‘xXx: Return of Xander Cage’ Review: Neither Fast Nor Furious

     January 20, 2017

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In 2002, Vin Diesel attempted to give himself a spy franchise with xXx. The concept was that James Bond was old and stale and that what audiences wanted was a rebel who was into extreme sports. The result was laughable at best and unbearable at worst. “Hero” Xander Cage came off like a smug, self-satisfied bastard unworthy of our sympathy, and the film played like an extended Mountain Dew commercial. The movie was largely met with apathy, and Diesel didn’t even bother to return for the 2005 sequel xXx: State of the Union.

However, seeing as his Fast and Furious franchise has grown into one of the most successful properties on the planet, Diesel has attempted to refashion xXx into a similar, team-based mold. Unfortunately, xXx: Return of Xander Cage suffers from the same problems as the original with Xander being an immensely unlikable hero and the surrounding film being far too self-conscious to be any fun. While the cast of supporting characters is colorful (albeit one dimensional), Diesel ends up being the worst thing in his own movie.

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Image via Paramount

Xander Cage (Diesel) is called back into action when his handler Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson) is killed by a purposefully crashed satellite and a mysterious figure named Xiang (Donnie Yen) makes off with Pandora’s Box, a device that can crash any of the 30,000 satellites in orbit. Xander, under the watchful eye of government agent Jane Marke (Toni Collette), assembles a team consisting of hot sniper Adele (Ruby Rose), brawler Tennyson (Rory McCann), and “fun guy” Nicks (Kris Wu) to track down Xiang’s team, which consists of Serena (Deepika Padukone), Talon (Tony Jaa), and Hawk (Michael Bisping). Ridiculous action scenes ensue.

On the surface, it looks like director D.J. Caruso is trying to craft some good dumb fun, and there’s nothing wrong with a silly, over the top action movie. I love those kinds of movies. The problem is that Return of Xander Cage is far too self-conscious of how ridiculous it’s trying to be. It lacks the brazen lack of self-awareness that makes bad movie entertainingly good. xXx proudly shouts, “Look how dumb we are!” and wants credit for being both silly and cool.

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Image via Paramount

The problem is that those two concepts are in opposition to each other. Either you don’t care what people think or you do, and xXx clearly wants to be noticed even if it’s trying to carry itself as borderline parody. It wants you to laugh at a motorcycle chase on water, but it also wants credit for how cool that chase looks. It wants you to roll your eyes at Xander skiing through the jungle, but it also wants you to marvel at how much of a badass he is.

That’s difficult to do when Xander comes off like such a tool. Return of Xander Cage wants to reset xXx into Fast and Furious, but Xander Cage is no Dom Toretto. While I’m not a huge fan of Dom, at least he has a heart and clearly cares about other people. Meanwhile, Xander Cage comes off as what a nerdy person thinks a cool person acts like. Diesel is a nerd, and that’s why he works much better in something like The Last Witch Hunter, which may not be a great film, but at least it feels honest to his personality. Meanwhile, xXx has scenes where Diesel may as well turn to the camera and shout, “I’ve had lots of sex! With women!”

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Image via Paramount

It’s important to keep in mind that Fast and Furious didn’t really gel until Fast Five, but it did put important building blocks in place. It eventually figured out how to be silly without worrying about being cool. It found endearing characters and relationships and played them up. It wasn’t just a matter of “Now it’s a team movie,” but actually caring about the people on that team. xXx: Return of Xander Cage feels like a cynical miscalculation by Diesel to rip off his other franchise. The problem wasn’t that Xander operated solo; the problem was Diesel and his monumental effort to be cool instead of endearing.

Rating: D-

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