‘xXx: Return of Xander Cage’ is Really Big, Really Dumb, Really Fun

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xXx: Return of Xander Cage

There’s no other movie star who has retained their improbable rise to stardom than Vin Diesel. The bulking one-dimensional actor has somehow been able to retain his status despite leaving his trademark franchise The Fast and the Furious after its initial entry only to return year years later and inject new life when it seems that it’s well past its point of relevance. Diesel did a similar thing with xXx, the 2002 film which aimed to be the James Bond for the X Games generation, leaving the franchise after one film and allowing Ice Cube to take the reins for 2005’s xXx: State of the Union. Over a decade has passed since the last film and common logic would suggest that xXx was a dead property, and yet Diesel returns 15 years after his last turn as Xander Cage and improbably revives this franchise with ample action-packed absurdity with xXx: Return of Xander Cage. This movie isn’t a guilty pleasure, just pure absurdist fun that wholly shuns realism. But realism is overrated when you’re having as much fun as xXx: Return of Xander Cage provides.

Directed by D.J. Caruso and written by F. Scott Frazier, xXx: Return of Xander Cage doesn’t do much to deviate from the typical spy movie formula. An all-powerful MacGuffin known as Pandora’s Box can control the numerous satellites orbiting the Earth, allowing whoever that controls the device to spy on whomever or take out opponents by allowing satellites to fall like bombs on their enemies. This device is stolen from NSA agent Jane Marke (Toni Collette) by a gang of mysterious super spies. With little recourse to track down the people who stole this all-powerful device, Marke finds Xander Cage (Diesel) in the Dominican Republic, just his latest hiding spot since faking his death (he was killed off with a single line of dialogue in State of the Union). Xander Cage assembles a team of misfits to help him track down Pandora’s Box, including sharpshooter Adele Wolf (Ruby Rose), unhinged stuntman Tennyson Torch (Rory McCann), and DJ/baller Nicks (Kris Wu). With the help of the quirky tech guru Becky Clearidge (Nina Dobrev), Xander and his gang will track down this MacGuffin and do so in X-treme style.

Quickly, Xander and his merry band of misfits track down the location of the gang responsible for stealing Pandora’s Box. And our macho hero wastes no time in confronting them. There’s the leader Xiang (Donnie Yen), the flamboyant fighter Talon (Tony Jaa), the towering strongman Hawk (Michael Bisping), and the alluring Serena Unger (Deepika Padukone). After a few fights, a few chases, and a bit of Xander flirting with Serena, the two competing groups of spies soon learn that they only had the prototype of Pandora’s Box and the devastating power of the film’s MacGuffin is still out there.

The surprises from xXx: Return of Xander Cage don’t come from the story, which is predictable in most of its beats. The surprises come from the level of insanity that Diesel and director Caruso are willing to go with the film’s action, such as when we’re reintroduced to Xander Cage and he proceeds to ski across a jungle in the Dominican Republic before skateboarding down a hill at an improbable rate of speed. As the film continues the brazen absurdity of the set pieces escalate and you’re left with no other option that to just embrace the lunacy and roll with it. As much the action of the film pushes the boundaries of reason so does the film’s dialogue, which features some astounding one-liners that whether earnest or joking are all delivered with a straight face.

However, to simply write off xXx or Vin Diesel as just dumb is to underestimate the film and its star. A lot people in Hollywood have mastered the art of taking a good game about diversity and representation, Vin Diesel and his films have consistently shown him ahead of the curve on these matters and that plays a big factor in his ability to maintain his improbable movie stardom. This extends well beyond the film’s remarkably diverse cast. xXx is also astoundingly progressive with its gender roles as well as featuring an openly queer character without having the character defined by her sexuality or gender. Even the roles that seem somewhat regressive and stereotypical, such as Nina Dobrev’s Becky, who is a beautiful woman that is quirky and nerdy solely because she wears glasses, is revealed to have much more agency and depth than the surface level absurdity would indicate. In a business where box office dollars speak louder than anything, Vin Diesel has routinely shown himself as an actor and producer with movies that walk the walk and provide the entertaining results where diversity in its cast isn’t a talking or selling point, just a reflection of the world we live in.

My biggest gripe with xXx: Return of Xander Cage is the fact that D.J. Caruso isn’t that proficient as an action director. Frantic camera work and quick edits may aid the movement of Vin Diesel on the screen but it has the opposite effect with great physical actors like Tony Jaa and Donnie Yen. None of the action deficiencies are egregious, but it’s the one factor of the film that prevents from being the no-holds-barred fun with the likes of Fast Five through Furious 7. The only other gripe about the movie is solely the fault of the marketing department, who gave away a major reveal in TV ads. Had I not caught the reveal in an ad while watching football, I might’ve lost my shit in the theater.

The insane fun of xXx: Return of Xander Cage is infectious. It’s obvious that the cast is having a blast with the escalating lunacy yet they never wink at the camera or giveaway that they’re in on the joke. This franchise which has remained dormant for years is reinvigorated with a movie that places Vin Diesel front and center yet shows that the star is keenly aware that he needs a team of talented ass-kickers to make him look all the better, and it works. xXx: Return of Xander Cage lays the groundwork for what could be Vin Diesel’s second franchise of action absurdity and omnipresent diversity. If there are future installments of the xXx franchise and they’re able to retain this level of majestic idiocy in the form of pure spectacle, it could run as long as The Fast and the Furious series. Vin Diesel consistently defies the odds. Don’t bet against him or xXx: Return of Xander Cage.

xXx: Return of Xander Cage
  • Overall Score
3.5

Summary

Defying all odds, reason, and the laws of physics, xXx: Return of Xander Cage is a long overdue sequel that is just like its producer-star Vin Diesel – big, dumb, earnest, and exXxtremely likable.

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