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Film Review: ‘xXx: Return of Xander Cage’

Variety logo Variety 1/20/2017 Andrew Barker
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xXx: Return of Xander Cage” begins in outer space, and the camera follows a rogue satellite as it leaves orbit and plummets toward the exact spot on earth where Samuel L. Jackson and Brazilian soccer star Neymar are discussing Stacy Peralta skate films in a Chinese restaurant. A few minutes later, the camera follows Vin Diesel as he dirt-skis down a snowless hillside in order to connect Dominican fishermen with a pirated feed of the World Cup. Half an hour after that, it picks up with Diesel as he surfs ten-foot waves on a motorcycle off the shore of a Philippine rave-island. None of this makes any more sense onscreen than it does on paper, and therein lies this film’s undeniable numbskull appeal.

It’s unlikely that anyone aside from prodigal star and producer Diesel was screaming for a return of the “xXx” franchise, which already felt Clinton-era-dated when it launched in 2002, and seemed to have fizzled for good after 2005’s Diesel-free sequel. But it’s very clear what Diesel wants to do with it, and that involves taking more than a few cues from the star’s “Fast and the Furious” saga, which somehow turned from a standard-issue b-movie assembly line into action cinema’s best-loved steroidal soap opera. “The Return of Xander Cage” is unlikely to see similar returns, but under the auspices of director D.J. Caruso, the franchise evolves from groanworthy stupidity to entirely self-aware stupidity, and muscles Diesel out of the spotlight long enough to make room for a gang of international co-stars, one of whom – Hong Kong superstar Donnie Yen – is allowed to deftly steal the show from under him.

Xander Cage (Diesel) was pronounced dead in “xXx: State of the Union,” but as this film begins, his condition has been upgraded to “alive.” He’s been living off the grid for years, yet his past remains close behind, as the pasts of extreme-sports-enthusiasts-turned-secret-agents tend to do. Intelligence officer Jane Marke (Toni Collette, affecting the salty deadpan of a weary suburban mom on her third margarita of the afternoon) tracks him down with an urgent new assignment: A mysterious gang of daredevils lead by Serena (Deepika Padukone), Xiang (Yen), and Talon (a sadly under-utilized Tony Jaa) have absconded with a secret weapon dubbed “Pandora’s Box,” which allows malefactors to drop satellites from the sky, and she needs Xander to recover it.

Xander is first paired with a troop of square-jawed soldiers, whom he promptly drops out of a plane. In their place, he recruits a posse of kindred-spirit yahoos, including deranged stunt-driver Tennyson (Rory McCann), wisecracking lesbian sniper Adele Wolf (Ruby Rose), and the sprightly DJ Harvard “Nicks” Zhou (Kris Wu), whose special skill the film defines as being “fun to be around.” Also on Xander’s side, a motormouthed Q-figure named Becky (Nina Dobrev), who outfits the team with a wealth of gizmos while awkwardly attempting to sleep with Xander.

Rarely do five minutes elapse between some sort of laugh-out-loud absurdity, and the distinction between the film’s intentional and unintentional comedy grows hazier as it goes. Xander goes “undercover” in London by donning a ridiculous fur coat and bedding five bikini-clad computer hackers at once. Xander and Serena enliven their otherwise lifeless flirtations by rolling live grenades back and forth across a table. CIA headquarters appears to have been moved from Langley to Manhattan without explanation. More than a few one-liners are rendered incomprehensible, but someone very clearly calls Diesel a “Red Bull freakshow.” When it comes to January releases, moviegoers have to take what they can get.

Unlike the last series installment, “Return of Xander Cage” tips the balance toward in-camera stuntwork rather than apparently computer-generated fakery (though there’s still plenty of the latter), and editors Jim Page and Vince Filippone do yeoman’s work to comprehensibly cut around Diesel during the more outrageous setpieces. Requiring far less visual misdirection is Yen, whose dazzling physical abilities receive their second U.S. showcase in as many months (after “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”), and whose star in the West ought to keep rising. If he can make America care about “xXx” again, he can do anything.

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