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One way to get free satellite.

So in anticipation of Diesel returning with another ridiculous but maybe good-hearted action franchise, I watched xXx for the first time since high school and saw xXx 2: State of the Union for the first time ever. I think most people (who give any shit) are surprised that Diesel has been so successful at resuscitating the key roles that made him famous. Maybe it’s because he didn’t wait a score of years to do it, like his action star predecessors have (and thus mostly failed). Maybe it’s because he has some talent as a producer and seems to be able to gather good people. I think a big part of it is that Diesel consistently has a lot of fun and wants to share the fun, both on screen and off, with all his fans. There’s something infectiously charming about the man, even when characters like Dominic Toretto and Richard B. Riddick don’t call for him to use much of it. Xander Cage, however, returning to a defunct franchise after like 15 years… well, that’s a different story.

xXx: The Return of Xander Cage is head and shoulders a better movie than either of the first two. It accomplishes this primarily by bringing in a lot from the Fast and Furious playbook, mostly in terms of building itself around a colorful ensemble of characters. It doesn’t quite work as well as, say, Fast Five did because it hasn’t had five movies to build a weird sort of following for even the most ridiculous and sketchy of its cast. The Return of Xander Cage mostly has the job of introducing a large, diverse, and kick-ass team which might pave the way for many more of these movies the way Fast Five did for that. Can Vin Diesel really be the core of two extremely similar relentless fun and stupid action franchises? Why the fuck not? I mean, his movies might be mostly dumb but they are consistently well made. Fast and Furious has a heart of gold and xXx has been weirdly infused with socio-political commentary in each of its three entries. I think what matters more than that, though, is Diesel seems to consistently be able to work with directors and writers who find the fun kind of stupid, and not the frustrating and insulting kind. I love action movies, and I love when the raise the bar to ridiculous new heights (which this one really does) and I appreciate not being treated like an idiot even though I am watching underwater motocross chases. It may be too subtle a thing for some people, but it’s a big part of the reason why I love most of the Fast and Furious movies and why I think I kinda loved xXx: The Return of Xander Cage.

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Always with the sleeveless shirts though.

One of those Fast and Furious elements that Diesel has probably ensured made it into this franchise is consistent callbacks to the previous movies, meaning that each new one is infused with a sense of history through all kinds of references. Compare this with the exceedingly half-assed X-Men movies which, fundamentally, aren’t too different from either Fast or now xXx. Those movies rewrite almost all of their history with every entry, leaving a confusing and aimless morass that fails to offer any depth. It is crazy to me, and I’m sure others, to even say this… but the Fast and xXx franchies are able to achieve some degree of depth simply by remembering their histories. This is a huge part of what made Fast Five work for people in a way that probably none of the other movies did, and which revived the franchise. I’m not sure if it’s as successful here, because xXx never started from the far more grounded place that The Fast and the Furious did. Regardless, it’s an interesting start.

The movie opens with the death of Augustus Gibbens (Samuel L. Jackson) and openly lampshades the character’s similarities to Nick Fury in doing so, the same way Fast and Furious 6 lampshaded the “superhero team-up” skeleton it was based on by consistently referring to The Avengers. Four years ago I said that we were now going to live in a post-Avengers world, cinematically speaking, and it’s interesting to see permutations of that long after others have tried (sometimes with mixed results) to replicated the formula that made the MCU become the juggernaut it is now. By the way, lampshades aren’t the only shades being thrown by this movie. Because xXx started as an EXTREME SPORTS take on the floundering James Bond franchise, it sort of sees itself as the red-headed stepchild of the spy genre and while it has a fair mixture of homages and lampooning, it gets in a particularly funny jab at the Bourne movies. It seems appropriate to spend so much time talking about the context of this movie since it is so very very aware of its own context and constantly reaches out for that.

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Bringing back Ice Cube is a big part of what I mean. Fans love this kind of shit.

Anyway. Wow. This review is getting railroaded by discussions of context big time. Where the fuck was I?

Right. Gibbens. So he dies recruiting a new X agent, a sort of distracting cameo by a professional soccer player. Whoever did this crashed a satellite and wants to use the same technology to mess with the world’s intelligence apparatus. In a very secret meeting, a bunch of world intelligence experts get together to talk about it only for that meeting to be crashed by a team of super insane X-like dudes led by Donnie Yen.

Naturally this prompts Marke (Toni Collette), Gibbens’s sort of successor to go find Xander Cage (Diesel). He then drops her commando team and gathers his own group of misfits. All the characters get fun intros and they all mostly work when they have things to do, particularly Ruby Rose. Kris Wu, playing a dude who just kind of DJ’s and is a party boy, doesn’t really work so I hope they give him more to do in the inevitable sequel or ditch him. He’s probably the only character who never really finds a niche or ever has much to say that’s fun or interesting.

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Donnie Yen and Tony Jaa have a ridiculous blast in this movie, especially Jaa whose character is a flamboyant masterpiece.

