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xXx: Return of Xander Cage

by on January 19, 2017
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Vin Diesel stars in "xXx: Return of Xander Cage," a 2017 Revolution Studios / Paramount Pictures film.

There are certainly worse reasons to make action films than unleashing a twofer twister of flying limbs and leonine attitude known as Donnie Yen and Tony Jaa on a bunch of slow-footed mopes.

By the end of “xXx: Return of Xander Cage,” you get that (albeit not nearly enough), yet that’s hardly why this threequel exists. It’s not just the obvious nostalgic cash-in of existing IP. Like any additional Riddick movie that may yet arrive out of nowhere, the third “xXx” film is born solely of star-producer Vin Diesel’s harmlessly pathological people-pleasing urge to prop up any sort of secondary franchise.

Its titular disregard for superfluous words like “The” betrays the absurd number of unnecessary characters with which it’s overstuffed. Here, the unrepentantly lone-wolf “xXx” brand is awkwardly retconned into a remedial ragtag-buddy movie – a poor man’s “Fast Five” with no fewer than eight buddies introduced in one movie to battle beside Diesel’s Xander Cage. (If that count seems high, Cage sexes, smooches or strikes sparks with no fewer than 11 different ladies in under 100 minutes.)

This “xXx” is also perversely boring in ways its predecessors were not – lacking either signature slam-bang (like the 2002 original’s “Apocalypse Now”-cum-video-game siege on a Colombian cocaine farm) or a serrated edge of racial intensity and identity (in the 2005 sequel that swapped Ice Cube for Diesel).

The ingenuity of water-skiing dirt bikes stops at “Hey, what if the dirt bikes … could water-ski?!” Only in its final act does “Return” wallow in who-cares action grandiosity of a kid failing physics for the third time. And even then, it’s a Dollar General knockoff of roadway fights from the latter two “Captain America” films. (At least the inimitable stunt guru Dan Bradley does what he can with the money he has.) But at least you get Jaa leapfrogging a live wire in slow-motion and Yen teasing a galoot to waste a clip.

So certain is “Return” that you don’t even remember its most immediate predecessor (the best of the series, to be honest) that it pulls the same fake-out gambit with one of few returning characters. (There is, at least, a corny, cool canonical connection.)

This event prompts the emergence, from tropical climes, of Cage – a one-time extreme sports enthusiast turned brash CIA agent. Thought dead, Cage is now going to great lengths to pirate futbol feeds and please the locals (in a re-introductory scene you could call “Casino Bro-yale”). Pressed again into service, Cage is tasked to track Pandora’s Box. Itself a down-market riff on the “Furious Seven” God’s Eye, the Box can hijack any of 13,000 satellites orbiting Earth and send them spiraling like a cluster bomb.

A multi-culti team of hard-partying miscreants led by Xiang (Yen) seems out to sell Pandora’s Box to the evilest, highest bidders – who have conveniently set up shop in a tax rebate-friendly state like Michigan. So Cage sets to match them with his own team of sharpshooters, stunt-drivers, nerd-sexy techies and … a DJ? Each of these people is introduced via “Suicide Squad”-ish title cards that seem hastily thrown in as a RIYL afterthought. In your mind, their names will self-destruct in five seconds.

Overseeing all of this is icy agent Marke, played by Toni Collette in a herculean attempt at the world record for straight-faced bullshit. To wit, of Xiang’s crew: “Those assholes just took out the best of the best like it was Sunday brunch. We need someone to walk into a tornado and come out the other side like it was a gentle damn breeze.” You look at her and wonder: Does the world need an Annie Lennox biopic yet?

To Diesel’s credit, Cage isn’t simply a brutish Dominic Toretto do-over. He’s more of a dorkily optimistic doofus, and Diesel rediscovers that groove here, too – reminding kids (in Spanish!) that “the world is big but always fits in your heart,” and dancing the Robot to mess with some bad guys. His ridiculous pimp coat is back. Cinematographer Russell Carpenter films him from angles of Hagrid height. Cage also conflates a two-flush turd joke with a math problem and repurposes a great joke from “Raising Arizona.”

Both the worst of the series and difficult to really begrudge, this is what passes for January action-movie alchemy.

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