Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (May 13, 2002)
Apparently the folks behind 2002’s xXx thought we needed a new 007, for that’s how they touted their summer action flick. Advance word on xXx pushed it as a Bond adventure for the extreme sports set; they hoped to make the super-spy seem outdated and obsolete with their new chrome-domed, tattooed, muscular thrill-seeker.
It didn’t work. Not that xXx didn’t do pretty well at the box office. Its gross of $141 million fell short of studio expectations, but it still offered a pretty tidy sum for an action flick with no established stars; lead Vin Diesel has made a decent name for himself, but he still isn’t exactly a household name.
But for me to accept xXx as something that supercedes Bond, the former would need to make much more money than the latter. As luck would have it, a new 007 adventure hit screens less than half a year after xXx, as Die Another Day came out around Thanksgiving of 2002. It earned about $160 million, so it outdid xXx by $19 million.
Which means that audiences don’t quite feel the need to toss aside Bond for a new secret agent, at least not just yet. When the sequel to xXx comes out in 2004, I suppose we’ll get a better idea how much crowds like the rookie action hero, but I seriously doubt this film will spawn a franchise to even remotely rival Bond’s 40 year run.
Heck, I’ll be surprised if the xXx series lasts past the second flick. To do so, the sequel will need to greatly improve upon the original. xXx provides a terribly disappointing experience, as it offers one of the weakest major action movies I’ve seen in some time.
xXx quickly introduces its main setting, as we venture to the Czech Republic. There an American agent named McGrath (Thomas Ian Griffith) gets killed at a very boisterous nightclub party hosted by Yorgi (Martin Csokas), the joint’s owner and the leader of a subversive group called Anarchy 99. McGrath’s death makes him the third spy murdered on the job, and the powers back at the National Security Agency need to think outside the proverbial box. Scar-faced Augustus Gibbons brings up an unorthodox proposal to use the “best and brightest of the bottom of the barrel”: criminals who have the savvy and wherewithal to better integrate into these seeding settings.
We then meet Xander Cage (Vin Diesel), the dude who evokes the “XXX” of the title. An extreme sports superstar, he steals the Corvette owned by State Senator Dick Hotchkiss (Tom Everett), a full-formed prick who opposes everything dear to Xander’s crowd: skateboarding, rap music, and video games. Xander tapes an anti-Dick monologue as he speeds along in the Corvette, which he then destroys in a big stunt.
When authorities capture Xander, he think it’s because of the theft, but in actuality, this occurs at Gibbons’ behest. After Xander wakes, he finds himself in a diner, where he receives a test of his abilities. He passes this, and Gibbons lets him know the deal. Xander then immediately gets sent to Colombia for another test, though this one seems much more real.
Xander aces that challenge as well, and Gibbons gives him an ultimatum. Either Xander joins forces with the NSA as an agent or he goes to jail. Not surprisingly, Xander chooses the latter, and he soon finds himself in Prague, where he meets Yorgi and the rest of the Anarchy 99 crew. This includes Yelena (Asia Argento), a sexy sidekick with whom Xander flirts.
Once Xander proves himself to Yorgi, he becomes part of Anarchy 99. He eventually starts to learn that the organization’s work goes beyond simple drug trafficking and the usual crimes. In fact, Yorgi wants to cause the destruction of all governments and plans to do so with the aid of “Silent Night”, a rather virulent chemical weapon. Naturally, Xander attempts to stop this.
Except for the manner in which Xander joins the ranks of the NSA, you’ll find virtually nothing in this plot synopsis that would seem out of place in a Bond film. That’s because xXx really is a Bond film. Its creators simply doll up the events in a scungier setting and toss in less suave participants all across the board.
That’s right, everything about xXx is extreme - as in, extremely asinine. The movie attempts so hard to become something new and set itself apart from other flicks in the genre that it feels like a seven-year-old at a party who desperately screams and flails as he tries to attract attention. Director Rob Cohen piles on so much aggressive action and music that the whole thing becomes one big incoherent blur after awhile.
