xXx: THE RETURN OF XANDER CAGE (2017): Same Zone, New Levels, All Xander


A good sequel is one that builds upon the established narrative of the original, taking it to surprising new places while developing its characters in new and interesting ways. This is a tall order, even when the first film practically lines up all the pieces FOR you. The original xXx (2002) couldn't be bothered to create any narrative foundation to build on. It was purely bombast and fury, and so when it came time to resurrect the franchise, the filmmakers did the only logical thing: Develop the bombast in new and interesting ways and populate it with more cool characters than before. The result is probably the best sequel to a xXx movie we could ever ask for.

When viewed today, the original xXx feels like a time capsule of the early 2000s. We got cameos by extreme sports stars like Tony Hawk (a.k.a. the coolest person in the world circa 1998-2003). Xander himself was the star of a popular web show called The Xander Xone, which had to be downloaded by fans because YouTube didn't exist yet. Xander's hot producer was played by R&B singer, Eve (remember her?) and his drink of choice was Sobe (remember that?). It had a sincere goofiness to it, though it was still able to skate by with charm and optimism back in the day. But can that kind of movie even exist in our deeply cynical times?

The Return of Xander Cage or TRXC doesn’t compromise its early 2000s sensibilities, for better or worse. While it does borrow heavily from The Fast and the Furious (let's create a close knit action team!), TRXC is still distinctly xXx. It's weirder and more cartoonish than Fast and Furious (seriously) and the team feels a bit more outlandish. This is an unapologetic action cartoon that takes itself just seriously enough to not fall into comedic madness. The story is just a flimsy means of creating situations and action sequences that show off the talents and personalities of the cast.

The film follows two teams of badasses, one lead by Xander and the other lead by Xiang (Donnie Yen). They're vying for control of a device that can hijack satellites and even bring them down like missiles fired from orbit. Xander is exactly the same character he was when we last saw him 15 years ago. He's a lot more of a smartass than Diesel's other franchise characters (Dom and Riddick). He still feels like a 14 year old boy's power fantasy come to life; an odd thing when you realize that he's nearly 50.

Xiang may be the best Hollywood role of Donnie Yen's career. He kicks a lot of ass (as expected), but his character gets to have some of that Donnie Yen cockiness that he rarely gets to show. This role was originally to be played by Jet Li before he had to drop out (supposedly, Li was on set for about a week before bowing out). Honestly, the switch was a good idea and the movie benefits greatly from Yen's presence. His action scenes here may not be quite on par with his Hong Kong/China work, but they make up for it with a grander scale than what we're used to seeing from him.

Xander's team is rounded out by badass sniper Adele (Ruby Rose), maniac driver Tennyson (Rory McCann) and DJ extraordinaire Nicks (Kris Wu). Out of everyone, it's Ruby who shines the brightest. She effortlessly exudes badass charisma just by showing up. McCann is endlessly amusing and gets many of the film's best comedic bits. Unfortunately, Kris Wu kinda falls into the background. His specialty is only relevant once in the film before he becomes a support player. It also doesn't help that he shares most of his scenes with McCann, who effortlessly dominates them.

Xiang's team practically mirrors Xander's with female mercenary, Serena (Deepika Padukone), wild trickster, Talon (Tony Jaa) and.... guy who punches things, Hawk (Michael Bispin). Deepika is often paired in scenes with Ruby Rose but manages to hold her own quite well (and she looks great in a gunfight). Jaa's Talon is probably the most fun character he's ever played. His fight scenes are minimal with the film focusing more on his formidable tricking and freerunning skills. Michael Bispin... punches things. His role was originally meant for UFC champ Connor McGregor who dropped out shortly before filming started. Bispin's role is, basically, stunt-casting meant for another celebrity; it's the most thankless role in the entire film.

The cast is rounded out NSA boss Jane Marke (Toni Collette) and tech girl Becky Clearage (Nina Dobrev). Collette is a walking stereotype with no real depth. Dobrev, on the other hand is a strange case. She bounces from being adorkable Q, to adorkable Basil Exposition, to adorkable Jar Jar Binks. Her character skirts the line between likeable and insufferable but she does look great while explaining the mess of a plot to the other characters (and the audience).

When all is said and done, it all comes down to whether or not the action delivers. Short answer: Yes, it does. The moment that Xander Cage uses a motorcycle to flashkick someone is some crazy action nirvana. The cinematography gets a little chaotic at times but the action is the kind of creative insanity that a movie like this is made for. There is some really great practical stuntwork on display here, just don't expect much in the way of realism.

If you hated the original xXx for being a flashy, juvenile mess of a film (all valid criticism), then xXx: The Return Of Xander Cage isn't for you. But, if you have a soft spot for the original and other films like it, then this is your movie. It recaptures the spirit of the original perfectly; those halcyon days when action movies could throw caution and plausibility to the wind.

Comments

  1. Glad you liked it. Hope we get a 4th installment.

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