Film scholar Tom Gunning coined the phrase “cinema of attractions” to describe early exhibitionist impulses of filmmaking, bits of spectacle that called attention to their own visibility and technological craft. It’s always present, especially in modern action movies, and there may be no greater current example than “xXx: The Return of Xander Cage.”
Though there are three films in the series, star Vin Diesel skipped the second installment. He’s back, turning the movie into a Vin Diesel film. D.J. Caruso is the director; Diesel the auteur. He’s hit on a formula that just works for him: muscles, babes and feats of vehicular derring-do performed alongside diverse global superstars.
For “xXx,” Diesel is surrounded by action superstars including the current king of Hong Kong action cinema Donnie Yen; Thai martial arts star Tony Jaa, known for the “Ong Bak” franchise; Bollywood superstar Deepika Padukone; Aussie personality Ruby Rose; Chinese singe-/actor Kris Wu; British UFC champ Michael Bisping; “Game of Thrones” favorite Rory McCann; and Brazilian soccer phenom Neymar.
Even the incredible Toni Collette turns up for crying out loud (she’s fantastic).
With this cast, Xander Cage is the least interesting person on screen.
The story is, as Collette’s cutthroat CIA operative Jane Marke succinctly puts it, “very bad guys, very bad thing.”
Marke coaxes unconventional former special ops agent Xander Cage (Diesel), out of retirement to pursue a group of bandits who have stolen a “Pandora’s Box” device with the capability of dropping satellites out of orbit, making them crash into the earth like bombs. He’s a member of the “xXx Program,” helmed by Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson), and catching these bandits requires his singular skill.
The script by F. Scott Frazier is sparse and self-reflective about its formula. The punch lines are mostly silly, sometimes funny, but when Xander starts opining about extreme stunts, it tips into unintentionally hilarious territory.
Xander assembles an equally offbeat band of misfits for his team: a driver (McCann), a sniper (Rose), and for some inane reason, a DJ/party boy (Wu) whose only special skill is to drop sick beats. (One of their missions is at a beach rave.)
The charismatic Rose brings the sex appeal, delivering snarky one-liners and sniping bad guys, and her presence is refreshing.
But the film’s negotiations of gender and sexuality are complicated at best. Rose, Padukone and Collette play fierce women, equals to their male counterparts. “xXx” even passes the Bechdel test.
But the progressive streak bumps up against the hormonal teenage boy instincts that the film can’t shake, the camera repeatedly scanning female torsos, Xander grunting lascivious words of seduction.
The appeal of this film lies in its outlandish action, innovative stunt spectacle to the extreme, defying all laws of nature, physics and logic.
Xander skis through a jungle, catches waves on an ocean-going motorbike and dives headfirst out of a cargo plane.
Still, wushu master Yen, who gets barreled on surf bike, swipes the movie right out from under Diesel’s prodigious pecs.
— Katie Walsh, Tribune News Service
xXx: The Return of Xander Cage
Two and a half stars
Starring: Vin Diesel, Donnie Yen, Tony Jaa, Samuel L. Jackson, Toni Collette, Deepika Padukone, Ruby Rose, Kris Wu, Rory McCann, Michael Bisping
Written by: F. Scott Frazier
Directed by: D.J. Caruso
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes