xXx: Return of Xander Cage (2017) Review

"xXx: The Return of Xander Cage" Korean Theatrical Poster

“xXx: The Return of Xander Cage” Korean Theatrical Poster

Director: D. J. Caruso
Writer: F. Scott Frazier
Cast: Vin Diesel, Donnie Yen, Deepika Padukone, Kris Wu, Ruby Rose, Tony Jaa, Nina Dobrev, Toni Collette
Samuel L. Jackson, Nicky Jam, Rory McCann
Running Time: 107 min.

By Zach Nix

The original xXx, released in 2002, was most definitely a product of its time. Directed by Rob Cohen, the blockbuster was a sports and adrenaline charged take on the espionage genre at a time when even James Bond himself was giving into the schlock that xXx so proudly touted. It was also an action vehicle designed around its up and coming star, Vin Diesel, who was churning out hit after hit with the likes of Pitch Black and The Fast and the Furious. When it came time for a sequel though, Diesel chose to opt out, the same as he did with his now coveted Fast and Furious series, and decided to cash his checks on continuing his Riddick series.

Therefore, xXx chose to go the route of choosing a new lead with each new installment. The first sequel, xXx: State of the Union, released in 2005, put rapper Ice Cube in the lead, with none other than Die Another Day director Lee Tamahori at the helm. It’s no surprise that the director of the schlockiest modern Bond film would go on to continue the xXx series, an already silly series, to increasingly silly results. Although the original xXx was no masterpiece, at least it took its time to introduce its characters and have an ounce of tension to its spy filled proceedings. It was also a tad longer and more blockbuster centric, which made it feel all the more eventful. State of the Union has those blockbuster flourishes, but flies by so quickly and so painfully rests upon a plot that few would care for, that it seemed more so a cash grab meant to bring in some audiences desperate for some more xXx action. It’s a guilty pleasure alright, but far from a true sequel to the original despite Samuel L. Jackson’s appearance.

Fast forward many years later, and Diesel has now chosen to return to all of his original franchises one a time. When Diesel returned to the Fast and Furious series in 2009, he helped steer it back on track to not only become hugely successful again, but become one of the biggest franchises on the entire planet. When he returned to Riddick in 2013, he didn’t necessarily break the bank with that one, but gave die-hard fans the R rated return that they wanted and helped pay off some of those debts from the failed Chronicles of Riddick. And now in 2017, we come to xXx: The Return of Xander Cage, the third entry in its series and the second with Diesel, a whopping fifteen years after his previous appearance in the series. Diesel surely didn’t need to come back to Xander Cage, as he is making bank off of Fast and Furious like nobody’s business, but it’s a nice treat for fans of Diesel’s action films to see him resurrect such a dated series for the modern age.

The Return of Xander Cage is a gloriously ridiculous and over the top return if there ever was one, a sequel in a thought to be deceased series that finds some creative juices and opportunities for impossible action. This third entry isn’t as douchey and sports driven as the first film, although there are light touches of those qualities throughout, as this series, much like Fast and Furious, knows and respects its roots, despite how silly they are. In a sense, it feels as if Diesel has Fast and Furious-ified his own xXx series, as he places the focus onto the team more so than himself. While xXx was through and through a Diesel vehicle, The Return of Xander Cage sports a large ensemble that even includes martial arts superstars Donnie Yen and Tony Jaa, which maximizes international appeal and turns the film into a must see event for martial arts fans.

The plot is as silly as they come, with Xander Cage (Vin Diesel), the original xXx, forming a team of his own to go after another team of xXx’s, led by Agent Xiang (Donnie Yen), whom are responsible for the death of a friend near and dear Cage. This new team of xXx’s has gone rogue and currently possess the Pandora’s Box, a device that allows them to crash satellites to the Earth. By the way, I have to point out how lazy a name like Pandora’s Box is for a plot device, as it’s just about as lazy as the God’s Eye, the name of the all-powerful device from Furious 7. That complaint aside, the name of the game here is not story or character, but attitude and action, and The Return of Xander Cage has it in spades.

There’s some silly but fun call backs to the previous two films in the series, such as lines of dialog and visual motifs. I don’t think that I’m crazy, but I’m pretty sure that Xander Cage’s puffy coat has actually gotten bigger, as he now resembles the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz. It’s also nice to see State of the Union actually get some recognition for how forgotten of a film that it is. There’s also a great cameo from a previous character in the series, and while I don’t want to spoil it for those who don’t know, thinking about who it could be really only leaves you with one person who could possibly show up (hint: it’s not Asia Argento, although how crazy would that have been?).

