Review

Vin Diesel is back in action for 'XXX: The Return of Xander Cage,' but Donnie Yen steals the show

Film scholar Tom Gunning coined the phrase “cinema of attractions” to describe the earliest, exhibitionist impulses of filmmaking, bits of spectacle that called attention to their own visibility and technological craft. Pure spectacle has since been subsumed into narrative filmmaking, but the cinema of attractions is always present, especially in modern action movies, and there may be no greater current example of this than “xXx: Return of Xander Cage.”

Though there have been three films in the series, star Vin Diesel skipped out on the second installment. He’s back, turning the movie into a Vin Diesel film, which is a genre unto itself. D.J. Caruso is the director; Diesel the auteur. He’s hit on a formula that just works for him: muscles, babes and feats of vehicular derring-do performed alongside a mix of diverse global superstars.

For “xXx,” Diesel is surrounded by the current king of Hong Kong action cinema, “Rogue One’s” Donnie Yen; Thai martial arts star Tony Jaa, known for the “Ong-Bak” franchise; as well as Bollywood superstar Deepika Padukone; Aussie model-TV personality Ruby Rose; Chinese singer-actor Kris Wu; (take a breath) British UFC champ Michael Bisping; “Game of Thrones” favorite Rory McCann; and Brazilian soccer phenom Neymar. Even the incredible Toni Collette turns up for crying out loud (she’s fantastic). With this cast, Xander Cage is the least interesting person on-screen.

The story is, as Collette’s cutthroat CIA operative Jane Marke succinctly puts it, “very bad guys, very bad thing.” Marke coaxes unconventional former special ops agent Xander Cage (Diesel) out of retirement to pursue bandits who have stolen a “Pandora’s box” device with the capability of dropping satellites out of orbit, making them crash into the earth like bombs. He’s a member of the “xXx Program,” helmed by Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson, always wrangling groups of heroes), and catching these bandits requires his singular skill.

The script by F. Scott Frazier is sparse and self-reflective about its formula. The punchlines are mostly silly, sometimes funny, but when Xander starts opining about extreme stunts, it tips over into unintentionally hilarious territory.

Cage assembles an equally offbeat band of misfits for his team: a driver (McCann), a sniper (Rose) and for some inane reason, a DJ/party boy (Wu) whose only special skill is to drop sick beats. Fortunately, one of their missions is at a beach rave.

The charismatic Rose brings the sex appeal, delivering snarky one-liners and sniping bad guys, and her presence is refreshing. But “xXx’s” negotiations of gender and sexuality are complicated at best. Rose, Padukone and Collette play empowered, fierce women, equals to their male counterparts. The film even passes the Bechdel test. But that progressive streak bumps up against the hormonal teenage boy instincts that the film can’t shake, the camera repeatedly scanning female torsos and Xander grunting lascivious words of seduction. It’s cheesy, and not sexy in the least; in “xXx,” the stunts eclipse the sex.

The appeal of this film lies in its outlandish action, innovative stunt spectacle to the extreme, defying all laws of nature, physics and logic. Xander skis through a jungle and catches waves on an ocean-going motorbike. He dives headfirst out of a cargo plane. But despite Diesel’s best efforts, wushu master Yen swipes this movie right out from under his prodigious pecs. If watching Donnie Yen get barreled on a surf-bike is wrong, to hell with being right.

Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.

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‘XXX: The Return of  Xander Cage’

Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes

Rated: PG-13, for extended sequences of gunplay and violent action, and for sexual material and language

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