September 5, 2002

'X' Marks the Spot

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Welcome to the spy movie for the MTV generation. At least, that’s what the makers of XXX would have you believe. The movie opens with a James Bond clone, complete with dapper black tux, being chased by terrorists and slipping into a nightclub to escape. Unfortunately the club is filled with Europunks moshing to Rammstein and the hapless spy is offed in short order.

We learn that the recently deceased is the latest failure by the U.S. to infiltrate an Eastern European anarchist group. The growing list of dead agents indicates pretty strongly that the old business model just isn’t working. Enter Xander Cage (Vin Diesel), an extreme sports godhead and amateur anarchist in his own right. Cage’s extreme sports skills and generally unsavory attitude bring him to the attention of NSA spook Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson), who press-gangs Cage into patriotic service. The idea is that being a criminal, Cage will be able to naturally blend in with the bad guys. And if he can’t, hey, what the hell, he’s expendable.

In most respects, XXX lives up to the hype: it’s fast, flashy, and louder than Collegetown on a Friday night. Director Rob Cohen is going for a non-stop adrenaline rush, pumping the audience with shot after shot of Cage catching air on motorcross bikes in the middle of massive explosions and giant gunfights. It’s like what would happen if the ESPN X-Treme Games were held in Compton. Meanwhile, the whole thing is synched to a soundtrack that would make hearing-aid manufacturers mess themselves with multiple joygasms.

Some of the stunts don’t make sense — Xander dodges a sniper shooting at him by boarding down a railing on a serving tray. Is the idea of “duck and cover” not “x-treme” enough or something? Fortunately, the cool factor of the scenes usually swamps your brain in enough adrenaline to drown out its sensible region.

Ironically, a lack of extremeness is XXX’s biggest failing. For all the noise and flash, the film still remains faithful to the well-worn formula of girls, gadgets, and overt covert ops that make up every James Bond outing. It’s well done but with the exception of Cage snowboarding ahead of an intentional avalanche — we’ve seen it all before. There’s also little, if any depth to the characters; Cage never develops beyond his bad-ass, semi-slacker, extreme exterior.

Given that this movie was touted as the spy movie for the new millennium one might argue that this was all intentional, a subtle commentary on the youth of America being all noise and no substance. It’s all a brilliantly ironic examination of the current zeitgeist. But this is Rob Cohen, the director of the Fast and the Furious. The only way this guy would apply the term “subtle” in a movie is by plastering it across a race queen’s bikini bottom.

XXX is still a decent action flick, a mindless but fun adrenaline-filled outing. And with the exception of the movie’s execs, that’s all anybody was really pushing for.

Archived article by Matt Chock