It’s pronounced “triple x,” in case you didn’t see the first movie that introduced Xander Cage, the extreme sportsman turned top secret government agent, which premiered in 2002. Hoping to manufacture the success of his “Fast and the Furious” franchise, Diesel has resurrected that summer blockbuster for a limp January imitation that loosely strings together high-octane thrills to thredbare effect.
The movie opens with Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson, with face scar) imploring Brazilian soccer star Neymar to join the xXx program, a (top secret) super spy program run by the U.S. government. His pitch is “We are not at war, we are at peril,” as if those are two different things. Then, just as Gibbons inexplicably finishes explaining the plot of “Dogtown and Z Boys,” a fiery satellite careens out of the sky and presumably kills them both.
READ MORE: ‘Lost in London’ Review: Woody Harrelson’s Audacious Live Movie Experiment Drops More Names Than Jokes
Cut to a (top secret) meeting of the owners of the world’s satellite communications companies, led by Marke, a vision in a white pantsuit Marke (the deliciously campy Toni Colette, dripping phrases like “olly olly oxen free” in sardonic gold). They’re meeting to discess the conspicuously named “Pandora’s Box,” a device the size of a hard drive that is capable of manipulating any satellite in the world. Just as Marke is delivering the obligatory warning about the certain disaster if Pandora’s Box gets into the wrong hands, Xiang (Donnie Yen) comes crashing through the glass ceiling and karate chops the device out of her hands.
At a loss, Marke and her NSA cronies must turn to the one man who can save them. Someone who, as Marke says, her voice as arched as her brows, “can walk into a tornado and come out the other side looking like it was a damn gentle breeze.” (Colette is in a wholly different movie of her own design.) Enter Cage, previously thought dead, who is introduced mud-skiing down a jungle mountain in order to bring the World Cup broadcast to the Brazilian town where he has been laying low.
Sitting in an empty cathedral, Marke fills him in on Pandora’s box and Gibbons’ death, enlisting his help with the promise of returning his ridiculous fur coat. Cage doesn’t trust the military meat Marke provides, and insists on assembling his own crew of misfit joy riders for the mission. Introduced with fact sheets like video game characters, Cage picks androgynous sniper Adele Wolfe (Ruby Rose), British crash-chaser Tennyson Torch (Rory McCann), and techno DJ Nicks (Kris Wu).
Their rival crew, whom they meet on a distant part island in the Philippines, consists of boss Xiang, sultry and strong-willed Serena Unger (Bollywood star Deepika Padukone), bleached-blonde dance-fighter Talon (Tony Jaa), and a white dude (Michael Bisping). “xXx: The Return of Xander Cage” has many flaws, but representation for women and non-white actors isn’t one of them. Diesel (a producer on the film) deserves credit there.
READ MORE: ‘An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power’ Review: Al Gore Drops the Mic (Again) On Climate Change
The rest of the plot unfolds pretty much how most action bangers do, with twists as easy to spot as Cage’s floor-length fur coat. The two crews eventually team up to wrest Pandora’s box from a largely absentee bad guy who hardly registers as a character. Of course, there are more bad guys be found amongst the good guys.
Certainly lacking the socio-political commentary of “Mad Max: Fury Road,” the movie hardly musters a shred of urgency to make audiences care about the outcome of its ridiculous chase scenes. (At one point Cage’s motorcycle sprouts fins and becomes a jet ski, like Jesus walking on water). The fight scenes are unremarkable, save for one shot of Padukone and Rose back to back in a rousing girl-on-girl shoot-out, and the martial artistry of Yen and Jaa. Even in the weak signal that is the January movie season, “xXx: The Return of Xander Cage” hardly registers.