The Return Of Xander Cage is 2017’s First Essential Film

By  · Published on January 18th, 2017

A love letter to Vin Diesel’s extreme sports heroism.

The cinema of Rob Cohen peaked in the years 2001 and 2002 with the release of The Fast and the Furious, and, as an alternative to a Fast/Furious sequel, the extreme-sports cash-in xXx, starring once and future Fastest and most Furious of all, Vin Diesel. Before getting to xXx (it is no longer necessary to get to The Fast and the Furious, it having long since ascended to pop legend) as a whole it’s necessary to talk about Cohen as a filmmaker, which isn’t possible to do in a positive sense without grappling with some large contradictions. The first, and biggest, is that he’s a director whose strong points are the very things his detractors foreground as faults: his cinema is big and often unwieldy, favoring force over grace, and requires the panacea of adrenaline to counteract the host of elements that fold under rational scrutiny. In short, his best films (in which category the odd but charming Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story also falls) are better felt than considered, and his worst films are better left unconsidered entirely.

xXx is Cohen’s apex, its maximalism leavened generously with moments of superficially charming wit and a few genuinely inspired choices. It manages to have things both ways with regards to making fun of the idea of an action movie whose protagonist is an extreme sports celebrity, and actually being exactly the kind of movie people who say “actually, that sounds awesome” with a straight face can enjoy. The entire enterprise rests on Vin Diesel’s charisma, which is more than up to the challenge; he even sells Xander Cage as a genuine anarchist for entire seconds at a time in spite of “no, he’s not.” The best thing in the entire movie – which is eliding a number of delightful things, including a great Danny Trejo cameo and the Prague location photography – is the decision to cast Asia Argento as the double agent love interest, a not particularly deep or rich role that Argento turns into one of the more memorable turns in modern action cinema through sheer force of inimitable style. The film as a whole has aged shockingly well, due to being so precisely of an exact moment in time that (figuratively) five minutes later it was already weirdly, wholly idiosyncratic. Its motto is the inadvertent koan barked by Xander during the prelude to the climax, “Stop thinking Prague police, start thinking PlayStation: BLOW SHIT UP!” Yes, let’s.

The sequel, which involved neither Cohen nor Diesel, with the latter expressing the same lack of interest in making sequels as he did upon declining to participate in 2 Fast 2 Furious (a preference that has subsequently, to put it mildly, changed) featured Lee Tamahori in the director’s chair and Ice Cube in the lead, as new character Darius Stone. With neither Cohen’s particular flair for meathead-en-scene nor any connection to extreme sports, xXx: State of the Nation functions on different terms than its progenitor, and to the degree that it’s watchable at all it’s that watching Ice Cube fuck shit up is one of the finest pastimes in American life. Little else distinguishes this particular exercise, otherwise a generic thriller in which Willem Dafoe spearheads a military coup and Cube is forced to arm himself heavily and liaise with Xzibit to protect a POTUS with a peculiarly Trumpian leathery affect. If you, like me, consider everything from “Willem Dafoe” onward in the previous line to sound like a fine evening indeed, have at it. If you don’t, don’t. From the look of the third one (subtitled, subtly, “THE RETURN OF XANDER CAGE”) State of the Union appears to be a largely non-canonical diversion, reports that Cube will be appearing in the third one notwithstanding.

Bringing us, ah yes, to the third one. My God. You had me at “The Return of Xander Cage,” you had my heart with Ruby Rose (it doesn’t matter if she can’t act, stars shine), but you had my soul at Deepika Padukone. One of the great stars of India, she’s making her American debut here. This was her Bollywood debut:

So, you see, this is also very important. And lest we forget, Donnie Yen and Tony Jaa are in it. And it’s the return of Xander Cage. One assumes he’ll have to be retired extreme sports celebrity Xander Cage at this point, but if we’ve learned nothing else from this little chat, it’s that reality and its associated shackles are of little importance in the xXx-verse. Which is its greatest selling point.

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Columnist, Film School Rejects. Host, Minor Bowes podcast. Ce n’est pas grave, y’all