Of course, Cohen also wants to make sure we know how much cooler xXx when compared to Bond. The opening scene ensures that, when in a bit straight out of Goldfinger, Agent McGrath slips out of his work clothes to reveal a tuxedo. Never mind that True Lies already spoofed this gag eight years ago. xXx uses it to declare its intentions, for we quickly see how a Bond-esque agent won’t cut it in the modern world.
Well, of course not. That scene offers the first of many howlers in which I found it absolutely impossible to suspend disbelief. Sure, Bond flicks include scads of scenes that bear no resemblance to real life. However, I’ll accept all of its absurd stunts and gags before I’ll see the logic in sending a milquetoast white boy in a tux to a party filled with revelers who look like the undead and the ridiculously aggressive rantings of crappy German rockers Rammstein. How stupid would an agent need to be to think that he’d blend in there while clad in a tuxedo?
Things get worse with our introduction to Xander. I suppose his theft of the jerky senator’s Corvette is supposed to endear him to us in some sort of revolutionary man of the people way, but frankly, it just makes him look equally horrible. When we don’t agree with someone, the way to change that is to steal a car and destroy it for one’s own glorification? Sorry, but that just doesn’t cut it for me. Being a prick to a prick doesn’t make one cool.
Granted, xXx is supposed to be a cartoon, so perhaps I should take these things less seriously. However, the movie provides such an aggressively annoying experience that I find it tough to let minor transgressions slide. I can’t recall the last time I saw a protagonist presented in such a genuinely unlikable manner. Maybe some will see Xander as a cool outlaw anti-hero, but he just seems like an obnoxious buffoon to me.
I used to like Diesel, as I thought he brought heart to roles in The Iron Giant and Saving Private Ryan. However, as he becomes a bigger star, he starts to lose that early warmth and charm. As Xander, he offers virtually no spark or flair, as he makes the character nothing more than a crass and irritating boor. Not only did I not care about Xander, but also as the film progressed, I actively started to root against him!
It doesn’t help that the script furnishes its characters with some of the worst dialogue ever attempted. God save us from xXx’s attempts at humor. Actually, save us from all of the film’s atrocious dialogue. From Xander’s wacky “Where’s the peanuts?” on board a no-frills military plane to Gibbons’ “A small price that I pay for putting foot to ass for my country”, the movie fills its time with genuinely horrible lines. No one expects scintillating repartee from an action film, but this one sinks to exceedingly low levels.
Perhaps I could forgive much of this if xXx delivered with some cool action, but unfortunately, most of the movie simply seems dull. Admittedly, the film’s climactic segment provides some decent thrills, but the rest of the time it comes across as quite bland. It simply tries too hard to impress us, which undercuts any drama or excitement. Almost nothing stands out, as the material appears very forgettable. I just watched the movie 12 hours ago, and I can’t remember much about the stunts, which doesn’t seem to be a good sign.
For a movie that wants to distance itself from the world of Bond, xXx works awfully hard to remind us of that legacy. In addition to the opening gag with Agent McGrath, a few other 007 allusions appear. Most notable is the inclusion of Agent Toby Lee Shavers (Michael Roof), a nerdy MIT-educated version of “Q”. The character feels like a pale imitation, as he brings nothing positive to the movie at all.
(xXx includes at least one odd and unexpected cinematic allusion. During an early scene in Prague, we see a performance of some zither music that uses the theme from 1949’s The Third Man. When I watched the movie, I figured the filmmakers did this as another attempt to distance themselves from spies of the past, as the old-time tune soon gave way to more modern rock. However, it seems like a weird move. It’ll be lost on 99% of the audience that sees xXx, and the one percent that gets it will simply look back longingly on the infinitely superior Third Man, which undercuts the attempt to move toward the future. During his commentary on the earlier DVD, Cohen explains he meant this as a bow toward Third Man director Carol Reed, but it still makes little sense to me.)
Add to all these problems the annoying and apparently unending shots of Xander’s “XXX” tattoo on his neck and xXx offers a decidedly unlikable affair. I’ve seen worse action flicks, but not too many. This one works so hard to become something new and fresh that it comes across as totally self-conscious and forced. In truth, it brings nothing new to the genre, and it fails to provide anything engaging or interesting.