XXX: RETURN OF XANDER CAGE

Producer: Joe Roth, Jeff Kirschenbaum, Vin Diesel and Samantha Vincent
Director: D. J. Caruso
Writer: F. Scott Frazier
Stars: Vin Diesel, Donnie Yen, Deepika Padukone, Kris Wu, Ruby Rose, Tony Jaa, Nina Dobrev, Toni Collette, Rory McCann and Samuel L. Jackson
Studio: Paramount Pictures

D

In 2002, Vin Diesel had one of his earliest hits with “XXX”—a goofily splashy spy movie, to be sure, but a successful one. When it came time for a sequel, however, he was replaced by Ice Cube; the “Fast and Furious” franchise was already revved up, and he had the “Riddick” movies working for him as well, so he left behind “XXX.”

Now, however, Riddick is long gone, and though future “Fast and Furious” movies seem to be stacked up like planes on a busy runway, a single flop (and increasing budgets) could put a stop to them. Worse, Diesel’s last attempt to start a new franchise—“The Last Witch Hunter,” turned out to be a disaster of elephantine proportions. No wonder that he’s retreated to something that’s worked before, and so we get “Return of Xander Cage.”

It all goes to prove that some characters should stay retired.

The new “XXX” is louder, dumber and even more cartoonish than the original—which is saying a lot—and you come out of it feeling as though you’d been trapped inside an explosion for a couple of hours. The plot—to use the term loosely—is just a contraption to hang a succession of ludicrous, choppily-edited action sequences on, but the lynchpin is a MacGuffin called Pandora’s Box, a device that can turn orbiting satellites into weapons by instructing them to crash to earth with devastating impact. The unknown villain in possession of the thing uses it to kill XXX head Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson, in motor-mouth mode). But it winds up the hands of U.S. intelligence, only to be stolen from chief honcho Jane Marke (Toni Collette, scowling in a truly embarrassing turn) by a trio of high-flying thieves led by Xiang (Donnie Yen).

That prompts Marke to enlist the reluctant Cage (Diesel), who’s apparently been playing dead for years, to recover the item. Contemptuous of the soldiers officially assigned as his squad, he assembles his own—a bunch of reckless oddballs, like himself—to get it back. The search takes them to the Philippines, where—after a lot of fighting and gunfire—they discover that the people they’re seeking are a bunch of XXX agents too, and they join forces after discovering that they possess only a facsimile of the device and the real Box is still out there somewhere. They track it to Detroit, where they recover it after a prolonged battle with the shadowy villains. But that’s only the first part of the story, since Marke and her government allies have their own plans for the weapon. More shoot-outs and martial-arts fights follow, ending in the surprise reappearance of another XXX agent, a supposedly spectacular jump from an airplane, and a thoroughly predictable resurrection.

The most imaginative thing about “Xander Cage” is its cast, which has been cannily chosen to reflect virtually every segment of the global distribution market. China is well represented, but so are other regions where including locals on the screen can help bolster boxoffice receipts. The women—Deepika Padukone, Ruby Rose and Nina Dobrev—mainly serve as eye candy (this is a casually sexist picture), but It’s nice to encounter Yen and Tony Jaa, who plays Talon, Xiang’s hyper comrade-in-arms. These guys can actually perform some amazing stunts; it’s just a pity their work is shot by Russell Carpenter and edited by Jim Page and Vince Filippone in such a way as to sap their moves of their natural beauty. In order to keep the action viscerally exciting, their choreographed routines are sliced and diced into little bits that are then tossed together like so many ingredients in a blender, and make much less of an impression than they would if shown in full. (Incidentally, there’s an attempt to give the movie a dash of the snarky tone of “Deadpool” by introducing the catalogue of characters via blazing caption pages that give their nicknames, backgrounds, likes and dislikes, and so forth. The tactic fails miserably, and all of them remain sketches rather than personalities.)

As for Diesel, who also is among the producers, he doesn’t so much act as pose and preen. It’s easy to understand why he chose to return to the part of Xander Cage: the character is treated as an icon by everyone else in the cast—it’s difficult to count the number of times some other character refers to him as “legendary,” and females are practically compelled to swoon over him—and Diesel responds to the script’s invitations by simply strutting smugly through his scenes, though he does have to pause occasionally to take down a bevy of nasty guys or deliver a supposed bon mot (which couldn’t be less bon) to demonstrate how much smarter he is than everybody else in the room. By the close he’s made Cage genuinely insufferable, which probably won’t matter to those who prefer their heroes to have all the realism—physicall and otherwise—of a buffed-up simulacrum of a human being in a video game.

But the whole movie looks artificial. The stunts actually performed by the cast are largely ruined by the hyperventilating editing job, but apart from that far too much of the action is obviously computer-generated, with some superimpositions of live action over different backgrounds so poor that they’re actually laughable. The same thing might be said of much of the dialogue (at least what you can make out through the relentless sound effects and the brutally bombastic score by Brian Tyler and Robert Lydecker, which is ear-splitting, especially in IMAX format).

“XXX: Return of Xander Cage” joins another recent long-gestating sequel—“Zoolander 2”—as a dispiriting misfire. It’s a blustery, brainless cacophony of chaotic narrative, risible dialogue, dreadful acting, mediocre effects, and sheer noise—akin in that respect to the “G.I. Joe” movies. Sadly, it will probably be a big hit.