Lukewarm Takes #3 xXx: Return of Xander Cage

Back when I worked at The Dissolve, we noticed that a Forgotbuster piece I had written about the forgettable, forgotten Vin Diesel semi-blockbuster xXx was unusually popular. It was more than unusually popular. It was suspiciously popular. It was popular enough that we started wondering why exactly this particular piece of content did so well. 

Whatever Vin's chuckling at just isn't funny

Whatever Vin's chuckling at just isn't funny

Was the world just obsessed with xXx? Could people simply not get enough of Vin Diesel as a muscle-bound, gravel-voiced XXXtreme version of James Bond? Or could people simply not get enough of my sardonic wit? Then we realized that the surprising and persistent popularity of my xXx Forgotbuster entry had absolutely nothing to do with the article itself, or my writing, or Vin Diesel. No, it had everything to do instead with the movie’s title: xXx. 

Now a lot of y’all have grown up in a magical wonderland where pornography is free and varied and accessible at a very young age. God how I envy you. I like to think of this era as the Golden Age of Frenzied Masturbation but back when I was a young man pornography was much more difficult to access and enjoy. The internet did not yet exist as a massive free pornography distribution system so if you wanted to see something dirty and perverted you had to seek out X rated pornographic movies. 

X said that a movie was full of sexxx (and, to a much lesser degree, violence and/or profanity) but XXX said that a movie was three times as sexy and three times as pornographic. Obviously those three letters still held a lot of porn-magic for a lot of people, which helps explain why they accidentally ended up looking at my words when they were desperately seeking images or videos that would aid them in their fevered self-pleasuring. 

Oh Vin, can any woman resist you? 

Oh Vin, can any woman resist you? 

As I have hopefully already established, Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place is 100 percent pure and untainted by compromise or calculation. The list I posted on Monday about how there will never be lists spelled that out pretty clearly. So I can assure you that I am not cynically writing about the new xXx movie in a calculated attempt to trick search engines and generate traffic. If I wanted to do that, I would have littered this article with phrases solely calculated to attract the attention of search-engine perverts, like “Sorority House Lesbian Orgy”, “Kim Kardashian sex tape” and “Catholic Schoolgirls in Trouble.”

Alternately, I would play to our culture’s horrifying addiction to fake news and bogus information by filling this article with clearly phrases like “Obama shark attack footage unedited”, “Ted Cruz male stripper audition, epic fail” and “President Trump trampled by elephants, caught on tape.” But I’m not going to do any of those things because this is not about cynically chasing page-views. No, it’s about the serious, even sacred business of assessing the artistic worth and cultural value of the third entry in a franchise that had the audacity to ask an insufficiently extreme world, “Why can’t a terrible James Bond knockoff look and feel like a feature-length advertisement for Mountain Dew?” 

In xXx: Return of Xander Cage we witness the Christ-like return of Xander Cage, the marble-mouthed super-agent first introduced in 2002’s xXx. Cage was supposedly killed before the events of 2005’s xXx: State Of The Union but if the two Diesel-led xXx movies have taught us anything, it’s that you cannot kill a man like Xander Cage, who could have an atomic bomb land directly on him and emerge unscathed. 

Sure enough, as the movie opens Cage is living in some island paradise, where the residents view him as a combination folk hero, outlaw, minor deity and sex god. Children worship him, beautiful women long for him, and when a bunch of total badasses led by Donnie Chen’s Xiang steal a MacGuffin called “Pandora’s Box” (which is only slightly more subtle than actually just referring to it as a “MacGuffin”) the XXX program started by the eccentric Augustus Gibbons finds him and tasks the renegade with tracking down Pandora’s Box. Gibbons is played once again by Samuel L. Jackson, who has so much fun in these kinds of roles that you just wish he was able to share some of that excitement with the audience. 

The sequence where Xiang and his men (who include fellow Asian martial arts god/ringer Tony Jaa) purloin Pandora’s Box is fantastic: lightning fast, elegantly and cleanly choreographed and executed with preternatural swiftness and agility. This exhilarating set-piece raised my expectations but don’t worry: nothing else in the film is remotely as exciting or fun. 

The Pandora’s Box theft is terrific in no small part due to the absence of Vin Diesel and his insufferable character Xander Cage. Cage is introduced skiing off some mountain and then skateboarding down a steep incline in a way that really showcases the daring and bravery of Vin Diesel’s many, many stunt doubles, though even their heroic work cannot make a 49-year-old man pretending to be a bad-ass skateboarder seem any less ridiculous. 

Vin, minus his trademark sweaty undershirt

Vin, minus his trademark sweaty undershirt

Toni Collette, cast once again as a scowling ice queen of an authority figure, tries to get Xander to work with a bunch of lame “soldiers.” But Xander, who is a Sherlock Holmes-level genius in addition to being seemingly indestructible, the world’s greatest extreme athlete and a Lothario who leaves the many women who throw themselves at him very satisfied, isn’t about to work with people who may be “highly skilled super-soldiers” but aren’t even moderately extreme, let alone totally extreme. Have these men bungee jumped naked while simultaneously wrestling an alligator, slamming a Dew, crushing at Call Of Duty and making love to a beautiful woman, as I’m sure Xander has, many times? Probably not. 

The team Collette’s sneering bigwig tries to saddle Xander with doesn’t even include a single sick-ass DJ as adept at making dope beats. You better believe that Xander's badass team has that covered. X's squad also includes Ruby Rose, a bad-ass lesbian animal lover (she's introduced discouraging poaching by shooting some poachers) and consequently the only woman in the film who does not hurl herself at Xander. Rose is another of the film’s rare bright spots. The only way I’d be down for a fourth XXX movie would be with her in the lead but, to paraphrase Clint Eastwood in In The Line Of Fire, that’s not gonna happen. 

