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To the x-treme - ‘xXx: Return of Xander Cage’

January 25, 2017
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Big dumb action sequel is more fun than you might think

I’m probably not alone in thinking that the world would have been just fine without another installment in the ridiculously-named “xXx” action franchise. After all, the first film came out in 2002 and the Vin Diesel-less sequel landed in 2005. Still, considering Hollywood’s recent affinity for years-late sequels, it’s no surprise that we got one whether we wanted it or not.

“xXx: Return of Xander Cage” is precisely the movie that you think it is. It is undeniably dated and meatheaded to its extreme sports-riddled core. It is a series of overly elaborate set pieces surrounding a threadbare plot powered by poor choices and a textbook MacGuffin. And it has no pretensions about being anything else, which lends it a surprising watchability. Sure, it’s ludicrous and inconsistent and kind of, well, dumb – but its utter lack of apology for any of that helps its case more than you’d expect.

Vin Diesel (“Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”) is back as the titular Xander Cage, who has apparently spent the 15 years since the original film living in the jungle and using his extreme sports powers to become a Robin Hood-esque local legend.

But when Cage’s former xXx mentor Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children”) is killed through the use of a mysterious and powerful device called Pandora’s Box (a device that can somehow control pretty much whatever by pushing a button and is currently turning satellites into weapons by crashing them into places) and said device is stolen right from the hands of CIA bigwig Jane Marke (Toni Collette, “Imperium”), Cage is brought back into the fold to track it down.

He assembles his team – sharpshooter Adele Wolff (Ruby Rose, TV’s “Orange is the New Black”), stunt driver Tennyson Torch (Rory McCann, TV’s “Game of Thrones”) and good-time party guy Nicks (Kris Wu, “The Mermaid”) – and with help from Marke and former Gibbons techie Becky (Nina Dobrev, TV’s “The Vampire Diaries”), takes off in search of this other, remarkably similar team. The bad guys are led by Xiang (Donnie Yen, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”); he’s joined by Serena (Deepika Padukone, “Tamasha”), Talon (Tony Jaa, “Kill Zone 2”) and Hawk (Michael Bisping, “The Anomaly”).

What follows is a lot of chaos as Cage and his team soon discover that not all is at it seems; their true enemy might not be who they believe it to be. Still, it’s all up to them as they fight to prevent Pandora’s Box from falling into the wrong hands – it’s just a question as to who those hands might belong.

This is one of those movies where the plot exists solely to stitch together a series of over-the-top action sequences. Whether we’re watching extended hand-to-hand combat sequences or massive gunfights or physics-defying chase scenes, it’s clear that “xXx: Return of Xander Cage” isn’t all that concerned with plot coherence or really any sort of engaged storytelling. It’s basically a bunch of loud, brightly-colored nonsense.

And that’s OK.

No one is walking into this movie in search of depth; it isn’t about nuanced character studies or narrative complexity. Director D.J. Caruso makes it clear from the beginning that this movie is nothing more than an excuse to show a bunch of stuff that looks cool and no one involved is the least bit interested in apologizing for that truth. There’s a general sense of gleeful disregard throughout that proves surprisingly infectious, with loads of laughable moments that are nonetheless entertaining in their own way.

Diesel’s Xander Cage is a slight variation on his “Fast and Furious” Dom Toretto, all smug smirks and unlikely action. He’s spent well over a decade playing dudes like this and he wears it well, even if he is getting a bit long in the tooth for the whole edgy rebel thing. The supporting cast is fine, with the vast majority of them proving perfectly capable of handling the action side of things – Yen and Jaa are especially impressive on that end. And if the wooden dialogue occasionally proves more difficult to overcome, well … it’s not like people are turning up to listen to the dialogue. Even pros like Collette and Jackson – who clearly recognize the bats—t lunacy of the whole thing – look to be enjoying their time gnawing on the scenery.

Again, these movies are all about the action. And those sequences are engaging enough, with a constant kineticism that largely compensates for the fact that none of the reasoning behind it holds up to any kind of scrutiny.

“xXx: Return of Xander Cage” isn’t a good movie. Nor does it pretend to be. It is big and dumb, asking nothing more of its audience than to sit tight, munch some popcorn and watch fistfights and explosion. Not good, but surprisingly fun; if you’re looking to turn off your brain for a couple of hours, this one will be right up your alley.

[2.5 out of 5]

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