Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Movie Review: xXx: Return Of Xander Cage (2017)



In light of the success of the Fast & Furious series, this film’s existence shouldn’t be too surprising (even with its copied lack of the word “The” in the title), but still, I have to ask: Why is this a thing? A relic of the short-lived xtreme sports craze, directed by our favourite midlife crisis filmmaker Rob Cohen, XXX tried to make its mark by being harder and cooler than James Bond… and even when Bond was at its most laughable, it still failed miserably. Add to this the even weaker follow-up State Of The Union, directed by the man responsible for Bond’s worst outing to date with Die Another Day, and you have a “franchise” that is pretty much dead on arrival. Well, considering Vin Diesel is at the height of his popularity right now thanks to not only Fast & Furious but also Riddick and Guardians Of The Galaxy, I kind of get why this follow-up exists. I mean, maybe this film could make the Fast Five transition and find its own niche as a sports stunt-heavy action flick. Coming from the director of last year’s The Disappointments Room, I’m not holding out much hope. This is xXx: Return Of Xander Cage.


The plot: Special operative Xander Cage (Vin Diesel), having retired since the events of the first film, is brought back into action by CIA agent Marke (Toni Collette). She tasks him with tracking down a group of four elite rebels led by Xiang (Donnie Yen), who have got their hands on a highly dangerous piece of intelligence hardware that can bring satellites crashing out of orbit. Xander brings in his own team to assist, comprised of hunter Adele (Ruby Rose), DJ Nicks (Kris Wu), and driver Tennyson (Rory McCann), but once he tracks down Xiang’s gang, it seems that the lines dividing them aren’t as clearly defined.

This cast is weak with a capital snore, and you know you’re in for a rough time when not even Vin Diesel’s charisma is bankable here. He’s on autopilot here, which would usually mean that his charm still shines through. But no, he’s about as enthused to be here as we are. Samuel L. Jackson returning as NSA agent Gibbons shows up at the start once again to try and fool us into thinking that this could be good, and he at least tries with probably the only good monologue in the film. Donnie Yen gets to kick some ass, same with Tony Jaa as one of his cohorts, but they both feel kind of wasted. Deepika Padukone as another cohort is only a couple shades removed from being a stock love interest and it shows, Toni Collette is as textbook a government spook as you can find and Ruby Rose’s action movie cred is still highly dubious. Honestly, the best actor here is the cameo that crops up near the end, and Thank God this guy came back because he actually injects some proper badassery to the proceedings… even if he is essentially a walking Deus Ex Machina.

The film starts out with a logo for Revolution Studios, a company that has been out of commission for close to ten years until this film’s release. You can notice this by how incredibly low-rez the company logo is next to everything else, not even bothering to update it in the interim. That feeling of not updating for the times is rampant throughout the film proper, from the dubstep-influenced score that is a good few years out of step to the same problems from the original film rearing their ugly heads once again. It still focuses too much on trying to appeal to teens without bothering to keep a tense or even interesting narrative. The only updated aspect of the entire film is the techno-paranoia theme involving government surveillance… which has been used by pretty much every single action film of the last several years. Not content with being tired by early 2000’s standards, they buckled down and made this feel off even today.

So, if the connective tissue between action scenes is bad, surely they put all the effort into the action scenes themselves. Well, D.J. Caruso very well could’ve hedged all his bets on the stunt work behind the scenes but that dedication still doesn’t show in the finished product. While there are definite points for getting martial arts stars like Donnie Yen and Tony Jaa in the castlist and using them appropriately, the action beats aren’t shot in any way that makes them engaging. It’s either too close to get the full effect of the punches thrown, or it’s green-screened to the point of being blindly obvious that what we are seeing isn’t real. The closest this film gets to some form of unique identity is the rather ludicrous way they implement the xtreme sports stunts into the film… and even then, it doesn’t work. It aims for Rule Of Cool, and with the image of Xander skiing through trees it at least registers, but it seems too determined to copy F&F’s penchant for overblown and explosive set-pieces to really establish its own style.

Of everything at fault here though, there’s nothing that stings more for me personally than the fact that it is still stuck up to its neck in its own need to pander and act like it’s cool instead of actually being cool. Fast & Furious may have taken five films to reach it, but it still managed to progress past this mindset and find its own niche as an over-the-top extravaganza with notions of family and brotherhood. The opening spiel by Gibbons about Dogtown & Z-Boys is the closest that this film gets to actually understanding anything about the extreme sports culture it tries to emulate, and the fact that his character is killed off shortly after that speech is telling of how the film genuinely doesn’t care about authenticity. As a pale white kid who once tried his hand at being a rapper, trust me when I say that there is nothing less cool than a pretender. Admittedly, there’s less “we don’t sell out” hypocrisy here than in the original, and at least it isn’t directly trying to prove it has bigger balls than another specific franchise, but what we have left over isn’t all that good either.

All in all, this is a glass of water laced with vinegar being presented as hard liquor; I can’t be that mad at it because it’s more cute or, dare I say, precious than anything else. The acting is consistently lame, the writing doesn’t even try to hide the fact that it just exists to string action beats together, and the action beats themselves spend too much time poorly aping other overblown action films and not enough establishing its own unique qualities. I was genuinely expecting something at least decent from this, as an action film franchise built on sports stunts is something worth looking into, but nothing of the like is found here. It’s worse than Ballerina because I can at least point to something, anything, in that film as being competent. However, since this only failed to impress as opposed to just flat-out annoying me, it still fares better than Middle School: The Worst Years Of My Life.

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