xXx : Return of Xander Cage

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(L-R) Vin Diesel as Xander Cage and Deepika Padukone as Serena Unger in xXx: RETURN OF XANDER CAGE by Paramount Pictures and Revolution Studios

One major thing has happened between the release of “xXx” in 2002 and the new sequel : Hollywood realized Vin Diesel wasn’t the marquee name they were assured he would be. And you need no more verification of the stance than just how small “Return of Xander Cage” is compared to Rob Cohen’s flashy Bond knock-off from the early noughties.

In short, you’ll have seen better backdrops during a bout of constipation.

There’s not one effects sequence in the long-gestating sequel that doesn’t seem lifted from John Carpenter’s “Escape from L.A” – which would be perfectly fine if this were 1997 and visual effects workers still utilized the guts of Casio calculator watches for their movie magic.

As opposed to Diesel’s “Fast & Furious” films, which generally rely on a combination of practical effect and pricey polished animation, near every moment in the low joule blockbuster seems to have been either shot in front of a green screen or in a studio parking lot – with someone moving a large matte painting of the atmosphere from left to right as the dude in cargo shorts jumps about like a dud bottle rocket. The dude in “Shawshank” got a better look at the real sky, from his confining, window-less cell, then audiences will here.

Why would anyone sign off on making such an ambitious studio sequel on such a dumpy budget?

It’s like this : Diesel’s been trying to get this second sequel to “xXX” (After Diesel refused, Ice Cube took the lead in the 2005 sequel) up for the better part of a decade, convinced it’d summon up the same size success as the recently reinvigorated “Furious” franchise. But as the accountants working on “Last Witch Hunter” (2015) and “Babylon A.D” (2008) will attest, Diesel isn’t a brand – not in the way Schwarzenegger or Stallone were in the ‘80s – the brand is the title below his name. Whether it’s “Fast & Furious 7” or “Guardians of the Galaxy”, audiences are there to see a package, not the thick tape that holds part of a corner together. But someone’s been spending too much time grinning at the live hearts that float above his videos on Facebook to get a reality check. As a result, the 49-year-old actor and producer has agreed to bring back “xXx” – and for a new studio mind you (notice Sony, the original distributor, didn’t even want in on a sequel.What’s the story there?) – on a fifth of the budget of the original, and with a supporting cast (Don’t be fooled, Samuel L.Jackson is barely in the film, the lass from “The Vampire Diaries” has more screen time) as free and available as a Hilton sister at a nightclub. Seemingly, our protein powder spokesmodel is convinced his trivial charm, self-confessed star power and bare abs will make shoestrings look like sturdy ropes.

When the overused green screen gets more memorable moments then the headline act, it’s safe to say that hasn’t panned out as planned either.

The government lures Xander Cage (Diesel) out of self-imposed exile to stop a weapon known as Pandora’s Box from turning every military satellite into hurtling fireballs. Rather than work with the assigned troops, the bulky superman recruits his own team of gung-ho sidekicks (Nina Dobrev, Ruby Rose, Donnie Yen among them) to help him take down those involved in the conspiracy. Whether it’s riding a motorbike across waves, skiing down winding cement roads or playing a game of musical grenades, Cage does it all without breaking a sweat or losing a boot.

Donnie Yen packs the kind of charm Diesel needs

Samuel L.Jackson reprises his role as “xXx” recruiter Augustus Gibbons, if even briefly, while Toni Collette plays a bucket of make-up masquerading as a C.I.A. heavy. But don’t be fooled, that camera remains hard and heavy on Diesel – this is his valentine’s day card (from himself, to himself), after all.

If other elements of the film worked, like the storyline, a strong villain (did he even have a motive?) or some witty dialogue, then Diesel’s Computer Generated Idiocy (CGI) would’ve been more tolerable – but there’s nothing here to stop your ass from hating you after 107 minutes. F. Scott Frazier’s writing (the quips are worse than anything seen in early Arnie or Sly movies), the lackadaisical direction by D.J Caruso (Paramount’s on hand gun-for-hire), the sleepish cast (is former Australian TV reporter and VJ Ruby Rose playing a sharpshooter undercover as an expressionless Australian TV reporter and VJ?) and the nonsensical plot (it’s messier than the left side of Augustus Gibbons’ face) won’t do anything to help Diesel resurrect the languishing “xXx” brand.

Donnie Yen, fresh from his scene-stealing “force is with me” turn in “Rogue One : A Star Wars Story”, has some great moments (his fight sequences are likely the only thing in the film that hasn’t been run through someone’s cheap iMac before being spliced into the film) and he’s also packing the kind of effortless charm Diesel needs (let’s see Yen plays a suave, daredevil agent in his own film, hey!?), and the oft-reliable Samuel L.Jackson is at his best in the film’s hilarious opening sequence, but they’re tiny, pretty butterflies stuck in a streaming sewer channel. If a fourth “xXx” needs to happen, and someone’s willing to throw more money at it than Paramount has here, lets pair Yen and Jackson. But I think, after you catch this one, you’ll want to join me in signing that Nixon-era petition to again rid traditional cinemas from playing “xXx” movies in the future.

Gonna have to slam down hard on that ‘Number Two’ button because the bowl here is overfilling with crap.