There’s a little known film out there from over twenty years ago called, Strays. Staring, written, and directed by Vin Diesel. It’s this film that impressed a little known director, Steven Spielberg (maybe you’ve heard of him), enough to cast Vin Diesel in his WW2 epic, Saving Private Ryan – even let Diesel direct a scene in the film. Vin Diesel will be known for a lot of things in the course of his career – and most of it will be arguable. I promise you that because I will argue it. But the one thing about Vin Diesel that can never be argued is that he wants to tell stories and he wants to entertain the hell out of an audience.
Hence, fifteen years after he played the role, Vin Diesel has slipped back into the massive fur coat of extreme sports star turned government operative, Xander Cage, in XXX: The Return of Xander Cage. And this is a role that Diesel truly embodies. The small smile on his face when he sees the footage of Donnie Yen’s Xiang make a 60 foot jump/free fall through safety glass. And he says, “That must have been a rush”. You get Xander. And I know what you’re thinking right now, there’s not much to get with Xander. But the thing with extreme sports stars is they have to be able to think freakishly fast, they have to assess which pass down the mountain is the safest in a second, be able to hook up with the rescue craft when they crash in a 30 feet wave swell. The Return of Xander Cage director D.J. Caruso and Diesel bring out these traits in Cage extremely well. And credit to Diesel especially for balancing this skills with the mouthy asshole that Cage is. Xander Cage is the definition of escapism, and is tremendously entertaining to watch throughout this film.
But this is something you can say about this whole cast. Donnie Yen plays Xiang. Very much a larger star than even Diesel, Yen is the only international martial arts action star who’s name can be said in the same sentence as Bruce Lee. Master of several disciplines, and enough style to make you think of Bruce Lee, Yen is the perfect actor to bring Xiang to life. Yen brings a cold directness to Xiang with the same kind of attitude to authority. Very much the kind of guy that will kill you if you get in his way and flip off the boss while he does it. Xiang is very much like what Cage could actually have become if he hadn’t faked his death fifteen years ago. That’s what the story does the best. It’s been 15 years since we last saw Xander Cage, and coming from a fan who owns the original movie, this didn’t feel like the Xander we last saw. Diesel and Caruso built on who Cage was and how the XXX program effected him.
What Caruso does best directing this film is that not one member of this ensemble cast gets pushed to the side. And through everyone getting their moment does this cast truly shine. And I can finally saw that I see what everyone see’s in Ruby Rose now. Rose plays mercenary sniper Adele Wolff. And she easily doesn’t give up an inch of screen to the alpha males of this films, including Rory McCann’s Tennyson Torch, Michael Bisping’s Hawk, and Tony Jaa’s Talon. And the same can be said for Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone’s Serena Unger. But the stand out performance in this film is Nina Dobrev’s lab tech and assistant, Becky Clearidge. Dobrev goes full dork with Clearidge and provides a great deal of comic relief to an overly alpha male and female cast. It was one of the best choices this film made by giving something new to this cast. Beck doesn’t go in the field, guns scare here. And Caruso allows for the comedy to come natural out of Becky being with this team. I never once felt it was forced on me and it made the laughter with her far more genuine with Becky. Because of that, she steals the whole damn movie.
Toni Collette continues a long string of performance where she convincingly plays characters more manly then her male counterparts. A counterpart to Sam Jackson’s Gibbons, Collette’s Jane Marke, plays everything close to the chest and is a great deal of fun to watch her play against a loose cannon like Cage. And as good as this cast is, they’re let down tremendously by the story and the direction. This film doesn’t have a villain that is anyway as strong as this story needs. Ultimately, it works itself out in an way this is a chase moving with everyone going after a weapon. But ultimately, you’ve got a climax that falls flat because of the lack of a villain.
The first XXX film is to the previous generation what Kingsman is to the current generation. It was an original spy movie that felt relevant in a time that needed a fresh voice. Return of Xander Cage feels far more cliched than it does relevant in every sense of the word. In the original film, Cage parachutes onto a mountain when he finally accepts being the hero to Hatebreed’s “I Will be Heard”. Rob Cohen, the director of the original XXX, used the music of the time to bring Xander Cage to life as he evolves into the hero the film needs him to be. Caruso uses the music in the Return of Xander Cage like an MTV playlist, and it gets annoying, a lot.
Despite Caruso’s terrible framing and editing that results in Diesel not even in frame during some stunts, the action is thick in this film. But, like the largest problem with this film – relevance – it still suffers. The climax of the film involves a great deal of CGI, in fact, some of the film’s set pieces are digital. As good as the tempo in these scenes is, it doesn’t capture the feeling of a stunt man base jumping off of a free falling Corvette like the original XXX. This film gets 3 stars out of 5 purely based of the extraordinarily entertaining performances from these actors. If you go to this movie, you will have a decent few hours to enjoy a bag of popcorn with. You will be entertained.
I do have to give this film credit. In terms of sequels, it’s not half bad. Diesel – a producer on Return of Xander Cage – has a talent for making fun films. Hopefully though, he can find what the original XXX was – an original action film that is relevant to the time. Because, as it stands, if you want a great action spy film, great cast, action, story, go watch Kingsman.