It must be a strange time to be in the action movie business. First, there’s an ever-growing interest in expanded, overlapping movie franchises, along with the public’s increasing lack of interest with investing themselves in new characters and stories. Then, the constant need to raise the bar as far as the action sequences themselves.
A prime example of both of these issues can be found in XXX: The Return of Xander Cage, where retired XXX agent Xander Cage (Vin Diesel) can’t just repel jump off a tower in the middle of the jungle, he has to repel jump off a tower in the middle of a jungle so he can ski through the jungle, at least until he gets to his skateboard. Later, he can’t just have a motorcycle chase across an exploding beach resort being invaded by Russian foot soldiers, he has to have a motorcycle chase across an exploding beach resort being invaded by Russian foot soldiers across the ocean’s surface.
Not seen since 2002′s first XXX movie, Diesel’s Xander Cage was an about face from the square-jawed action heroes that had dominated the genre. Capitalizing on the extreme sports fad of the early aughts, Cage was arrogant and rebellious, becoming a spy only reluctantly — and even then only on the condition that he do it his own way.
Its timing put it perfectly at odds with an administration that had been whipped-up into a Cheney-sponsored frenzy of bloodthirsty patriotism in the wake of 9/11. Now, Diesel returns as the extreme sports enthusiast who’s even more reluctant to get involved than he was first time, and as he slowly assembles his version of the extreme lifestyle Avengers, their woke, worldly diversity ends up an unintended commentary on the incoming administration and its return to arrogant nationalism.
With a global threat that turns satellites into lethal, neighborhood-leveling space junk, Xander agrees to return to the XXX program. With the death of Augustus Gibbons (the omnipresent Samuel L. Jackson), however, he has to deal with Jane Marke (Toni Colette), a buttoned-down, by-the-numbers company-type.
Of course, Xander needs rules like he needs sleeves for any of the 845 different shirts he wears throughout the movie, and even when the square-jawed Army guys try and intimidate him, calling him “Red Bull” and “Mountain Dew” (and a possibly unintended bit of self-aware parody), Xander just ties them to a parachute and launches them out of the plane.
The rest of the time, Xander and his cohorts, which includes enemies-turned-allies and allies-turned-enemies, spend the film gliding through highly coordinated action sequences in extreme slo-mo. Alternately, they fill their time puffing their chests out at one another, reciting dialogue that sounds like it was written by a mad-lib committee, and edited together like a rough cut of a movie trailer by someone who doesn’t understand how editing works.
Their ridiculous characters aside, actors like Donnie Yen, Deepika Padukone, Tony Jaa, and Ruby Rose do all bring their own unique flair, especially when fed such hammy, tone-deaf dialogue. Even Rory McCann (The Hound from Game of Thrones) looks like he’s having an alright time despite his character having next to nothing to do. Even though it’s little more than a blatantly obvious effort to relaunch a concept that was barely a film franchise more than a decade ago, XXX: The Return of Xander Cage wins out simply because it never regards itself as being better than its own utter ridiculousness.
XXX: The Return of Xander Cage is now playing in theaters everywhere.