"xXx: Return Of Xander Cage" Is The Sequel We Didn't Know We Needed

Fifteen years and one Vin Diesel-less sequel since extreme sports spy movie “xXx” debuted to lukewarm critical and commercial response, threequel “Return Of Xander Cage” has landed. It is, incredibly, a delight, flipping the original’s aggro-stupidity and nu-metal soundtrack for something much frothier, agreeably moving its star away from the melodramatic mumbling of the “Fast And Furious” franchise. It is also, in what might sound like the apex of faint praise, the movie “Eagle Eye” director D.J. Caruso was born to make: Glossy, energetic, and silly as hell, consisting of (but not limited to) motorcycle surfing, zero-G shootouts, weaponized satellites, and a game of grenade hot potato. Suddenly, the franchise that never really was is now the franchise that we need.

The film hits the ground sprinting. NSA agent Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson) is interviewing new recruit and real-life footballer Neymar for a position in the xXx program. The meeting goes spectacularly awry, leaving CIA agent Jane Marke (Toni Collette) to clean up the mess. She logically turns to a dead man for assistance. Diesel’s title character, long thought deceased, is actually living in the Dominican Republic, staging elaborate jungle-skiing sequences for his own benefit. Soon Jane and Xander are unwitting partners, tracking down a device referred to as Pandora’s Box, a bit of techno-nonsense that can turn any satellite into a projectile weapon.

In one of screenwriter F. Scott Frazier’s most knowing bits of genre recycling, Cage has no use for the special ops team Marke provides him, insisting that he bring his own support in. This includes sharpshooter Adele (Ruby Rose), whose intro brings the funniest of the movie’s many punchlines, madman-slash-driver Tennyson (Rory McCann), and finally Nicks (Kris Wu), a DJ and distractor extraordinaire. They’re all memorable in their own way, violently shuffling the deck time and again to allow Cage to do his thing.

But the extensive cast doesn’t end there. Nina Dobrev (“Let’s Be Cops”) plays garrulous tech specialist Becky Clearidge, whose Xander Cage fandom alternates between amusing and irritating; Donnie Yen (“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”) gets an enjoyable turn as Xiang, villainous martial artist; and Indian actress Deepika Padukone makes her Hollywood debut as mysterious femme fatale Serena. She’s uncommonly good in a predictably underwritten role.

As Xander and company globetrot, moving from batty setpiece to batty setpiece, the film remains shockingly light on its feet. Vin Diesel, proudly donning a fur coat and a shit-eating grin, seems elated to be unbound from marble-mouthed meathead Dom Toretto. Here he’s approximating something much closer to his amiable real-life self, unburdened of balancing goofy thrills with dour family drama. Caruso and Frazier are of like minds on the subject, not giving us enough time to think about things like logic – for example, why night inexplicably turns to day in the middle of a big action scene – keeping things moving at a hurried pace. At least, until what should have been an 85-minute affair flies past the 100-minute mark.

Act III gets bogged down by an excess of gunplay and aerial acrobatics – the price of anti-gravity warfare, it seems – eventually becoming too much of a good, or at least bonkers, thing. Apart from some welcome albeit rudimentary anti-fascist undertones, there isn’t much thematic meat on the bone. Once past an hour and a half, an already thin plotline threatens to snap. Nevertheless, it’s a blast to watch Vin Diesel verbally spar with a not-quite-straight-faced Toni Collette in between bouts of vehicular jiu-jitsu. (Our hero repeatedly uses his motorcycle to bludgeon bad guys – before using it to catch a wave, of course. He’s no amateur.) There’s even a substantial nod to the five or six fans of 2005’s “xXx: State Of The Union!”

Xander Cage’s return ends up a loud, ridiculous laugh riot, the perfect antidote to overblown Oscar bait and self-serious action fare alike. It is the sequel we didn’t know we needed, and if there’s any goodness in this world, its fate will mirror its own plotline – marking the unlikely rebirth of a franchise long thought dead and buried. Here’s an energy drink raised in the hopes of “xXx: 4-Play.” It can’t BASE jump in soon enough.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: January 20, 2017
Studio: Revolution Studios, Paramount Pictures
Director: D.J. Caruso
Screenwriter: F. Scott Frazier
Starring: Vin Diesel, Samuel L. Jackson, Toni Collette, Donnie Yen, Deepika Padukone, Nina Dobrev, Ruby Rose, Rory McCann, Kris Wu, Tony Jaa, Neymar, O’Shea Jackson Sr.
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for extended sequences of gunplay and violent action, and for sexual material and language)