Diesel is fine as always, essentially playing himself. Both he and the script tone down the video game references and obsession with sports, which is nice, as they were possibly the lamest aspects of the original. However, Diesel isn’t the biggest draw of the film, as he comes along with a rather huge supporting cast of notable name and up and coming actors. The biggest and best of them all is Donnie Yen, who outright steals the film and gets to perform numerous action sequences that shows off his amazing skills. It’s clear that the producers fully understood what they had with Yen, as opposed to Disney who truly sidelined him within Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. It’s worth mentioning that Yen’s part was to be originally played by Jet Li, who eventually backed out of the role and was replaced by Yen. It’s a shame that Li wasn’t able to be in the film, as it would have provided a much needed boost for the star stateside. However, that boost will now go to Yen, whose currently on a roll stateside that can’t be stopped.

Yen takes part in several fights where he goes up against multiple opponents in showcases of martial arts that are quite impressive for an American production. He also squares off against Diesel in a fight and foot chase upon a high way (Kung Fu Killer any one?) that serves as the duo’s big one on one face off. The two also partake in a rather hilarious set piece where they chase one another on motorcycles that convert to surf a top waves. After the one-two punch of Rogue One and The Return of Xander Cage, it’s nice to see Yen front and center in American cinema again after his minor appearances in the early 2000s with Blade II and Highlander: Endgame. Here’s to hoping that he’ll get better parts in American productions where he doesn’t just show off his moves and can inhabit stronger characters along the lines of his work in Ip Man, Wu Xia, and SPL.

Speaking of parts where one simply shows off their moves, Tony Jaa also appears, only to really show off some of his trademark impressive moves, such as a scene where he slides underneath an open car door. Unfortunately, he’s not in the film that much, and also does not fight Donnie Yen, which is a real disappointment. However, Jaa’s screen time here is much greater than his time in Furious 7, where he wasn’t even given a real introduction. He also gets to showcase a sense of liveliness in a few scenes where he dances around and acts silly, which is quite refreshing. So take it as is. Overall, both Yen and Jaa’s inclusion adds some serious martial arts credibility to the film.

Unfortunately, just about every other supporting character is hugely forgetful, but that’s also because none of them are a part of the action game in the way that Diesel, Yen, and Jaa are. Ruby Rose is probably the most notable, since she’ll also be seen in John Wick: Chapter Two, so we clearly cannot ignore her. Deepika Padukone is fine too, as she, much like Rose, isn’t given much to work with. Toni Collette is quite fine as a feisty and no nonsense replacement for Sam Jackson’s Gibbons character. However, no one is as bad as Nina Dobrev, who is especially grating and annoying as a “humorous” tech character. In all honesty, I’ll find myself slightly more embarrassed to own this film in the future simply because of her performance. All in all, The Return of Xander Cage has a supporting cast that is probably way too large for its own good, although it does add a lot of diversity and international appeal to the mix.

Whereas the first two films in the series featured a lot of gadgetry, this entry seems to tame down the espionage elements for a more simplistic and streamlined action picture. Although the first xXx was designed to introduced a new breed of secret agent to the cinematic world, The Return of Xander Cage is hardly a secret agent picture at all, but more so a streamlined action picture primed for international appeal. There’s still villains who want to rule the world, undercover secret agents, and government tech rooms, but it hardly feels very spy-esque if you ask me. Much the same way that Fast Five tamed down the street racing for a more heist centric direction for its franchise, The Return of Xander Cage tames down the espionage with an attitude angle for a more team driven international action blockbuster.

I can’t in my right mind give this movie a rating higher than an eight, because it’s all plot, no story, and features some of the worst dialog I have ever heard within a film. But excess is the name of the game here, and The Return of Xander Cage makes for one of the most entertaining theatrical experiences that I’ve had in a long time. I even saw it in IMAX 3D, which further added to the absurdity of it all, although I never recommend watching a Donnie Yen fight in 3D, as it’ll hurt your eyes and head. In conclusion, The Return of Xander Cage excels as a reboot to its series as it brings back elements of the original, slightly updates them for a new audience, and throws in a helping hand of martial arts for a blockbuster of a good time. It may be too early to call, but I’ll be surprised if the film doesn’t end up on my top ten action films of the year list by the year’s end.

