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Film Review: Vin Diesel Returns With A Vengeance In xXx: THE RETURN OF XANDER CAGE

Film Review: Vin Diesel Returns With A Vengeance In xXx: THE RETURN OF XANDER CAGE

It’s been a decade and a half but Vin Diesel is no worse for the wear as he returns with a vengeance into the role that made him a star ages ago, that of Xander Cage in the xXx universe. In the latest film, creatively titled “The Return of Xander Cage,” the action anti-anti-hero attempts to save the world from the evil goonies bent on controlling it with a device (also ingenuously labelled), “Pandora’s Box.” By the end of the movie, it is clear that what has been opened is not a mythical doomsday container, but the reboot of a successful and possibly not half bad franchise.

The Return of Xander Cage markets itself as an anti-spy spy movie. At times the piece does succeed at being so, but that does not mean it is any less clichéd than the traditional genre films it rejects. At other moments, it is really no more than a sillier version of those flicks, thus doubling down on the stereotypes. Summed up, you’d be forgiven for walking out of the theater thinking “wow, that was a horrible movie.” But, allow me to convince you otherwise.

Yes, there is no question that Return falls into all the groan-inducing pitfalls that laid waste to promising anti-traditional projects like Suicide Squad. The titular character amasses the usual band of misfits—outcasts and outlaws who thumb their nose at ‘the system’ and ‘the man,’ defined not ironically as rich people, and the Gubmint. They sport flashy tattoos (in fact, the two films share the same tattoo artist, Rob Coutts), choke on obvious CGI, and drown in a bacchanal of women and cars.

Even worse, it does all this while not really shedding the platitudes that are now guideposts of regular spy movies, from the nerdy tech person that previews the upcoming action with sexy gadgets, to the not-so-secretly bad government program that puts Bourne to shame, to the constant bait and switch of dead and undead heroes. Like James Bond or the Matt Damon franchises, this lither series also projects the anxieties of the day onto the silver screen canvas: the main threat is a system to surveil the world. It was  old-fashioned nuclear bombs in 2002, though those may be making a comeback starting today—stay tuned.

I digress. Return manages to commit all these cardinal sins while adding yet another: that of being excessively self-aware and obsessed with justifying its own existence after the long hiatus. Why Xander disappeared, what happened to him, and what his mentor, played by Samuel L. Jackson, has been up to, all occupy one line too many in the already razor thin script.

But, before you discard this film as a complete waste of January theater space, consider that it does what none of those other, stuck up spy or anti-spy movies do: it speaks to a much broader, much more global audience that most films these days even bother or care to do, including films of this genre.

(L-R) Ruby Rose as Adele Yusef, Nina Dobrev as Rebecca Clearidge, Tony Gonzalez as Paul Donovan, and Vin Diesel as Xander Cage in xXx: RETURN OF XANDER CAGE by Paramount Pictures and Revolution Studios

Alongside Vin Diesel stars Donnie Yen, a superstar of the Hong Kong movie scene, as the principal antagonist (although allegiances shift so quickly in this film that your head will turn, as if drop-kicked). The main love interest is Indian superstar Deepika Padukone, and two other feisty ladies—Nina Dobrev and Orange is the New Black’s Ruby Rose—to round out the main supporting cast, which also features a Chinese songwriter, a Thai actor, and some sports personalities. And did I mention Toni Collette sort of makes a fool of herself?

The breath of fresh air feel of the film does not end with its refreshingly diverse cast. Instead of the luscious locations we are used to from Bond and Bourne, think Cairo, Paris, and Tokyo, we are treated the Dominican Republic, the Philippines and, perhaps in a stretch, Detroit, Michigan.

The point is that the movie, what with its Reggaeton and hip hop plus house soundtrack, seems genuinely interested in portraying something beyond the snotty British spook or the pretty (white) boy. On the eve of Oscar nominations, which in the last two years have been embroiled by the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, it seems as if no one is paying attention to the fact that Hollywood is in fact further increasing its target audiences with genre action films. Maybe it’s just the critics and self-anointed prize awarders that aren’t listening?

If nothing else, xXx The Return of Xander Cage clearly sets out to have fun alongside the audience. At that it succeeds marvelously. There is nothing profound or surprising about the movie, the entire plot of which I summarized in the first paragraph of this review. As the film proudly proclaims, to simplify what it’s about: “Kick some @ss, get the girl, and look dope doing it.”

It’s not so ridiculous that it will break your suspension of reality—at least not any more than, say, the Furious franchise—and it never ever takes itself seriously in any way, permitting you to not do so either. So it is worth the price of admission, just make sure you have a big tub of popcorn with you for the bumpy and at times heart pounding ride. X marks the spot.

Grade: B-

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About The Author

J. Don Birnam

J. Don Birnam, a voting member of the New York Film Critics Online, has been a movie lover since he saw the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film in theaters at a tender age, and has been a devoted student of American film history every since. His favorite films range from Back to the Future to West Side Story, depending on the time of day, and has a mildly unhealthy obsessions with the Academy Awards. Any similarity with the slightly unstable writer in the seminal 1944 film 'The Lost Weekend' is pure coincidence

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