In xXx: The Return of Xander Cage, having a good time is placed above everything else. This is a view espoused by many of the film’s characters as they quip about doing excessive, show boating stunts for the sheer fun of it. This reverence for fun was also clearly the organizing principle of the filmmakers, who clearly spent way more time cooking up elaborate shoot outs, ridiculous chase sequences and well choreographed fight scenes than they did on telling a traditionally compelling story. Failing to tell an engaging story might sound like a major failing on the part of director D.J. Coruso but the film achieves a sort of bad movie greatness over the course of its run time that the narrative ended up falling pretty low on my list of concerns by the time all was said and done. xXx is at once an ego stroking vanity project for Vin Diesel, a bro culture saturated ode to extreme sports and a great time at the movies. It shouldn’t work at all but, fascinatingly, it does.
The film’s plot concerns (you guessed it) ex-xXx agent Xander Cage coming out of retirement to avenge his friend Higgins (Samuel L Jackson, essentially playing Nick Fury on cocaine) and retrieve the film’s McGuffin de jour, a device called Pandora’s Box that can hack into satellites and send them crashing down to earth like meteors. For this task, Xander recruits a crack team of what can generously be called operatives. Adele Wolf (Ruby Rose) plays a sniper who we first meet killing big game hunters to protect lions in Africa, Tennyson Torch (Rory McCann) seems to have the super power of crashing cars into things without getting killed (he proudly proclaims that he has been in over 190 car crashes) and Nicks (Kris Wu) is just a DJ, which I guess Xander thought he might need on his black ops mission. If this team line up sounds strange to you, it’s only the tip of the absurd iceberg of stupidity that is this film.
It doesn’t matter that most of his team doesn’t have any skills that seem helpful on a mission of this kind because Vin Diesel is essentially playing Superman in this film (if Superman stood for Truth, Justice and the Monster Energy Drink way). The degree to which this is a vanity project for Vin Diesel cannot be overstated. Every woman that Xander encounters shows some degree of sexual interest in him (except for Toni Collette’s tough as nails boss character and Adele, who the film indicates is a lesbian). Furthermore, many of the characters speak of Xander’s prowess like he is some kind of hybrid of Snake Pliskin, Wolverine and Jesus. The reason that this ends up being charming and funny rather than grating is because of the sheer excess. Vin Diesel’s lack of charisma and screen presence ends up creating a peculiar juxtaposition, where the characters fawning over him starts to feel like a note perfect parody of a bad action film instead of a bad action film in its own right.
I wasn’t joking when I said that the film was saturated in extreme sports. In fact, the moment that ensured I would see the film opening weekend was when Vin Diesel said in an interview that Xander Cage has hit own martial arts style: MXMA (Motocross Martial Arts). There is a lot of skateboarding, skiing, skydiving and bike racing in this film which would normally not appeal to me at all. However, the film’s enthusiasm for the stuff becomes kind of infectious. I couldn’t wait to see how they would work in another extreme sport into a narrative that could so easily have gone entirely extreme sport-less. This is mainly because the stunts are well choreographed and partially because you kind of have to start going with the flow when you watch a film so full of nonsense or you’ll end up having a pretty bad time.
I can call the action scenes ridiculous, one must look no further than the water ski ejecting motocross bikes and complete disregard for the laws of physics to see that, but what I can’t call them is poorly assembled. Caruso keeps his camera steady and his action rarely becomes the Jason Bourne-esuqe cacophony that one might expect from a film that has to make it look like Vin Diesel could believably fight actual martial artists and win. Even in the film’s climax, which intercuts between an elaborate fight scene on a plane as it is crashing and a giant warehouse shoot out, is always clearly edited and lacking in the confusion that befalls so many modern action sequences. It helps that the supporting cast all sport visually distinct looks and that they are all given something interesting to do. For all this film’s faults, it gives the sniper stuff to snipe at and the car crash guy stuff to car crash.
The xXx has to fight an evil xXx team (including characters played by both Tony Jaa and Donnie Yen!) and things are a lot of fun when all the characters are interacting with each other. If you haven’t noticed from the actors that have been listed, the film sports one of the most diverse casts of any American action movie that I have ever seen. I recognize that diversity is about a lot more than simply checking off boxes but one can’t help but appreciate the novelty of, for example, an Indian woman and her lesbian teammate in a back to back shoot out that looks like something out of Equilibrium. A movie in this genre has never been so inclusive and it is a welcome change of pace if ever there was one.
I could gush about the loveable nonsense to no end but it is entirely possible that the elements that made me able to appreciate this film might very well just irritate the hell out of you. If you think that Vin Diesel getting hit by a car that is moving at full speed and then getting up and continuing to run as if nothing happened sounds silly, I would avoid the film. If you think Samuel L Jackson attempting to recruit soccer player Neymar (playing himself) to the xXx program is incredibly dumb, you probably won’t like the movie. Lastly (though I could make this list much longer if need be), if you think that Vin Diesel having an orgy with a number of beautiful women he just met for the sole purpose of him being so awesome that they choose to check him for a tracking device by having sex with him sounds too indulgent, stay far away from xXx: The Return of Xander Cage. I, on the other had, loved every idiotic minute of it.