XXX: The Return of Xander Cage (review)

If you take all the camp and cheese from the entire Bond franchise (pre-2006 reboot) ferment it and then mix it with a full bottle of tequila, 4 Four Lokos, and a gallon of Red Bull you’d get a taste of what XXX: The Return of Xander Cage is like. If you think that description is overly hyperbolic, I can assure you it’s not.

The movie is about Xander Cage, an extreme sports enthusiast and vigilante activist, once again being recruited for the Triple X program in order to retrieve a device that in the wrong hands could wreck havoc on the world. So Xander Cage sets upon recruiting his team, to save the world in style.

This is a film that has over-the-top acting, a ridiculous plot, and action sequences that go way beyond the realm of what is physically possible (like skiing in a jungle, or dirt biking in the ocean…seriously). All the while it never has any pretense of being taken seriously, in fact it shamelessly revels in it’s own absurdity. This is a film that knows exactly what it is and this very unabashed self awareness is the reason I found this movie so enjoyable.

I had never watched the previous triple Xs films before so I had little idea of what to expect from this franchise. From the trailer I knew it was going to be a tongue-in-cheek B action flick, and boy did it deliver in spades! I’ve never been one to turn my nose up at campy B-action movies, and I definitely didn’t start with this one. I had so much fun watching this movie, the action scenes were entertaining, the corny one-liners were funny, and the acting was hilariously bad in the best of ways.

While Vin Diesel slips back into the role of Xander Cage like a well worn glove and gives an engaging performance it’s Donnie Yen who steals the show. He delivers the most charismatic performance of the main cast. There is a magnetic charm to his presence that emanates whenever he’s on screen, and of course he absolutely slays his action sequences (even if they are edited a bit sloppily).

There were other standouts as well like Nina Dorbrev who delivers a hilarious performance as the team’s goofy weapons/tech specialist. Rory McCann, who plays an insane getaway driver obsessed with crashes, also does an excellent job. Toni Collette plays a cold and calculating CIA agent in charge of rounding up Xander Cage, and she too does a great job fitting into this world. Their performances were delightful and added a lot of color to the movie. Of course I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the always great Samuel L. Jackson, who just eats up the scenery when his on screen.

Unfortunately as crazy as this film is, it had some flaws that I just couldn’t forgive. The biggest problem to me was there were too many characters in the movie. With a runtime of just over an hour and a half, the film tries to cram in about 8 characters, their backgrounds, and squeeze in enough time to showcase their special abilities. This led to the underdevelopment of several characters as well as the criminal underuse of actors like Tony Jaa, who only gets a fraction of a moment to shine.

There were other characters who just didn’t work or came off really bland, like Deepika Padukone. Her character never struck me as essential, or interesting even though she is one of the main cast members. Ruby Rose’s character also didn’t work for me. She added some color for sure, but her performance just wasn’t that good, and as a result I felt like she was there just to grin at the camera and add another accent to the cast.

Among the worst offenders is Kris Wu’s character Nicks Zhou, who adds absolutely nothing in any way shape or form to the story. Within the story Xander Cage is tasked with recruiting his own team, and presumably he gets people with useful skills or talents to contribute. Wu’s character’s skill is he’s a DJ. That’s it, that is his only skill and to top it off he only uses that skill once in a moment that is stupid by even this movie’s standards. The most memorable moment is when he lashes back at Toni Collette’s character saying in the douchiest way possible “I ain’t a soldier, Imma baller.” His character just wastes space and time that could have been dedicated to another character.

Story wise, while there is a clear goal for the main characters throughout the movie (namely retrieve the device) there is a point about halfway through in which a new antagonist arises and the motivation and goal of that antagonist are unclear, which leads to some vague ambiguity as to what the stakes are if the protagonists fail. The character just pops up, and suddenly wants to doomsday device.

Other than that the rest of this movies faults are minor like spotty CGI, overly edited action scenes, or obvious audio re-dubbing. If you buy into the conceit of this film then they aren’t likely to bother you too much.

In the end the Return of Xander Cage is a ridiculous mess, but it’s a fun mess I actually enjoyed. It’s not elegant or profound but it never intends to be, all it does set out to deliver an entertaining ride and in that it succeeds. I understand this isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, there are probably many who would find the film stupid and lowbrow they aren’t necessarily wrong but everyone’s tastes are different. If you can enjoy a completely bonkers action movie to which you can sit back, turn your brain off and enjoy then maybe you should give XXX: The Return of Xander Cage a watch.

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