Cage is supposed to be the sexiest and most charismatic man in human history so it’s unfortunate that Diesel looks like a walking, talking upright penis with arms and legs or, alternately, a giant mutated turtle who took so many steroids that his muscles popped his shell right off. Diesel delivers his dreadful wisecracks in a marble-mouthed monotone accompanied by an ever-present smirk. 

Diesel’s slurry, self-satisfied line delivery made me pine for the minimalist aesthetic of Kurt Russell, who reportedly has a habit of going through scripts with a marker and removing most of his dialogue. I wish Diesel had pursued a similar path, since the more Diesel talks, the hokier and more embarrassing he comes off. 

The dude on the right drops some sick beats. And is good at fighting, maybe? 

The dude on the right drops some sick beats. And is good at fighting, maybe? 

Watching Diesel swagger his way through this self-mythologizing nonsense I suddenly understood why Diesel’s best performances, in The Iron Giant and Guardians Of the Galaxy, were both voiceover performances where he played non-humans. Ironically, Diesel is way more wooden here than he was in Guardians Of The Galaxy, where he literally played a tree, and exhibited more range in a movie where he literally only said four words than one where he is the star and says, if anything, far too many words.  

xXx: Return of Xander Cage borrows a few pages from the Fast & The Furious playbook by surrounding its star with a sprawling, international cast that includes plenty of superstars from Asia, which certainly did not hurt its impressive box-office gross. But where teamwork and a perpetually expanding cast transformed the Fast & The Furious franchise from a gritty, tough little action movie to a multi-billion dollar pop-culture monolith, the famous faces from various lands on hand here serve only to buff the legend of a star who looks like a bag of rocks that came alive and took the form of a human being. 

Diesel has enjoyed a Fast & The Furious and Guardians Of The Galaxy-fueled comeback but his reputation and standing took a hit when he made the mistake of beefing with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, the world’s most likable man and got all lecherous and creepy with a female interviewer in a clip that quickly went viral, and cast Diesel in the worst possible light. 

Not a good look, there, Vin my man. 

The smug, leering jerk in that video interview is the Diesel who stars in xXx: The Return Of Xander Cage. The supporting characters here damn near pass out from the excitement of being in the presence of a figure as legendary and super heroic as Xander. He’s supposed to be the man of the moment, but that moment seemed to have passed long ago.

Xander already cut a ridiculous, anachronistic figure in 2002, when Diesel was in mid mid-thirties and the extreme sports wave had already passed. By this point, the “totally extreme” era of both sports and pop-culture is an increasingly fuzzy memory but Return of Xander Cage acts like extreme sports are on the cutting edge of contemporary pop culture, and not an embarrassing relic of the past. 

The appeal of James Bond is that he’s smooth, agile, debonair. He’s not a bruiser; he’s pure elegance. Diesel’s performance in xXx: Return Of Xander Cage, in sharp contrast, is leaden and lumbering. A movie like this desperately needs to be quick and light on its feet, but instead it takes after its lead. 

I hated xXx and also hated xXx: Return Of Xander Cage because I hated its protagonist and the more the film angrily tried to convince me that I was watching the coolest motherfucker on the planet, the more my brain rebelled. To dole out some very faint praise, I liked 2005’s Diesel-free sequel xXx: State Of The Nation best of the trilogy because its funky, blaxploitation vibe represented a marked departure from the first film. 

So it is perhaps not surprising that my favorite part of xXx: Return Of Xander Cage was when Ice Cube popped out of nowhere as his xXx: State Of The Nation character to lend a little support and help tie together the sprawling xXx universe together. Ice Cube is a genuine badass who doesn’t take himself too seriously, so perhaps it isn’t surprising that Cube packs more fun and entertainment and levity in his three minutes onscreen than Diesel manages in over an hour and a half. 

Villains generally get the best lines. That’s true of xXx: The Return Of Xander Cage when Yen and Jaa are the bad guys but in yet another move “borrowed” from The Fast & The Furious, the bad guys turn out to be the good guys, and join forces with the heroes to fight the real bad guys, who are of course Collette’s stern overseer and those insufficiently extreme soldiers Xander Cage gave the business to earlier in the film. 

When Samuel L. Jackson makes the least surprising return from the dead in film history at the very end of xXx: Return of Xander Cage (with the possible exception of Xander Cage, of course), he impishly implores Xander do what kick-ass action heroes invariably do in movies like this: “Kick some ass. Get the girl. And try to look dope while you’re doing it.”

Sure enough, Xander kicks some ass and gets the girl. And he tries so very hard to look dope doing it that it’s a little sad. Because if you have to try to look dope as hard as Xander does, then you’re not really dope at all. That’s true of the film as well. It tries so, so very hard to be a totally extreme James Bond and never comes close to succeeding. In a poisonous irony, the harder the film works to make itself and its hero seem bad-ass, the lamer and more desperate it seems. Cool is inherently effortless, and xXx: Return of Xander Cage exudes considerable effort trying and failing to establish its hipness. 

This might seem harsh, but after venturing cautiously into the world of newish films with first Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice and then Suicide Squad and now xXx: The Return Of Xander Cage, I’m not sure film as a medium and an art form can be redeemed. These three films have simply plunged the art of cinema into a hole so deep I don’t know if it can ever recover. 

Then again, I do vaguely recall enjoying movies in the past (I think there was a movie called Back To The Future that was good) so maybe I shouldn’t be so hasty and view xXx: The Return Of Xander Cage as the conclusive third strike for an entire art-form. 

Nevertheless, I’m trying to remain cautiously optimistic about film as a whole so I think for the next entry in Lukewarm Takes I may have to do something shocking and out of character and actually write about a good movie for once. 

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