xXx

 

Robin Clifford 
Laura Clifford 
The international spy business has become very different since the end of the Cold War. NSA honcho Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson) understands this and recruits a new breed of agent, in the person of Xander Cage (Vin Diesel), to combat the plans of a renegade ex-Russian army commander to rule the world and this new-age spy is code named "XXX."
Robin:
The time has come, it seems, to inject new life into the espionage movie genre. "The Bourne Identity" turned Matt Damon into an action hero with the possibility of making the several Robert Ludlum stories about Jason Bourne into a franchise. Helmer Rob Cohen, producer Neal H. Moritz and star Vin Diesel are counting on more than just a possibility of success with their anti-authoritarian super spy, Xander Cage. The filmmakers don't try to overwhelm you with information about their adrenalin junkie hero, instead using in-your-face action to set the tone of "XXX."

Action is the key word here and there are copious instances from start to finish. The movie opens with Xander posing as a valet parking cars. He swipes the Corvette of a philandering, conservative state senator and, with multiple video cameras running, drives the machine off a bridge, parachuting away just before the car hits the bottom of the ravine. We know that the bar has been raised for the action and every effort is made to maintain this pumped up feeling all the way through. Motorcycles, snowboards, parachutes, fast cars, guns and explosives are thrown into the mix as Xander fights to bring down the bad guys.

The problem with "XXX" lay in the minimalist dialog and distinct lack of humor that should be keynote to the film. Vin Diesel has a remarkable amount of screen presence and handles the physical aspects of the buff spy quite well. The script, by Rick Wilkes, focuses on the action but fails to give the characters true voice. Xander should be the penultimate smart ass but the one-liners that should be there to help build the character are lacking. I'm guessing that this first outing is to establish the characters of Xander and Augustus and to draw in big audiences craving action. Character development will come as the franchise plays out.

Vin Diesel is the perfect choice to play the irreverent, smart and capable XXX. He has an attitude toward authority that keeps him in hot water with the law and Agent Gibbons uses the legal strikes against the outlaw adrenaline junkie to recruit him. You don't send a bunny rabbit into a snake pit, Augustus reasons, you send in another snake. He packs of his newest agent, given the code name XXX, to Europe to infiltrate the lair of Yorgi (Marton Csokas) and his gang of bad guys known as Anarchy 99. Yorgi, disgruntled when his military universe fell apart at the end of the Cold War, has plans to take over the world with a little invention called Ahab, a remote controlled drone that can wreak biological destruction.

Yorgi and his henchmen, including the beautiful Yelena (Asia Argento), plan to release their secret weapon on the unsuspecting citizenry of Prague, Czech Republic. Xander appears on the scene with the excuse that he is in the market for expensive stolen cars. (Besides being a maniacal mass murderer, Yorgi is also a used car dealer - no wonder no one trusts him.) X insinuates himself with Yorgi and develops a mutual attraction with Yelena. It becomes a race against the clock as the mad Russian unleashes his doomsday device and our new-age super hero puts everything on the line to stop it.

The actors populating "XXX" do a fair job in fleshing out their characters despite the lack of sparkling, edgy dialog. Diesel has that on-screen quality that made such forgettable films as "Pitch Dark" and "Boiler Room" more interesting than they deserve. He cemented his mass appeal as the leader of a truck hijacking crew in last year's tremendously successful "The Fast and the Furious." If "XXX" gets the following that I think it will, the muscular actor will not wont for work. Samuel L. Jackson, as usual (except in "Attack of the Clones"), does a fine job in giving dimension to Augustus Gibbons, the scar faced NSA honcho who recognizes the need for a new kind of spy, but he, too, is hampered by the stilted writing. Argento is perfect as the exotic Russian lady who can kick ass with the best of 'em. Csokas provides the aloof, disgruntled air required of an international bad guy. Michael Roof, as agent Toby Lee Shavers, provides some comic relief and is being groomed for the role of the gadget master, a la Q in the Bond films, when the franchise takes off.

The real draw to "XXX" is the action-packed excitement of all the over-the-top stunts - I still say that stunt people are action flicks' unsung heroes - that include snowboarding down a mountain just ahead of an avalanche, jumping out of a plane riding said snowboard, motorcycle jumps and shootouts galore. There are the requisite explosions and mayhem (mostly against the bad guys) and a love interest that is intended to draw the girlfriends of the 14 to 24 year old guys who are the film's main target audience.

The makers of "XXX" need to spend more time on character development next time around. They have the correct ingredients to make this a successful series and they grab your attention with the spectacular stunt stuff. I wanted more substance to go along with flash, though. I give it a C+.

Laura:
Xander Cage (Vin Diesel, "The Fast and the Furious") is an extreme sports outlaw who makes his living promoting his exploits with underground videos. When his latest exploit involves wrecking a senator's sports car, he's forcibly recruited by NSA agent Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson, "Star Wars: Attack of the Clones") to infiltrate a punk group of anarchists in Prague.  Gibbons gives Cage his code name from the tattoo on the back of Xander's neck - "xXx."

Take "La Femme Nikita," make her training part of Cage's 'test', and plop the lot onto the hoary plot of "Bad Company" and you've got "xXx."  Diesel's shot at a franchise is a disappointment made bearable by the offbeat casting of Asia Argento ("The Stendhal Syndrome") as his nemesis/love interest Yelena and truly breathtaking stunt work.

We're introduced to the bad guys during a Rammstein concert in an old gothic church.  As the German metal band belts out "Feuer Frei!" amidst stage pyrotechnics, Yorgi (Marton Csokas, "The Lord of the Rings: the Fellowship of the Rings") directs the murder of an agent from an upper balcony (where he's surrounded by babes).  Any resemblance to Michael Wincott's introduction in "The Crow" is surely coincidental.

Director Rob Cohen ("The Fast and the Furious") reminds us of Diesel's "Fast and Furious" persona with his initial wise guy Corvette stunt.  Cage then approaches Anarchy 99 in Prague with bravado as himself (turns out they're fans of his videos), uncovering the Czech secret policeman he's supposed to be working with to gain trust and make a deal for stolen Ferraris.  Yorgi discovers his real agenda soon enough, but a little reverse psychology from Gibbons makes Cage risk everything to uncover the lethal plans of Anarchy 99.

Without the race car, motorcycle, snowboard, and parachuting stunts that punctuate the story every 10-15 minutes, "xXx" would be pretty dull.  Even the spectacular stunts recall other films.  Cage acts like an intentional Scrat in "Ice Age" in a wild avalanche scene and jumps out of a plane with the abandon of Keanu in "Point Break" in another.  Diesel has presence, but he's given little to work with.  Argento brings a sense of bruised goods to her femme fatale that makes Yelena intriguing.  The Bondian Q-like character of Toby Lee Shavers (Michael Roof, "Black Hawk Down") provides the little comic relief there is to be had, but screenwriter Rich Wilkes ("The Jerky Boys Movie") is unsuccessful providing any signature lines for a new action hero.  Dialogue is clunky or cliched ("I told him that cigarette would kill him").  The groundwork for the story is pretty muddled with an early Columbian sequence that leaves the viewer wondering if they're just witnessed yet another, particularly violent 'test' or the real thing.  Neither particularly makes sense.  A scene held in an empty Opera hall, where Gibbons listens alone, summons Cage, then sshhes him, sums up the film - production design at the expense of logic.

C+

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