me to my other point. Like a lot of 2016 belated sequel films (and there were a lot), Return of Xander Cage fits that mold in the 2017 movie releases. It would’ve been somewhat interesting to see this movie in 2006 or 2007, but the lengthy time gap between this one and 2005’s State of the Union (moreover the gap between this one and the original 2003’s XXX movie, which featured Vin Diesel) really dilutes the allure and magic of this franchise, which has now diminished over time. And let’s be honest, the XXX franchise wasn’t anything grand to begin with.

The real problem with Return of Xander Cage is that it feels derivative to several other films, most notably to the Fast and the Furious movies. Unlike the XXX films, the Fast and the Furious franchise has (over time) evolved, placing more emphasis on story rather than just street racing as well developing character over the course of its series. Yes, I’ll agree the Fast and Furious movies do share a similar action scenes of being over-the-top and ridiculous (the super long airport runaway in Fast and Furious 6 or the cars parachuting out of a plane in Furious 7), but the movie makes up for that in its character and story. Caruso and Frazier try to emulate the Fast and Furious formula in Return of Xander Cage, seeing Vin Diesel becoming the “alpha leader” of the group and showcasing the diverse dynamics of his ragtag team, which is then coupled with action stunts and daring feats. However, all of this seems a bit redundant and can’t match to what’s already been done in the Fast and the Furious movies. In addition, Return of Xander Cage tries also to be like a bit like Suicide Squad, giving each character an introductory song that’s coupled with a title graphic card that’s gives “fun” little factoids about them. In truth, beyond the extreme-like stunts, Return of Xander Cage lack its own unique style, feeling like run-of-the-mill action sequel. As a side-note, Pandora’s Box, the mysterious “macguffin” object in the movie seems a bit like “God’s Eye” from Furious 7 and a couple of older action movies (something out of a James Bond film). Also, the movie never explains why Xander Cage was supposedly dead in State of the Union (it’s sort of glossed over) and you have to accept that fact.

Just like the title of this film states, Return of Xander Cages focuses on seeing the character of Xander Cage return to “active duty” (back from being supposedly dead) and saving the world with his extreme stunt moves. Of course, the actually return of Xander Cage sees the return of actor Vin Diesel. Diesel, who’s now famous for Dominic Toretto from The Fast and the Furious movies as well as voicing Groot in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, does a fine job in reprising his role of Xander Cage, but (to be honest) it’s not his greatest role. Yes, Diesel has a magnetic charisma that he brings and everyone knows he’s not a grand thespian drama actor (I think he would be terrible acting at it), but he knows how to handle these type of characters (i.e. the action hero architype). On the other hand, it seems that Diesel is trying a bit too hard in certain sequences for his character to be cheeky, seeing Xander Cage spout several witty one-liners and zinger retorts, but it just comes off as too much. In truth, Diesel’s Xander Cage, while good for what the movie needs, still beat out Diesel’s Fast and the Furious character of Dominic Toretto.

The supporting cast in the movie is a diverse international cast, with some familiar faces popping in and out on-screen. Perhaps the most enjoyable (if not memorable) is the character of Xiang, who is played by actor Donnie Yen. Yen, who many will recognize as Chirrut Imwe from Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, displays his adeptness in his ability to perform some intriguing action sequences. There’s isn’t much to his character (kind of generic), but his action’s stunts are great, playing to the movie’s strengths in its over-the-top action nuances. Set in a similar fashion to Yen’s Xiang, actress Ruby Rose, known for his role in Netflix TV series Orange is the New Black, plays the marksman sharpshooter Adele Wolff. There’s not much to her character, but she seems to enjoy filming the movie, with plenty of witty banter moments that she can handle, which makes her character, at the very least, a little bit memorable. Plus, she kind of cute (at least in my opinion).

The rest of the supporting cast is mixed bag, from either weak performances or not enough screen time. To be fair, no one (including myself) expected some incredible awesome performances in Return of Xander Cage, but the rest of cast feels lost in the story. Thus, characters like Game of Thrones star Rory McCann’s Tennyson Torch, Kris Wu’s Nicks, Tony Jaa’s Talon, and Michael Bispring’s Hawk are all serviceable to the film’s final product, but they’re just simply there to round of Xander’s team and don’t have much beyond their initial character persona setup and / or action scenes. Clearly, the ensemble team is way overstuff with too many characters, which is one of the film’s problems, but there’s still more supporting characters in the movie.

Actress Deepika Padukone plays Serena Unger (essentially the film’s female lead character). While her acting ability is not in question, Padukone’s Serena is given a somewhat flirtatious romance with Xander Cage, but those romantic beats fall flat and kind of stops at the beginning of the third act and (like the rest of characters above) becomes a footnote. As a side-note, Samuel L. Jackson returns to reprise his role as Gibson, but his screen time is limited and is basically a cameo-like appearance that book end the film.

By far, the two weakest link in the movie found in the characters of Becky, Xander’s program tech assistant, and Jane Marke, Xander’s new handler, who are played actresses Nina Dorbev and Toni Collette. Dorbev (who kind of looks like Selena Gomez), known for his role in the TV show Vampire Diaries, is given the task to be the comic relief in the movie, but, with the movie already being a bit comedic in its ridiculous action and / or parody action movies, Dorbev’s Becky comes off as being annoying as the stereotypical fast-talking “out of her depth” tech assistant. I still don’t know if it’s due to her performance or was it just bad writing for her character. It’s a tossup. As for Toni Collette, known for her roles in United States of Tara, The Sixth Sense, and Little Miss Sunshine, her character of Jane Marke (basically the “new” handler / contact for Xander Cage) is generic, stiff, and boring, which can be seeing on Collette’s face. In truth, Collette seems uninterested in what’s going in the movie and always wearing a disgusting grimace / frowny face for most of the picture. She was just awful in the movie. As you can tell, this a lot of writing for just talking about the characters and that’s because the film has way too many to fully invest in each one or to even make them well-rounded enough to care about them. Perhaps Caruso or even Frazier should’ve trimming some of the characters down to a manageable number in order to give the more time for character development. Unfortunately, most of the characters in Return of Xander Cage, despite some being likeable other projects, come up short.

FINAL THOUGHTS


Xander Cage returns to the big screen in the action sequel film XXX: Return of Xander Cage. Director D. J. Caruso’s movie sees the return of the series’ original star (Vin Diesel) in another hair-raising adventure to save the world as its over-the-top action is dully noted can be somewhat fun and its diverse cast is likeable. Unfortunately, the movie is riddled with problems from a poor script, silly plot, weak characterization, and desperately trying to be work within the “Fast and the Furious” formula, which ultimately prevents the film from being anything more than a cheesy (and brainless) action madcap feature of the early 2000s. To me, it was a bit meh. As I said, the movie doesn’t take itself too seriously and does have some stupid fun entertainment value, but that’s pretty much it, leaving little to no desire of rewatching the film again or wishing to further continue the XXX franchise. Regardless of what I think of the movie, you probably around know if you’re going to see this movie or not (it’s one of those types of films). It’s not a game changer or anything revolutionary, so just take it as face value. Thus, my verdict for this movie is a mixture of a solid rental to those interested in the feature (no need to rush to the theaters to see it), while (for everyone else) simply skipping the feature altogether. Personally, just save your money and wait The Fate of the Furious to come out.

2.7 Out of 5 (Rent It / Skip It)

 

Released On: January 20th, 2017
Reviewed On: January 21st, 2017

XXX: Return of Xander Cage  runs 107 minutes and is rated PG-13 for extended sequences of gunplay and violent action, and for sexual material and language

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