Zach Nix’s Rating: 8/10 

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5 Responses to xXx: Return of Xander Cage (2017) Review

  1. “It’s a shame that Li wasn’t able to be in the film, as it would have provided a much needed boost for the star stateside. However, that boost will now go to Yen, whose currently on a roll stateside that can’t be stopped.”

    This is just speculation, but I Jet Li maxed out his stateside star power with his early rise in the U.S. (Lethal Weapon, Romeo Must Die, etc. and then years later in the Expendables movies), so it’s questionable whether a role would have boosted his career any further – definitely wouldn’t hurt though. Donnie Yen is still at the sweet spot of his physical ability, so if Li was in it, chances are he would have had watered down fight scenes, and limited screen time. Glad you enjoyed the movie…

  2. Paul Bramhall says:

    What kind of site give a 1/10 to a Jackie Chan movie, but an 8/10 to a Vin Diesel movie!? What’s next, a feature comparing the merits of ‘The Pacifier’ against ‘Rob-B-Hood’!? 😛

    Jokes aside, glad to hear you enjoyed this Zach. Though having Donnie Yen and Tony Jaa not fight is simply ridiculous. I mean what was D.J. Caruso thinking!? Almost any review of ‘SPL 2’ mentions at some point what a shame it is that Yen didn’t return, as it would have provided the chance for a Yen vs. Jaa showdown. Finally a Hollywood production gets them in a movie together, and completely squanders the opportunity. It’s the equivalent of getting Sonny Chiba and Gordon Liu in the same movie and never having them meet. Wait a minute…

  3. Ningen21 says:

    Seeing this series for the first time through this film, ‘cus of the trailer and Donnie and Tony being in it. As for Jet, I don’t think he could handle the crazy stunts in xXx 3 at his age. He’s not normally the go-to guy for those kinds of scenes, either. He does the hand-to-hand and gunplay thing most of the time, not the stunt thing. Anyway, there’s a bit of somewhat expected macho bullshit posturing to endure in the first half of the film, but, in terms of action the second half delivers on the goods. And if you’re a Donnie fan underwhelmed by his brief appearance in Rogue One, then this flick will make it up for you. Though, depending on whether or not she’s your fantasy type, and you don’t care, I gotta put a warning that Nina Dobrev’s character Becky can be a bit Jar Jar-ey at times…

    • HKFanatic says:

      I thought Nina Dobrev was cute as a button and incredibly funny in this! The most Jar Jar-esque character for me was Kris Wu’s lame character who was somehow expected to fight evil with his DJ powers.

  4. Paul Bramhall says:

    This was a time killer for me on an excruciatingly long 11 hour flight, which I went into with very low expectations. Initially, it felt like it was going to meet them, with Vin Diesal’s xXx now seeming just as outdated as the Bond franchise was that the original saw itself as a successor of. However the more it progressed, the more I found myself enjoying it. While it starts out a little unevenly, and feels like it’s trying a little too hard to be funny (the onscreen text for Diesal’s team member intros are awful), somewhere along the way it seems to realise it can only work as a parody of the original, and once it does, it’s a lot of fun (even the onscreen character introductions become witty).

    What other movie has a DJ saving the day by taking over a set and making everyone dance in a certain direction? It’s certainly not without its negatives. Who is this Ruby Rose, and why does she keep getting work? The only plus of having her here is that it makes you appreciate that her character was mute in ‘John Wick 2’. Also, no one knows what to do with Tony Jaa. ‘Ong Bak’ came out 14 years before this sequel, however we’re still seeing the same thing – elbow someone, knee someone etc. Yen on the other hand really shines, and can almost be classed as a co-star with Vin Diesal. Yes he gets his action licks in, and looks good doing it, but he also has plenty of dialogue scenes as well, and unlike Jaa, you can’t imagine anyone else playing his role.

    In many ways ‘xXx: The Return of Xander Cage’ felt like one of these big blockbuster Chinese action movies that the Mainland keeps trying to make, but seems destined to get forever wrong. If ever they do happen to get it right, it might look a lot like what we have here.

    PS I concur with HKFanatic on Nina Dobrev being far more entertaining (& cuter) than Kris Wu!

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