Movie review: xXx: The Return of Xander Cage

The rebirth and utter dominance of the Fast and the Furious franchise has established that Vin Diesel is kind of a big deal. We’ve been here before. It was in 2002 that Diesel spun his Fast success into xXx, a potential franchise starter that mashed James Bond with the X Games to middling results. As directed by Fast 1’s Rob Cohen, xXx was a mess; an exercise in appeasing the kind of person who complains that Mountain Dew commercials aren’t long enough. Now, some fifteen years later, Diesel returns to the series (having sat out 2005’s xXx: State of the Union) hoping some of that Furious magic carries over.

On its surface xXx: The Return of Xander Cage is exactly what it claims to be, reestablishing Diesel as the once and future extreme-sports-star-turned-secret-agent. Produced by Vin Diesel, xXx: TROXC reads like Vin Diesel’s love letter to the coolest guy on the planet circa 2000, as played by Vin Diesel. To put it a different way: it’s a grilled, double-stuffed burrito where the tortilla is replaced with a parachute, the beef is replaced with Vin Diesel, and the cheese and corn are replaced with … actually, nothing replaces the cheese and corn. That’s because xXx: TROXC is one of the cheesiest, corniest movies ever made.

Which isn’t to say it’s a bad movie. We shouldn’t even be talking like this. Xander Cage would call us pussies and throat punch us for talking like this. And if you’re thinking to yourself, “Xander wouldn’t do that,” let me remind you that this is a movie where the hero throws a man off an airplane for even kind of insulting Mountain Dew. No, this film is only bad in the conventional sense, its plot only fractured and nonsensical when viewed under traditional, less abstract norms.

It helps to have competency in the director’s chair. D.J. Caruso (Disturbia) is no stranger to action. Here he makes sure everything in front of the camera looks great before blowing it up. At no point during the film does it ever feel like Caruso and screenwriter F. Scott Frazier aren’t in on the joke. Even the energetic cast, with appearances by Ruby Rose (as a ribbon-dancer-turned-sniper, or sniper-turned-ribbon-dancer, either way she has experience in both fields) and Donnie Yen (as an angry martial artist), seem to realize the absurdity onscreen.

The only actor holding back, unfortunately, is Diesel. He plays Xander like a douchey alpha bro busting balls between stunts. When he’s not skiing down jungles or lamenting the corporate fat cats who hold us down (and also produce fine entertainment like xXx III) he’s delivering lame quips you might hear from a 12-year-old playing Call of Duty, diminishing the aura of coolness I suspect Diesel’s striving for. Can the oldest guy at the rave also be the coolest? This movie answers that question definitively. And not in Diesel’s favor I might add.

The story presents an obstacle in that movies have to have them. Thankfully Diesel and company were up for circumventing that challenge. There’s a brief moment, right after a motocross bike turned into a wave runner but before another motocross bike turned into a wave runner, that I realized I was overthinking it. What I really needed to do, what I should have done from the start, was appreciate the science that gave us these incredible transforming machines. There is a loose plot involving satellites being used as missiles but, hey, are you bored yet? This is a movie that resurrects a character that was killed off not in the actual sequel, but in the special features section on the DVD of the sequel.

Stop asking questions and just appreciate the fact that there’s a movie in theaters where Vin Diesel punches a guy through a toilet. Questioning Vin Diesel only makes him stronger. Mostly because literally everything makes Vin Diesel stronger. Like the energy that’s exchanged during a long harmonious brofist, xXx: TROXC works best if you embrace the moment and then let it pass without any real reflection.