A film review by Craig J. Koban January 30, 2017


2017, PG-13, 107 mins.


Vin Diesel as Xander Cage  /  Deepika Padukone as Serena Unger  /  Ruby Rose as Adele Wolff  /  Nina Dobrev as Rebecca 'Becky' Clearidge  /  Samuel L. Jackson as Agent Augustus Eugene Gibbons  /  Donnie Yen as Xiang  /  Rory McCann as Tennyson Torch  /  Toni Collette as Jane Marke  /  Tony Jaa as Talon

Directed by D.J. Caruso  /  Written by F. Scott Frazier


A few days ago I asked my friend Steve if he wanted to see the sequel to the 2002's Vin Diesel action film xXx, to which he very astutely retorted, "Ummmm...that film already had a sequel...xXx: STATE OF THE UNION...and wasn't that with Ice Cube instead of Diesel?" 

An awkward silence ensued, and then I fully realized the error of my ways.  Yes, there already was a sequel to the first xXx, but it was so wrongheadedly awful that I all but blocked it out of my movie memory bank.  You know that a film series is in absolute trouble when you have no recollection whatsoever of its individual installments.   

For the uninitiated (or chronically forgetful like moi), xXx: RETURN OF XANDER CAGE is, yes, the third film in the xXx cinematic universe that tries to explain its titular character's previous absence (which was very casually explained in STATE OF THE UNION as, well, he died in-between movies).   In preparation for xXx: RETURN OF XANDER CAGE I re-watched xXx: STATE OF THE UNION and I can quite confidently say that this newest entry is the second best xXx movie featuring Xander Cage that I've ever seen.  Now, seeing as it's just the second film featuring Xander Cage...that last sentiment may not entirely be saying much.  Considering the laughable low quality and production values of that Ice Cube starring vehicle, this third one really doesn't have large shoes to fill.  In terms of offering a bewilderingly eye rolling amount of logic defying extreme sports action and hyperactively over-the-top espionage intrigue, I guess I can say that xXx: RETURN OF XANDER CAGE delivers on its status quos; it's never dull to watch.  Yet, it's so broad at times that it makes the first xXx feel positively Shakespearian. 



The film opens with a sly little scene involving special agent Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson, joyously energetic, but sporting one of the fakest hair pieces he's ever had captured on camera) once again trying to recruit a new hopeful to his xXx program of super secret agents.  Disaster unfortunately strikes, which leads agent Jane Marke (Toni Collette, looking visibly grumpy and stiff mannered throughout) gathering together a group of CIA operatives to chat about "Pandora's Box", a device with the power to send orbiting satellites crashing down to earth in a dangerous fireball.  Of course, a highly dexterous team manages to infiltrate this meeting and snatch the device, which says extremely little about the CIA's security measures.   Leading this heist team is Xiang (ROGUE ONE's blind Force attuned monk Donnie Yen) and the exotic Serena (Deepika Padukone) and their motives and allegiances, initially at least, appear less than crystal clear. 

This predictably leads Marke on a wild goose chase to seek out and re-recruit top xXx recruit Xander Cage (Diesel), who was - as previously mentioned - killed in action, but for the purposes of this Vin Diesel starring sequel he has been oh-so-conveniently resurrected from the grave and is now in self-imposed hiding to preserve his faked demise.  He spends most of his time doing what all reclusive ex-government operatives do with their spare time: provide free satellite TV to poor Latin American families (one of the film's few funny payoffs scored from an extended action sequence).  Xander is forced to come out of hiding to discover the motives behind the theft of Pandora's Box by a crew that - gasp! - are all made of former xXx agents hand picked by Gibbons, which makes this a more than personal affair for Cage.  In pure Dominic Toretto fashion, Cage assembles a fast and very furious kick ass squad of his own to go after Xiang and Serena. 

Sarcasm aside, xXx: RETURN OF XANDER CAGE has an overtly familiar vibe to Diesel's infinitely more popular (and better) FAST AND FURIOUS franchise in the sense that Xander crafts a motley crew of misfits to help him achieve his end game, but none of the supporting crew are giving much personality or depth at all.  The only one with a bit of colorful spunk is a neon haired sniper Adele (Ruby Rose), but all others kind of fall flat.  There is Nina Dobrev's Becky, who emerges as a pseudo Q-like tech figure that arms up Xander and his team, but she has an unhealthy sexual fixation on Xander himself.  During their initial meeting she's essentially fainting at the sight of the chiseled specimen, but he fatter-of-factly informs her not to worry about passing out while basking in the glory of his awesomeness, because he "knows mouth-to-mouth."   xXx: RETURN TO XANDER CAGE is littered with ultra lame one liner zingers celebrating the hero's sexual libido like this that fail at generating even modest chuckles.  That, and there's the creepiness factor of Diesel flirting with a co-star that's young enough to be his daughter. 

Of the good aspects of this film I will say this: (1) I liked the racial diversity of this cast (I especially like Yen, who demonstrates ample movie star charisma and is a legitimately exciting on screen martial artist) and (2) there are a few action set pieces that are well oil and executed, like introduction to Xander himself, done in a fairly nifty skateboard chase montage that's exhilarating, but perhaps betrays the usage of beyond-obvious stunt doubles for Mr. Diesel.  There's also an inventive set piece involving Xander using a motorcycle as an extension of his body to pound down on his prey.  The climatic action sequence is a humdinger and features Xander and company punching, kicking, and shooting it out in zero gravity (don't ask) aboard a plummeting jumbo freight plane that deserves serious props for simply disregarding logic and just...going for it.  I really do like it when action thrillers try to show me things that I've not seen in genre efforts like this before. 

Unfortunately, the sum of a few of this film's parts don't make for a substantially passable whole, which has a lot to do with the fact that director D.J. Caruso (DISTURBIA, EAGLE EYE, and I AM NUMBER FOUR) over directs this film's multiple action beats like over caffeinated music videos from hell.  xXx: RETURN TO XANDER CAGE is more mercilessly assaultive than it is deliriously fun to sit through, mostly because Caruso edits his scenes with an eye punishing speed that would put Michael Bay to shame, which further makes experiencing them in 3D all the more stomach churning at times.  Without much cadence, flow, and sense of basic geography and spatial relationships, a preponderance of the action on display here is simply unappealing to look at.  That, and the film has some appallingly amateurish continuity problems at times, highlighted in once extended chase sequence that begins in what I'm assuming is the dead of night and then it quickly segues to broad daylight in a matter of seconds. 

Maybe Diesel is simply too old for this material.  At 50, he still looks youthfully cut from granite, but is perhaps not very credible anymore as an extreme sports athlete turned spy as he was in his mid 30's when xXx 1 was released.  Maybe xXx: RETURN OF XANDER CAGE is a bit too archaically scripted for its own good, as it's so unrelentingly silly at times that it would have felt like a outdated relic if released a few years after the franchise's introduction installment.  Maybe this series is just no longer a fresh and hip alternative to James Bondian spy thriller.  Maybe this sequel just came out far too long for anyone to actually care.  Maybe no studio should be producing a sequel to a film from 15 years ago unless the film has the words STAR and WARS in its title.  Maybe I should just end this review by saying that xXx: RETURN OF XANDER CAGE will have a difficult time appeasing even die hard Dieselites.  Maybe this sequel is best left forgotten like the easily forgettable xXx: STATE OF THE UNION.  Maybe Diesel should stick to one action franchise that is working for him and not get distracted by needlessly revisiting the past.     


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