“XXX” is a very telling cultural artifact, one that can be used to trace how cinematic tastes have changed over the decades. Basically it’s a reworking of the old James Bond formula, but it gives us a superspy entirely in tune with the mores of today’s adolescents–the James Bond our society deserves, you might say–and that proves a pretty discouraging commentary on our current condition: the stunts he performs are similarly astonishing and the gadgetry he employs equally cutting-edge, but his character is very different. Bond, whoever played (or plays) him, was suave and debonair, and a thoroughgoing company man despite his penchant for exasperating his superiors. He wore perfectly-tailored tuxedos and sipped flawlessly-made martinis, effortlessly attracting the most beautiful women and carelessly tossing off ever-so-cultivated bon mots and double entendres. Xander Cage, his replacement here, is a heavily-tattooed brute known for his expertise in extreme sports, smugly rebellious and adverse to authority of any sort. He gruffly tosses off sexist jibes, dresses like a street pimp and chugs whole bottles of booze at a single sitting. Inevitably he proves to have a sense of duty and a soft heart in the end, but if he ever met Bond he’d be more likely to break him like a twig than sit down and share war stories over a glass of fine Chablis.
Xander is played by Vin Diesel, who seems poised to become the first of the post- Schwarzenegger generation of action heroes. Bald and brooding, Diesel has little range, but with his deep voice and menacing air he’s certainly a magnetic presence. That was certainly demonstrated in the earlier flick he made with director Rob Cohen, “The Fast and the Furious,” in which all eyes focused on him though his role as a charismatic thief was distinctly secondary to the purported hero, an undercover cop played by the blandly handsome Paul Walker. “XXX” follows that picture’s formula in many respects: though it puts Diesel center-stage, it too is a mindless adrenalin rush based on impossible speed, outrageously slam-bang set pieces, hyperkinetic editing and a high-decibel soundtrack (complete with pulsating score), with a smidgen of romance and, as is required in the post-9/11, a dose of swelling patriotism tossed into the mix. It’s a boom-box of a movie that might have been titled “The Loud and the Ludicrous.”
Still, its contemporary spin on the old Ian Fleming brand will probably reap big profits and spawn a modern franchise. The picture begins with an episode proclaiming the death of the old paradigm–a chase in which a Bondish agent is killed at a punk concert in Prague; this is followed by a brief meeting of special ops types in Washington, the most photogenic of whom is ostentatiously scarred veteran Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson, in quasi-“Unbreakable” mode) who suggests using an unconventional agent to complete the assignment. That occasions a segue to Xander, who’s introduced in an elaborate car-theft-and-chase sequence (shades of “F & F”), culminating in a long leap from a bridge, that’s a finger-in-the-eye to the pretensions of a hypocritical politician. Soon, however, Cage is in Gibbons’ hands, his initiative and ability being tested, along with that of several others, under the most severe conditions in Colombia; naturally he passes with flying colors, and is eventually pressured to go to the Czech Republic and infiltrate a gang of Russian thugs who, as it turns out, aren’t merely conventional drug-dealers and smugglers but fellows out to destroy the world, too. (Toward the close their leader, played rather blandly by Marton Csokas, will give the obligatory speech about the joys of snuffing out the globe and the twisted rationale behind it.) Xander easily gains the group’s trust, thanks to their recognition of his past extreme sports triumphs, and after some initial frostiness he also exchanges secrets and other things with the gang’s femme fatale, a chick named Yelena (Asia Argento, Dario’s girl, doing “Femme Nikita” shtick). Before long the plot comes to include a cache of special weapons provided by a geeky CIA version of M (Michael Roof), a comic-relief Czech policeman and renegade ex-Soviet scientists working on a terrible nerve gas called Silent Night, not to mention plenty of explosions and chases (by foot, car and motorcycle). There are also two extravagant action sequences: one involves a duel between a snowboarding Cage and a bunch of snowmobiling villains in the midst of an avalanche, and the other the hero riding, rodeo-style, a preprogrammed submarine hurtling toward a city with a deadly cargo. Both–as well as that opening bridge stunt–are expertly done, and will bring the requisite gasps of appreciation from the guys who applauded the souped-up cars in “Furious.” While we don’t want to spoil things, it’s safe to say that the picture doesn’t close with the end of the world; this isn’t “Dr. Strangelove.” Instead it signs off with a coda that, once again, doffs the hat to Bond.
Throughout its running-time “XXX” proudly parades an offhandedly bad-ass, to-hell-with-the-establishment attitude–Dean Semler’s cinematography captures the beauty of Prague far better than the recent “Bad Company” did, for example, but the picture never evinces any appreciation of it, and at one juncture the plot makes a detour to an opera house just so Cage can contemptuously dismiss Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” as unlistenable (a sentiment that boors in the audience will doubtlessly share)–but the pandering to a moviegoing audience dominated by young males is all too calculated. The movie is utter junk, though skillfully assembled. Like the previous Diesel-Cohen collaboration it aims very low but hits its intended target.