Review: xXx 3 is Still Kickin’, Still Stuntin’, Just With Dopeness Running Scarce

By January 20, 2017Movie Reviews

All rise: That distinctive (and burning) chunk of flesh was not Xander Cage.

Owing in part to Vin Diesel’s busy schedule, Paramount and Revolution Studios decided to gut his character and pass the xXx torch to Ice Cube, whose swagger wasn’t enough to blast State of the Union out of its made-for-TV mentality and into sequel territory. Now, twelve years of pondering later (along with a dose of regret over the premature chopping-board decision), the franchise finds itself resurrected, along with Cage himself and the will to make more of these stunt reels that gleefully call themselves action films.

And yet, judging by The Return of Xander Cage, the future looks decidedly risky. 

It’s strange to see Cage here, back at work to recover the NSA’s Nintendo DS-like device called Pandora’s Box (how inspired), parading around in action sequences that feels so detached from the franchise’s roots. Though Return is typically light on story and heavy on the foreplay, the original honored its daredevils-make-the-best-agents premise (cinema rarely spotlights its own stunt people) through practical-first stunts and patient editing. Return instead opts for CGI (that looks better than State – thank the heavens), along with today’s trend of frenzied cutting and claustrophobic set pieces. Despite owning the most budget in the franchise, a comparison of the climaxes – from pursuing a boat along the Vltava River in full view of the public to an in-plane fisticuffs/warehouse shootout – displays a downgrade in spectacle and stakes.

A pity, then, for at every point before this director D.J. Caruso and cinematographer Russell Carpenter do an admirable job at rendering the ludicrously sexy and brainless heart that the franchise is known for  sometimes more successfully than others. Like the xXx program designed to overwhelm enemies with unexpected people and moves, Caruso – working from a script by Scott F. Frazier – chucks all sorts of explosive elements (one time in the form of a grenade) into every scene and Carpenter – seemingly recalling his Charlie’s Angels days  picks the angles with the most kick.

Stronger still from Return’s perspective, and an indication of where the xXx franchise is heading, is the squad structure. In Suicide Squad-style, no less, Cage’s three team members introduce themselves as adept at what they do: the sharpshooter, Adele (Ruby Rose), the driver, Tennyson (Rory McCann) and the distractor, Nicks (Kris Wu). The opposition is no weak sauce, either, with the relentless Xiang leading his bodyguard Serena (Deepika Padukone), tank-like Hawk (Michael Bisping) and the possibly over-caffeinated brawler Talon (Tony Jaa). As diverse as the multi-national cast is their acting range, providing more distraction and chaos to a film already chocked full of it. Not that they care, provided each gets “their moment” to look dope, which they mostly do whenever editors Jim Page and Vince Filippone permit it.

Out of the supporting ensemble, Yen is the most consistent and has the most spark in a role that eclipses Cage’s return with relative ease. Though without the gravitas that made his Rogue One’s character, Chirrut Imwe, an instant favorite, Yen owns the hokey lines with all the same flair as his punches. It might be too early to say whether or not the producers have something in the pipeline for Xiang – his name has an X in it, hint hint – but Yen is probably better off pursuing better material after this. The same goes for Diesel, Padukone and – perhaps most importantly – Toni Collette, who hams it up in Return as Cage’s makeup-heavy handler. While the latest in the xXx saga improves upon its most immediate predecessor (talk about damning with faint praise),  it’s also not nearly as “dope” as it thinks it is.