XXX: Return of Xander Cage
aka XXX: Reactivated
Is there a new “Vin Diesel model” for movie successes? The XXX franchise looked dead in the water after the Vin-less 2005 sequel grossed less than a third of its predecessor. If you were to go by the US total, XXX: Return of Xander Cage was a similar flunk. And yet, a sequel is guaranteed. The key to this rehabilitation appears to be borrowing from the Fast & Furious franchise rule book (or the one operating since entry No.5, at any rate): bring on the international casting and sit Vin at the top as their leader. The only difference being, here Diesel is having appreciably more fun.
Which isn’t to say Xander Cage is better than the F&F movies, but it definitely has its tongue even more firmly in its cheek, to the extent you’d think Diesel has been scrutinising the Roger Moore Bonds for inspiration, along with classic era Bruce Willis for delivery (think Hudson Hawk, just not nearly as irreverent, alas). When XXX3 is revelling in its own inanity, it’s quite something to behold, and its only really during the final third, where it becomes a more standard-issue shoot ‘em up, one even the rapturous welcome Ice Cube’s “surprise” appearance receives can’t alleviate, that it stumbles.
So XXX3 made less than twenty percent – a measly thirteen percent, to be exact – of its $346m total gross in the US but nearly half in China. Trace this backwards, and you have Fate of the Furious also taking less than twenty perecent in the US but nearly a quarter of its $1.24bn total in China. Even The Last Witch Hunter, which no one is going to guarantee a sequel, followed the line of marginal US takings failing to reflect the international reception. The only regularly comparable franchise to this is the Resident Evil series, where you’d almost have been better off not releasing the last one Stateside (eight percent of the $312m, half of which came from China).
Diesel can reportedly be quite the pain in the ass on the Furious movies, but his willingness to engage in near send-up here is entirely to his credit, and if the picture adopts a nominal “family” tag with its “X takes care of its own” motto, it avoids becoming a noose around its neck. I only wish director DJ Caruso (showing versatile action chops) and screenwriter F Scott Frazier had thrown even more caution to the wind.
The picture can never quite sustain the near meta-introduction in which Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L Jackson having a ball) explains to potential new recruit Neymar – “Thought he was being recruited for The Avengers” explains the on-screen introductory notes; Gibbons “Singlehandedly stopped World War III” – his entirely dappy reasons for beginning the XXX programme (skateboards and swimming pools figure heavily).
Xander Cage: Oh boy, here we go again.
The gags here are never in danger of becoming classy, but there’s a breezy-goofy quality to the set ups and delivery that is frequently irresistible; “Wow, you really do look different, Gibbons. Did you lose weight?” asks the called-out-of-retirement Cage when he meets his new boss Jane Marke (Toni Collette, pitch perfect). This following an opening action spectacle in the aid of getting decent TV reception for a footie match. Xander next needs to stop off in London so he can pick up his hilariously over-sized sheepskin pimp coat, during which he outdoes Moore’s 007 by leaving a room full of sexually-satisfied ladies in his wake the next morning (“The things I do for my country”), even more amusing if you’re vaguely aware of the rumours that have followed Vin around Hollywood for the last two decades.
This bedroom dynamo rep continues with the arrival of a scene-stealing Nina Dobrev as Marke’s assistant Becky Clearidge, an unabashed Xander groupie (“Please take your time, I know mouth-to-mouth if necessary” grins the cheese-frothing chrome-dome, as Marke raises her eyes heavenwards). She isn’t immune to berating Cage when necessary (“That’s not going to come off, you know that, right?” she admonishes Xander when he applies permanent marker to a monitor screen). “There are a lot of unmarked graves on the island” Xiang (Donnie Yen) informs Cage, closing in on prized MacGuffin Pandora’s Box. “And I bet whoever sold you that shirt is in one of them” quips our tattooed hero.
If Vin’s on towering form, the rest of his co-stars are more variable. Yen’s having a lot of fun and has a good rapport with his lead. Ruby Rose (Adele Wolf) might not be quite as impactful as in her silent turn in John Wick Chapter 2, but she brings relish to her environmentalist sharpshooter. Deepika Padukone is Cage’s sort of love interest, but not in a limiting way, while Rory “The Hound” McCann is amusing as a stunt driver celebrating his 200th crash during the proceedings. Tony Jaa is suitably energetic in a bleach job, but Kris Wu is entirely lifeless. Likewise, while Neymar is surprisingly pretty good in his bookend scenes with Jackson, fellow football player Michael Bisping is definitely more from the Vinnie Jones school of acting chops.
Caruso keeps the proceedings zipping along, although he’s probably better with the rhythmic interplay (a game of hot potato with a grenade for example) than the all-out, CGI-assisted action (Cage freefalling from an exploding Boeing is the most glaring example that this came in on a non-titanic budget).
Jane Marke: Time to be a patriot.
Xander Cage: By whose definition?
If XXX3 had played up its comedic side more, it had the potential to become a minor classic. As it is, it’s merely diverting. There’s a nice line in irreverence towards the powers-that-be that doesn’t go in for the (tiresome) Bond-ian resignation bullshit, taking in indifference towards national pride (above), insane government spending (“Wow, no wonder our country’s in debt trillions of dollars” observes Cage of a decked-out Boeing) and conspiracy theories (“Can you tell me what really happened to Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie?” Asks McCann’s Torch. “Yes” replies Becky).
I’m not sure how well Vin and Cube will get on for XXXx (hopefully better than Vin and Dwayne), since they didn’t exactly seem to have natural chemistry during their scenes here, but anything pushing towards ever-greater absurdity is good in my book, particularly when we had to rely mostly on the Stath for that fix in the slightly disappointing Furious 8.