Cage chases these guys to the South Pacific where he learns that they all have somewhat similar backgrounds: they’re all part of the X program! As Cage says many times, “X takes care of its own” (which is this movie’s version of “Family!”) so a sort of bromance/rivalry develops beautifully between he and Yen while one of the big surprises of the movie, Deepika Padukone as Serena, has a similar thing going with Cage but with sexy overtones.

To stay on Padukone for  a moment, I went into this movie thinking that Ruby Rose would be the female lead, likely without any romantic stuff and more of a buddy of Cage’s. That relationship is there (if a little underdeveloped, since Rose buddies up more with Padukone’s character and it’s awesomer that way), but it’s actually Padukone who is the female lead. I was ready to be impressed having a genderqueer lesbian actress be the female lead of a big fucking action movie (thank you Diesel), but instead it’s an Indian actress and that’s pretty awesome in itself. I don’t think that’s ever been done before, honestly, and Padukone kills it in this movie.

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She has chemistry with just about everyone.

Even though Cage looks like Dom Torretto and dresses exactly like him, they are very different characters. Torretto is far more a part of the cinematic action anti-hero tradition of yesteryear, engineered partially by guys like Steve McQueen and then reformatted by Sylvester Stallone or Bruce Willis. He’s gruff and manly and physical. Cage is a very different guy, easy and casual and funny which takes advantage of Diesel’s boyish charm and allows him to use it to lift up the characters and actors around him, which is a thing he has done well consistently throughout his career and may be part of the secret of his recent successes. No one will ever say Diesel is a great actor, but he did some stuff in this movie (mostly facial tics and comic timing) that reminded me what he can do when he’s got his hair down — so to speak. Instead of using his physicality to be menacing or macho, he is mostly just a big goofy teddy bear as Cage and what can I tell you, it just works.

However, the real MVP of this movie is not Diesel or Deepiak Padukone or even Donnie Yen (who is going to get big in the mainstream finally)… it’s fucking Nina Dobrev.

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Nina Dobrev, man… from Vampire Diaries?

This person:

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And yes, I think she knows she rules in this movie.

I confess to watching the first three seasons of The Vampire Diaries and I remember Dobrev as a somewhat above average CW actress working in a role and series that really wasn’t asking her for much and probably would go on forever, preventing anyone from seeing what else she can do. Well, I was wrong. Dobrev walks into this movie and it feels like it’s going to be Ramsey from Fast 7 all over again, a boring-ish tech girl who is mostly just around. Instead, Dobrev makes a fucking entrance. She walks right up to Diesel and delivers the best bit of dialogue in the movie (until her next long bit, from the scene the above pic was taken from). She totally steals the movie and will surprise anyone who knows her.

xXx mostly has bits where you laugh at the sheer audacity of its action scenes and set-pieces, but has a few moments of character or dialogue that are actually pretty funny. Dobrev gets the lion’s share of those moments. Rory McCann, as a getaway driver (?) and weirdo whose layers are only barely scratched at in this one, gets a few more.

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And this sort of shit gets the rest.

Beyond laughs, I mentioned earlier that the xXx movies sort of have socio-political commentary. Well, they do! I’m not saying it’s particularly coherent or savvy but each movie does stop to comment on issues of the day, particularly militarization and surveillance. Fuck man, in this and State of the Union, the bad guy is the United States Government. In Ice Cube’s go-around (which has some interesting and prescient racial themes), it’s a seditious faction that wants America to be real strong (countered by a president who seems now to be a John Kerry stand-in). This time, it’s just straight up the government. What’s interesting about it is that it was probably intended to capitalize on the discourse of government corruption and society’s growing distrust of the mechanisms used to, supposedly, protect it. However, with Trump’s election (something they could not have foreseen), it becomes more interesting by going beyond possible dog-whistling for the anti-government tools who partially got Trump elected in the first place, but as reassurance for the frustrated and incredulous folks who are very much anti-Trump and already preparing for a period where they are going to probably be pretty anti-government too. So this part is accidentally interesting? I think we can safely say the movie is not to be taken as pro-Trump in any way, especially as there’s a weirdly left field bit where they fight a bunch of Russians and make identifying these Russians as Russians a belabored and obnoxious point.

More generally, the movie addresses the reckless power of surveillance, which is here boiled down to a MacGuffin for convenience’s sake. It has more than one point of view, with different characters being able to stand in for various real world points of view on the subject of surveillance and information technology on the geopolitical stage. That is something, but the movie gets murky when it tries to figure out where exactly it stands on anything. At the end of the day, Cage and his team are nominally government agents (or maybe they’re not anymore?) even if they are temporarily opposed to the very government agencies that created them. What comes of that in a post-Trump world? What kind of sequel are we gonna get, where the bad guys are the CIA? Hollywood loves to worship and shit on the CIA at the same time so I guess we’ll see. If a sequel manages to be as fun as The Return of Xander Cage, I’ll be there. Especially if Diesel is able to keep up his track record of producing movies that feature exciting, diverse casts of old favorites like Sam Jackson or Kurt Russel while bringing on relative newcomers like Deepika Padukone or Ruby Rose.

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