Movie Review: ‘XXX: THE RETURN OF XANDER CAGE’ is everything you hoped it would be

Courtney Howard // Film Critic

XXX: THE RETURN OF XANDER CAGE |  107 min  | PG-13
Directed by: D.J. Caruso
Starring: Vin DieselDonnie YenDeepika Padukone, Kris Wu, Ruby Rose, Tony Jaa, Nina Dobrev, Rory McCann, Toni Collette, Samuel L. Jackson

It comes as news to no one that Vin Diesel is one of the top franchise kings in the world. From his RIDDICK series, to THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS franchise, to the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY series, he’s probably one of the most bankable movie stars working today. What he doesn’t get a lot of credit for is being a shrewd businessman – as with director D.J. Caruso’s XXX: THE RETURN OF XANDER CAGE. Diesel, who produces the third movie in the series and plays the titular character for a second time, has stacked this chapter with some of the world’s A-list talent, thus almost guaranteeing the film’s success. The second factor to deliver fairly fruitful results is the script from F. Scott Frazier, which sets the dial at high camp, though it’s played entirely straight-faced. Almost parody-like in parts, the material seems to wink and nod at itself in grandiose manners – and here we are, soaking in all the ostentatious magnificence. B-movie glory is well-earned with this exXxhilarating, exXxciting, exXxceptionally entertaining feature. It’s a v-indecent amount of fun.

The tale begins with Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson) tragically killed and a top secret weapon code-named “Pandora’s Box” stolen by a rogue unit – Xiang (Donnie Yen), Serena (Deepika Padukone), Hawk (Michael Bisping) and Talon (Tony Jaa). As Commander Jane Marke (Toni Collete) so succinctly puts it, “We need someone who can walk in and out of a situation like a damn gentle breeze.” Enter exXxiled exXxtreme-athlete-turned-government-operative Xander Cage (Diesel)! After antagonizing authoritarian Captain Paul Donovan (Tony Gonzalez), getting geeked out on by mission tech support Becky (Nina Dobrev), our hero assembles his own elite squad – sharp-shooter Adele (Ruby Rose), crash king Tennyson Torch (Rory McCann) and Nicks (Kris Wu). However, as they’re deep undercover, they’re met with an even bigger challenge, fraught with danger and scandalous double-crossings.

(L-R) Vin Diesel, Toni Collette, Ruby Rose, Nina Dobrev, Deepika Padukone, and Tony Gonzalez in xXx: RETURN OF XANDER CAGE by Paramount Pictures and Revolution Studios

If this all sounds absurdly hilarious, it’s because it is. You might have to restrain yourself from slow-clapping. I didn’t, but I was joining others. RXC, as this film likes to be called, exXxcels when it embraces its bombastic set pieces and wonderfully ludicrous dialogue. Lines like “Patriotism is dead. There are only rebels and tyrants now,” delivered with all the pathos of a John Milius movie aren’t the kinds of things you’d exXxpect out of this silliness, but here we are. Skiiing down a mountainside in the jungle? Good! A motocross bike chase on water skis through giant ocean waves? Even better! A minor character (played by Nicky Jam) not knowing he’s speaking with triple X when there’s a giant effing tattoo of it on Xander’s neck? Now we’re talking. Xander, albeit very briefly, even emotionally wrestles with a “now what” moment in his career. Watching Diesel confront exXxistential quandaries – no matter how brief – is worth the admission alone. It even channels TRUE LIES in the scene where Becky, who doesn’t know how to use a gun, mows down a bunch of baddies after tripping, sending her gun flying, rapid-firing. Plus, there is a rousing third act cameo (one marketing may have already spoiled for you) that’s a masterclass in how to write cameo appearances.

Not matter how unreal the situations get, Caruso makes sure to photograph the action coherently. He also takes the time to play to the strengths of most of these powerhouse cast members. Yen and Jaa are badass fighters and their sequences are solid, though granted, you want to see more. Padokune shares great chemistry with Diesel as evident in their physical and verbal sparring. And Dobrev is genuinely funny, absolutely nailing her character arc.

(L-R) Vin Diesel, Donnie Yen and Deepika Padukone in xXx: RETURN OF XANDER CAGE by Paramount Pictures and Revolution Studios

Nevertheless, this movie does task you to ignore a few loose ends – particularly with Marke’s motivations and end game logistics. While Frazier’s screenplay is infused with a healthy sense of light fun, it knows it isn’t reinventing the wheel. Action sequences are innovative simply because they are so out-of-the-boxXx, but the in between stuff isn’t packed with rich character development and some of the ensemble are left behind, shown only as barely one-dimensional characters (cough, cough. Hawke and Nicks). The something-for-everyone approach doesn’t totally function effortlessly. Despite the gratuitous male gaze shots of half-naked ladies and noticeably inappropriately young women Xander sexXxually satisfies, this technically passes the Bechdel Test and shows the main ladies as capable heroines who save themselves.

That said, even with the blights, it’s rambunctiously, stupidly endearing – and it knows exXxactly what it is. RXC is like if MISSION IMPOSSIBLE and THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS had a love child…. and I would love it and raise it as my own.

XXX: THE RETURN OF XANDER CAGE is now playing.

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