Diesel Returns, but is Running on Fumes

xXx: The Return of Xander Cage

It had been long enough since the second xXx movie, xXx: State of the Union, came out that I doubt any of the fans of the franchise were absolutely itching for a third film. Yes, the first one was beloved for its cheese, but the sequel hadn’t done anywhere near as well and everyone involved, from Vin Diesel to Ice Cube and all the rest, had moved on. It felt like the franchise was over, a slice of early 2000s cheese that we could enjoy with rose-tinted glasses without requiring anything more on the matter. Of course, Hollywood loves bringing franchises back, and Vin Diesel does have an obsession with continuing his brand over and over again. It was inevitable, in a way, that Diesel would return to xXx.

Of course, that would require resurrecting his character considering the previous film went out of its way to kill him off. When Diesel wouldn’t return (over a script dispute) for the second film, his character’s death was written into that film’s story. He supposedly died in Bora Bora, which everyone notes in the film. And then, for the DVD, a short, The Final Chapter: The Death of Xander Cage, was put together to show that, yes, he very much did die. He’s dead, case closed, so how, exactly, can he return in the third film?

Easy. Just don’t address it at all. Instead of showing us that he somehow escaped (and anticipated someone making a play on his life, throwing a flap of a corpse’s skin with an xXx tattoo on it out a window just to throw people off his scent, he’s just like, “naw, I’m not dead. I’ve just been in hiding this whole time.” I expected that the third film would address it, that we’d get some big story about how he dodged the explosion and has been working behind the scenes ever since but, no. He just hid. Dismissed in moments at the start of this film. That’s it.

Honestly, it’s a bit of a let down for the film to not even address how Xander was able to stay alive this time even with people looking for him to bring him back into the fold. He just vanished for 12 years, hiding out in island nations, stealing cable for them and doing other odd jobs with his expertise in extreme sports (seriously, his first action is stealing cable from an armed station, escaping by skiing on gravel, and it’s incredibly stupid). Then, one day, the government just finds him like it’s no big deal and suddenly he’s Triple-X again. Just like that. This, like the rest of the movie, shows how little thought was put into the film.

The movie itself plays out like a copy-of-a-copy of a 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. film. After Xander’s original handler, Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson) is seemingly killed at the start of the film by a falling satellite (yes, really), new head of the Triple-X program, Jane Marke (Toni Collette), tracks down Cage (Diesel) so that he can help her find the bad guys that stole the device that is capable of dropping satellites out of the sky on specified targets. These guys broke into the CIA in a coordinated attack, made off with the device (called Pandora’s Box) and now, presumably, are holding the world hostage. Due to their skill, Cage is the only guy capable of taking them down.

But Cage will need help, and not just some CIA goons. He brings in people he knows: sniper Adele Wolff (Ruby Rose), getaway driver Tennyson Torch (Rory McCann), and party D.J. Nicks (Kris Wu). These four then track down the bad guys who, we quickly learn, are all former Triple-X agents. They are: Donnie Yen as Xiang, Deepika Padukone as Serena, Tony Jaa as Talon, and Michael Bisping as Hawk. They stole Pandora’s Box because they didn’t trust it in the hands of the government, and while Xander and his crew are working against them, it’s not like he agrees with the CIA either. Of course, then the CIA turns against them and the whole crew of misfits has to work together to save the world.

Watching xXx: The Return of Xander Cage, which originally came out in 2017, I was struck by how much this felt like a low-rent Fast & Furious adventure. Cheaper, shoddier, and not as interesting, this film still tries to hit all the same notes as that better, larger franchise, just without any of the creativity. It’s a found family of people that do things “their way”, going out on a crazy adventure to stop bad guys from doing bad things, all while sporting their X-Games, outside perspective. Switch skateboarding and water-biking for cars and you have just another Fast & Furious (and not an especially good one).

Part of the issue is that none of the characters in this film really get any development. Each of the former Triple-X agents are given a name, and a skill, but we don’t really get to know anything about them. Why did Xiang, or Serena, or any of the rest of them decide to sign up for this government program? What were they doing before they became Triple-X and what, specifically, had them turn on the CIA? We’re never given any of this information, meaning all their characters remain painfully superficial. Hell, I had to look up the names for Hawk and Talon (who both sound like rejected Street Fighter characters) because they had no actual impact on the film. They just existed.

The same can be said for Cage’s team, though. We get each of their one traits, from shooting to wrecking cars to starting parties, but we don’t ever really learn anything about them. They all exist in a void, plucked out of the air like action figures and set in various scenes so they can do their one thing. Some of them are fun characters, sure, but that’s due to the actors selling their roles more than the film actually doing anything of note with the characters. Go someplace, shoot, crash, party, over and over until the film ends. It’s not much to go on.

What’s worse is that Diesel is in sleep-walk mode here. This is a character he’s played over and over again, acting the tough but loveable leader of a crew of misfits across all but two of the Fast & Furious films. He doesn’t play a different character here, and he’s not even really playing Xander Cage this time around. While that might be his character’s name, Xander here is basically just Dom Toretto, doing the same moves and acting the same way. The cool guy, extreme version of 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., doesn't show up here, losing the one thing that actually worked about the original xXx.

Not that the film gives him much to work with. Pandora’s Box is a black box bit of techno-babble that gets the plot going, but it really doesn’t have much bearing on the actual action of the film. It’s there to show “unlimited power”, which is exactly like the God’s Eye from the Fast & Furious films. Seriously, with minimal tweaking you could have made this movie into another Fast & Furious, making me wonder if this was just a script so bad they filed the serial numbers off and made it into something else. That or Paramount was desperate get their own Fast & Furious so they commissioned someone to write just that and then grabbed Diesel to make it again.

I mean, while I think this movie is C-grade, empty shirt trash, it was successful. On a budget of $85 Mil it made $346.1 Mil at the Box Office, making it the highest performer for the series. Paramount wants to make another, as does Diesel, showing that sometimes nostalgia, and the right actor, can make even a terrible film successful at the Box Office. It is sad, though, because Diesel is a solid actor and he had fun in this role the first time around. It would have been nice to see what he could have done with a good script in a good movie that actually was enjoyable (maybe just enjoyable trash, but enjoyable all the same).

This is not that movie. This is a boring, sad, tired, lame retread of films we’ve gotten before. It’s beneath Diesel but, worse, it’s beneath us.