Thugs vs. the Secret Service

xXx: State of the Union

While it’s often derided in the media as a shallow James BondThe world's most famous secret agent, James Bond has starred not only in dozens of books but also one of the most famous, and certainly the longest running, film franchises of all time. clone with fake X-Games edge (which, actually, isn’t a bad way to describe the film) the first xXx was a modest hit. While a film making $277.4 Mil today would be considered a failure by Hollywood (because if it’s not anywhere near a Billion at the Box Office, Hollywood now ignores it), that was enough for a xXx sequel to get greenlit back in 2002. Director Rob Cohen (who also directed the first The Fast and the Furious) and actor Vin Diesel (The Fast and the FuriousStarted as a film about undercover policing in the illegal street-racing community, this series has grown to encompass a number of different genres and become one of the most bankable franchises in the world. franchise, RiddickLaunched on the back of a low-budget alien horror film, Pitch Black, antihero Richard B. Riddick has seen his adventures grown into a full media franchise of movies, video games, and more. franchise) were hoping to take xXx and make it into another successful franchise, and certainly the studio wasn’t opposed to that. xXx might not have been a Box Office blowout in comparison to its budget ($88.4 Mil budget for that $277.4 Mil haul) but it was enough for the suits to sign off on more (especially when you consider home video sales as well, which usually doubled the Box Office take back in the early 2000s).

However, reportedly the script stalled due to studio interference and, soon enough, both Cohen and Diesel went off to make other projects, leaving xXx behind. The studio still wanted a sequel, but the two main drivers for the franchise had left, meaning a retooling of the concept was in order. Script writers were brought in, with two drastically different scripts being developed for a potential sequel. Eventually a script by Simon Kinberg, director Lee Tamahori (hot off Die Another Day) was brought in, and actor / rapper Ice Cube was hired to play the next Triple-X agent. Columbia Pictures had everything in place to get their franchise up and running.

Well, all except for a good film, that is. When xXx: State of the Union came out it absolutely bombed in theaters. It was shredded by critics and avoided by audiences. The film cost more than the first xXx to make (to the tune of $113 Mil), but everyone noted that the sequel was less inspired, less interesting, and looked worse than the first movie. Despite its increased budget the film only managed to make $71.1 Mil at the Box Office, a steep decrease in revenue from the first movie. And that basically spelled the end for the franchise (for a time, anyway).

There are a ton of elements that spelled the doom for this film, but I do think recasting Triple-X and having Ice Cube take over didn’t help. Diesel was a rising star at the time (leading up to him becoming one of the Hollywood A-list) and fans of the first film likely weren’t interested is seeing a sequel that didn’t include the hero of the first movie (especially when it was clear they were killing off his character and replacing him with someone else). Whatever else they were going to do with this film, they needed to make sure that audiences would be on board with the recast, which fans clearly weren’t, and that meant getting a star that could slip easily into Diesel’s shoes.

On the one hand I think Ice Cube did a solid job in the role. He actually has the right mix of leading man chemistry and “don’t give a fuck” attitude that suited the role and made for a compelling lead. The issue is that, at that point, Ice Cube was not an actor that could command audiences to come in for a $113 Mil budget film. He’d had successes in the past, such as the Friday films, Three Kings, and Anaconda, but all of his biggest successes featured ensemble casts and not him in a lead role. And even those films (like Anaconda and Three Kings) never cracked the $113 Mil to even break even on this movie (although realistically the xXx sequel would have had to make $226 Mil to break even due to Hollywood math). While every actor has to work their way up, and you don’t know if a lead actor can bring in bigger audiences until they’re given a chance, there was no reason to think (up to that point) that Ice Cube could headline a xXx sequel and have it put butts in seats.

Although, let’s be honest, the story for the film didn’t help that matter either. The first film was about Xander Cage becoming an anti-establishment secret agent for the NSA (quite the contradiction, when you think about it). He was willing to work for the government in the name of stopping international threats, but he wasn’t the kind of guy to support “the Man” or “the System”. Darius Stone (Ice Cube), though, was a military man, someone who actually believed in the power of the U.S. Government and was perfectly okay supporting the system. He was just angry at one guy, Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson), the leader of his unit who left Darius to get arrested when a mission went bad (the details of all of this are left vague and, frankly, don’t make a lot of sense when you think about it). He’s about as far from Xander as you could get while still having someone “edgy” and “cool”.

And by “edgy” and “cool” the film means “in prison” and “knows carjackers”. When the NSA team that Gibbons heads up is attacked by an unknown terrorist group, Gibbons and his tech whiz, Toby Shavers (Michael Roof), have to go on the run. They find out that Xander has also been killed in Bora Bora, leading Gibbons to realize this was a coordinated attack. They recruit Darius in prison, pulling him out to be “a different kind of Triple-X”, and then the three head to the hood to lay low while they plot and plan. But the more they dig, the more they realize this wasn’t just an attack on the Triple-X program, this was a coordinated conspiracy that looks to topple the whole of the U.S. Government. And the only person that can preserve the sanctity of the United States, the only guy that can save the President himself, is Darius “X” Stone.

That’s a far cry from the anti-authority vibe of the first film. From a dude stealing cars to stick it to evil senators to a guy literally fighting to save the US-of-A in two films. A bit of tonally whiplash for audiences. And it’s not just an issue for audiences, as even the film struggles to sell it. Darius is both a (former) gang-banging guy from the streets and a (former) decorated military officer with freedom and eagles and love for the flag running through his veins. When he learns that there’s a conspiracy from within the U.S. government to topple the presidency, he has to try and convince the only allies he has, other gang-bangers, to help. Why should these guys, who have been on the outs with authority this whole time and clearly don’t care about the Man at all, want to help save the U.S. government? The film never convincingly sells us on that. Even the movie itself can’t really sell its own concept.

Of course, even then, a good story and decent acting (and the acting in this film is far from good) wouldn’t have helped considering the director they chose. Tamahori was hired after Die Another Day came out, based on the “success” of that film. Yes, that James Bond movie did make $431.9 Mil on a budget of $142 Mil, qualifying it as a success, but it’s also one of the most hated James Bond films, absolutely savaged by critics and, in the years since, reviled by fans. It’s a bland, lifeless film that overuses bad-looking CGI to fill in for weak direction. That’s the exact (lack of) style Tamahori brings to xXx: State of the Union, creating a tedious, ugly movie with no real flair to it at all.

Hell, xXx: State of the Union feels even more like a bad James Bond film than the first movie. This is especially true in the last act when the action suddenly shifts to a chase on a high-speed bullet train from the middle of downtown D.C. Did you know that the President has a bullet train? No? Well, that’s because he doesn’t. This is a weird moment when all the characters act like this is a perfectly normal pivot, that the President just happens to have something like this he can access. And all so we can get a bad action sequence on a bad CGI train, like Darius is 007 and the bad guy (played by a totally wasted Willem Dafoe) is the frothing James Bond villain. It’s a total misstep for a film absolutely filled with them.

I don’t want to say xXx: State of the Union has absolutely nothing redeeming to it. I do think Ice Cube is fun here, and he and Jackson are able to get some good banter going. But everything around them, absolutely all of it, is awful. This is a bad, ugly, stupid, boring movie that probably shouldn’t have even been made. The second Diesel walked away, Columbia should have scrapped any plans for a sequel, waiting for the actor to eventually return when they could negotiate a deal he liked. They did eventually do that (well, Paramount did when they took over the franchise), luring Diesel back in 2017 for the first (and so far final) movie in this series, but that doesn’t save this movie. This is just a astoundingly bad sequel and everyone involved should be ashamed about it.