Film Review: xXx: Return of Xander Cage

Vin Diesel and his slacker daredevils battle agents who want to take over the world in a loud, pushy adventure just good enough for fans of the series.
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It's been 15 years since Vin Diesel starred in the original xXx, years in which he helped turn the Fast and Furious films into a blockbuster franchise. xXx: Return of Xander Cage is basically more of the same, minus the cars and with a bigger dose of Diesel.

Pitched slightly younger than Fast and Furious entries, xXx: Return of Xander Cage also marks a serious upgrade over the earlier two films in the series. The cast draws from Bollywood, Chinese pop, sports and martial arts. Settings zip from the Dominican Republic to London, the Philippines and Detroit. New toys for Xander to play with include skis that can traverse jungle trails and dirt bikes that can surf in the ocean.

Screenwriter F. Scott Frazier's plot follows the hunt for a secret weapon called "Pandora's Box," which can hack into anything and target anybody and be stolen with annoying ease. In fact, it's stolen in the opening scenes by rogue agents led by Xiang (Donnie Yen), Serena (Deepika Padukone) and Talon (Tony Jaa).

xXx spymaster Jane Marke (Toni Collette), replacing Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson), tracks down Xander and convinces him to form his own team to steal back the weapon. Xander recruits expert shot Adele Wolff (Ruby Rose), hooded DJ Nicks (Kris Wu), and stunt driver Tennyson (Rory McCann).

That's half the movie right there, and while it's fun hanging with Diesel's co-stars, the whiplash pacing and lack of any real narrative progress gets grating. But for every mush-mouthed seduction or ham-fisted lecture about patriotism, viewers are rewarded by absurdly exciting moments.

Most of these come from Hong Kong star Yen, who gets a lot more to do than he did in Rogue One. Yen operates on a different level than everyone else in the cast, despite Diesel's very physical stunts. Thai star Jaa also gets to show off some moves, although he's kept in the background for most of the film.

Former boy-band singer and model Wu (who's in both Luc Besson's upcoming Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and Stephen Chow's Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons 2) and Hindi superstar Padukone help solidify the movie's Asian connection.

Helping hit other demographics: "Game of Thrones" star McCann (underused),"Orange Is the New Black" star Rose (sporting green hair), and UFC middleweight champ Michael Bisping. Even Brazilian soccer star Neymar, Jr. turns up in a cameo.

Director D.J. Caruso uses jittery editing, a pounding soundtrack and screaming colors to pump up the movie's sprawling shootouts, hand-to-hand combat and over-the-top turns by hams like Samuel L. Jackson. The movie may not display much personal style, but the filmmakers go out of their way to make sure that viewers get what they want. Assuming they want parties, high-tech gear, extreme sports with guns, plenty of girls, and Diesel flexing inked muscles.

If you're not already a fan of Diesel, xXx: Return of Xander Cage is probably not high on your must-see list. But love him or hate him, the star knows what he is doing. And while he may have lowered the bar a bit for this outing, he hasn't skimped on delivering to his following.

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