xXx: The Return of Xander Cage is exactly what it wants to be

One of the most interesting battles I have with myself as a critic is over what criteria I judge a movie by. Is there some objective standard that I hold each movie to? Some search for truth, beauty, or entertainment that must be met each time, some set of standards that I must hold entertainment to? Or am I just going to evaluate based on what the movie sets out to achieve? If a movie knows what it is and performs exactly to those expectations, then is it a great film?

In other words, xXx: The Return of Xander Cage knows exactly what pays its bills. It’s a movie with the story logic of “Can we do some dope shit? Then let’s do that dope shit.” It features boatercycles, protagonists having sex with entire rooms full of women for information, a foul-mouthed CIA director, a DJ whose superpower is being the best DJ, and no small manner of things that break the logic of human bodies. But the movie aspires to nothing higher, no further pretension besides being something really cool to watch and something with which to have a great time at the movies.

xXx 3 shows how much Vin Diesel has learned from the revitalization of the Fast & Furious franchise as this one’s pulling a lot of the same cards. Simple story with a hell of a lot of huge setpieces that feel practically done even if they necessarily aren’t. A sense of absolute fun and a focus on camaraderie. A winking sense that they’re in on the joke and yet have the most sincerity in everything they’re doing. That they’re basically superhero stories starring real-ish people.

Most importantly, it’s got a diverse and global ensemble cast of performers who are playing thinly sketched but incredibly charming characters, which is all you really need in a big, blunt action movie. Xander Cage (Vin Diesel), a badass secret agent with far less reticence than either of Diesel’s other big franchise characters, has got Adele (Ruby Rose), a badass lesbian sniper, Tennyson (Rory McCann), a conspiracy theorist who loves crashing into things, and Nicks (Kris Wu), aforementioned superpower DJ, on his side.

They’re up against a rogue xXx team (xXx being the extreme group of secret agents this franchise hinges on) that’s in pursuit of a device that can take control of satellites and drop them out of the sky. They’re led by Xiang (Donnie Yen), all around badass and disaffected dude. Some of them are memorable, like Serena Unger (Deepika Padukone), badass and love interest, and Talon (Tony Jaa), badass and crazy dude. The other I honestly couldn’t place in a crowd.

I used badass a lot there, I know. Like I said, this is a thinly-sketched set of characters, but it kinda doesn’t matter. xXx 3 absolutely knows it, and is just letting the performers wring every bit of charm they can out of them. They make the most of their jokes, their comedy bits, and their action sequences. Perhaps partially because they’re kind of allowed to not be generic. It’s a cast that’s allowed to use their personas, their natural accents, allowed to lean in to what they’re good at. They’re not necessarily all-timer performances, but everyone feels very natural, which is a long way towards the charm of this movie.

I especially want to single out two when I’m talking about that. The first is Ruby Rose, slowly carving out a nice little acting niche between this and Orange is the New Black and the upcoming John Wick: Chapter 2. She wraps her way around quips naturally and is a lot of fun to watch do action. Rose definitely has a future as an action star.

But someone who already has a long history as an action star and should have an even longer one to come if Hollywood knows what’s good for it is Donnie Yen. I realize now how criminally underused he was in Rogue One because sweet merciful crap is he awesome in this movie. For starters, because the man is allowed to be an action star! He gets quips and monologues and clear motivations and action scene after action scene. He’s punching and kicking and firing weapons, often all at the same time. His charisma actually gets utilized in this film, and he even gets to do that thing where he punches a guy in the chest really fast a bunch of times and it makes a cool noise. Donnie Yen is a potential superstar and Hollywood absolutely needs to get on that.

Look, I recommend watching the people here because there’s really only so much to the movie. It’s enough of a plot to keep moving and I’m absolutely sure it doesn’t hold up to the slightest bit of actual scrutiny. This movie is simultaneously hyper-modern and a total 90s throwback. And if DJ Caruso could ever keep his camera still, this would be a far better action film.

But all of the stupidity, again, seems weirdly integrated into the film itself. It absolutely knows what it is, but it uses that to revitalize. This is Fast Five for the xXx franchise. It’s something I really want to see more of, celebrating this cast and their further adventures. Why not get audacious, why not rebel a little? It’s a global action film, why not celebrate that while we can get them?

Besides, all you really need in life is the way Donnie Yen punches somebody.

Grade: B

Advertisements