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Review: ‘xXx: Return of Xander Cage’

dfn-xxxreturnxandercage-300Explosions! Gun battles! Dead bodies galore! Smug, self-righteous quips!

Yes, xXx: Return of Xander Cage has all those things, as well as a great number of scenes that resemble action sequences. All that “action” is shredded into bite-sized bits that go down easily and never catch in the throat — or memory.

The long-delayed third installment in a series that originally aimed to replace supremely-confident secret agents with supremely-confident extreme sports athletes, xXx: Return of Xander Cage can certainly be commended for employing a great number of stunt people. The movie can also be commended for employing an extremely diverse cast of good-looking people in what we laughingly called “acting roles” in another life.

All cast members here are equally at sea, whether because of their own inexperience in acting or due to their limited command of the English language or because the “dialogue” is so inelegant and witless. None of that would matter, however, if the action sizzled in compensation. Far be it for me to criticize a b-movie that knows it’s a b-movie and focuses almost all its energy on delivering high-intensity, high-velocity action sequences.

We may never know if xXx: Return of Xander Cage ever had such sequences because the finished product more closely resembles a ‘cut and paste’ fan edit of the trailer, stretched out (somehow) to 107 minutes. Director D.J. Caruso moved from television to feature films with the somber drama Salton Sea in 2002 and followed that up with the dark thriller Taking Lives and the sports drama Two for the Money.

After that, Caruso made three thrillers aimed at young adult audiences, Disturbia, Eagle Eye and I Am Number Four before shifting to a younger audience for Standing Up, which was well-received critically, though it didn’t make much of a popular fuss. All that to say xXx: Return of Xander Cage is his first attempt at this sort of ‘blam blam’ project, one that is utterly without logic or grace and, one suspects, guided more by the artistic taste of producer and star Vin Diesel than anything else.

Indeed, the movie feels like a big wet kiss to Diesel, returning after 15 years to the role of Xander Cage. Perhaps feeling the onset of age — he turns 50 later this year, though he looks younger — and finding comfort in familiarity, he has nudged the xXx franchise toward the Fast and Furious series. Other than the opening sequence, extreme sports are rarely showcased. And rather than killing off all the characters, only a few select cast members get the axe, the better to lay the groundwork for a continuation of the series.

Donnie Yen rises above the other players who support Diesel. Surprisingly, it’s not because of his physical abilities as a martial artist and on-screen fighter, where he has always excelled. No, it’s his acting that enables him to stand out. He’s learned that the right facial expression is worth a thousand words, and that body language speaks louder than weak jokes.

The others? Well, Deepika Padukone and Ruby Rose look good as professional killers and Nina Dobrev works hard to manufacture comic relief. His hair dyed blonde, Tony Jaa makes funny faces and shrieks. Kris Wu tries to stay out of the way. Toni Collette recites her lines adequately, though without much menace. Samuel L. Jackson portrays Samuel L. Jackson.

The appeal of the movie is summed up in its title: xXx: Return of Xander Cage. If that sounds good, help yourself.

The films opens wide in Dallas theaters on Friday, January 20.