Blast from the Past: xXx (2002)

xxx

“A New Breed of Secret Agent”

Directed by Rob Cohen
Starring Vin Diesel, Asia Argento, Samuel L. Jackson, Marton Csokas and Michael Roof

After an NSA agent is killed while trying to James Bond his way through a Rammstein gig in pursuit of Russian ex-military crime syndicate Anarchy 99, maverick senior agent Augustus Gibbons (Jackson) is given carte blanche to recruit and deploy an asset drawn from the criminal world, without the tells of a professional agent or ex-soldier. Of those chosen, the only one to pass all of Gibbons’ tests is extreme sports athlete and political pre-YouTube video prankster Xander Cage (Diesel).

Cage is sent to Prague to infiltrate Anarchy 99 by setting up a stolen car buy with their leader, Yorgi (Csokas) and his accountant Yelena (Argento). He soon learns that Yorgi’s plan goes beyond crime to a computer-guided stealth submarine loaded with bio-weapon missiles which will wipe out major populations across the world, leading to a state of paranoia, war and eventual anarchy. Sold out by a disgruntled Czech secret policeman and with Gibbons threatening to pull the plug, Cage – aka Triple-X – teams up with Yelena – actually a Russian agent – the Prague Police and NSA technical support agent Toby Lee Shavers (Roof) to prevent Yorgi launching ‘Ahab’.

What’s wrong with it?

MCDXXXX EC045
“We shall do crime in room full of naked chicks! This is Anarchy 99.”

The film tries to present a strong, female lead, but at heart it’s a fifteen year old boy, with its perving X-ray binoculars and inconsequential mob ‘bitches’ whose feelings and personalities we’re obviously not supposed to think about, let alone where they are while the Prague Police are shooting up the gang’s mansion.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man. The early noughties were Xander Cage’s hour, right enough, and really only a short period in the very early noughties. Even by the time the film was released, the extreme sportsman-turned-superspy bit was wearing thin, and by modern standards the idea that agents would be desperately trying to secure him for lucrative extreme sports video game endorsement deals is laughable.

Laughable is also a good word to describe the level of Xtreme stunts on display in the film. Cage at one point ramps a dirt bike up a canted flatbed, onto the sloping roof of a warehouse full of cocaine processing paraphernalia, which then explodes under him, while he drops down the far side, somehow ahead of the blast, and skids undetectably into a pipe to hide from a pursuing helicopter.

It feels as if the film is struggling to decide whether Yorgi is a crime lord, a political demagogue or a crazed nihilist. There’s actually an interesting narrative to be made in exploring these waters, but this really isn’t the film to do it.

What’s right with it?

Although X is motivated to protect Yelena, she rescues him as often as he rescues her, and in the final action sequence she is the one who has to tell him to take the safety catch off.

Diesel is, as ever, an affable lead, even if Xander Cage is a bit of a jerk sometimes.

The film may think that Cage is much cooler than he really is, but otherwise it pretty much knows what kind of film it is. It’s crazy over the top and it doesn’t care who knows it. On commission for Cage, Shavers loads a Pontiac GTO with every weapon under the sun, without changing the lines or the handling, and passes them a handwritten manual before they drive off.

In the denouement, Cage persuades the Czech Police to roll in, which they do, in panda cars with their sirens blaring, not as sacrificial lambs to emphasise the wickedness of the villains and the awesomeness of America (fuck yeah!) but like total fucking badasses. Not since the Swiss ski archers in Operation Double 007 have the local assistance in an action movie been so effective.

How bad is it really?

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Thrill as Vin Diesel looks at a wall through binoculars!

It’s a hell of a lot of fun, but it would be a cardinal error to assume that it was any good because of that. Actually… that’s harsh. It’s fairly well made, and it may be tosh but it is – mostly – knowing tosh. Unfortunately, its attitude to women – especially women without major roles – is just too 2002 for it to be as smart and hip and woke as it clearly wants to seem.

Best bit (if such there is)?

One of the best scenes in the movie is also one of the most atypical. Amid all of the goofy spy/sports shenanigans, Cage witnesses Yorgi using the ‘Silent Night’ bioweapon to eliminate the scientists who worked on it for him. As Cage, who has no military or intelligence training, watches the bodies drop, he looks like he’s about to throw up. It’s an excellent piece of reaction and probably the single most effective scene in convincing us that Cage really is just this guy, you know.

What’s up with…? 

  • State of the Union? Man, how far did that film miss the point of its own franchise? I mean… I more or less get most of it. Extreme sports wasn’t the thing any more, and the idea was to go for something more street, more Fast and Furious, perhaps, but the military background for the new lead played against that and we ended up with a much more generic action movie. The car driving on the train tracks was the only thing that came close to being mad enough for the xXx legacy, and that came completely out of left field because the rest of the film had been so conventional.
  • The bedroom pole dancer? How long was she waiting around for X to show up? And was the music supposed to be diegetic? As a scene it’s much less sexy… well, if you attribute the character any personality at all for starters, but even more so if you think that she was probably sitting around, then when she heard the door she’s got to cue the music, stow the dressing gown and her copy of the collected works of Vaclav Havel somewhere and hop up onto one of the bed posts without breaking anything.

Ratings

Production values – As passe as the extreme sports scenes look now, they are decently shot, and the film has less insanely jumpy editing than many similar efforts. 7
Dialogue and performances – The dialogue remain stubbornly sub-Bond, despite a game effort from the stars. 10
Plot and execution – The plot is a little more interesting than I remembered, but kind of cries out for a psychological exploration of what Yorgi’s deal is that never really happens. 12
Randomness – The working title of this film was, I fully believe, ‘Can we ramp it?’ 9
Waste of potential – So, it’s not bad as action sports spy movies showcasing the hot new talent go. Man; remember when Vin Diesel was the new hotness instead of reliable old Vin? 7

Overall 45%

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