After establishing his box-office credentials in a string of self-produced movies, Ice Cube steps up to the blockbuster league in XXX: State of the Union. The original XXX helped propel Vin Diesel's salary into the stratosphere; this one is more of the same, only with a slight hip-hop edge. The sequel should play well with hard-core action fans, although more moderate filmgoers are likely to steer clear.

When terrorists break into a National Security Agency headquarters, chief spy Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson) suspects a mole-most likely his former military boss Deckert (Willem Dafoe), now a right-wing Secretary of Defense. Gibbons goes underground with technology expert Toby Shavers (Michael Roof) to gather evidence. His first step is to find a replacement for the previous XXX, someone with more "attitude."

As in the first film, recruiting the new XXX takes some time, especially since Gibbons' candidate, Darius Stone (Ice Cube), is in a federal penitentiary. At least the former Navy SEAL and expert sniper doesn't need any training. A pounding, fast-paced jailbreak displays all of his skills (and gives Ice Cube the chance to take part in some tough stunts).

But once the new XXX is free, Gibbons disappears, apparently the victim of an explosion in his home. Darius has to recruit his own help, including his former girlfriend Lola (Nona Gaye), now a car dealer, and chop-shop owner Zeke (Xzibit, the mastermind behind MTV's "Pimp My Ride"). Aided by Toby, they gradually uncover a plot by Deckert to commit a coup during the President's State of the Union speech. Along the way, Darius is framed for murder, befriends an agent (Scott Speedman) who will prove crucial in protecting the President (Peter Strauss), and assembles a gang of thieves to lead an assault on the Capitol.

By now Ice Cube's scowl is almost a cliché, but he remains an ingratiating, if limited, performer. It helps that he seems as convincing steering a tank as striding through a nightclub. Apart from Gaye and a spirited Strauss, the rest of the actors often look like they want to be somewhere else.

Judging from the script, it's hard to blame them. More than the original film, XXX: State of the Union leans heavily on the James Bond template, in which fabulous action scenes alternate with doze-worthy exposition and increasingly preposterous plot twists. Lee Tamahori, who directed Die Another Day, stages vivid fights and explosions, but approaches the other material a bit too casually. Youngsters and action junkies won't mind the film's ridiculous gadgets, secret tunnels and hairsbreadth escapes, but everyone else will have to check credibility at the door.
-Daniel Eagan