Shaky, Not Stirring

`XXX' poses as an extreme-sports Bond film, but Xander Cage is no 007.

Movie Review

August 09, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

With a title like generic rat poison and an aesthetic that resembles commercials pitched for late-night comedy and wrestling shows, XXX begs to be declared an espionage film for the under-30 set. It's really just antiquated goods with the varnish scraped away and the design simplified and coarsened.

The hero is reluctant good guy Xander Cage (Vin Diesel), a renegade extreme sportsman who makes his living selling daredevil videos of stunts like jacking a conservative senator's car and driving it off a bridge. (He tapes the crash from midair.)

Xander's just the man for a radical square named Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson), who thinks the routine squares working with him at the National Security Agency are no match for the nihilistic scum of the new world order. Gibbons enlists Xander to fight a bunch of former Soviet soldiers who have turned into Prague-based, international terrorists under the group name Anarchy 99.

For months, the movie's Diesel-powered publicity steamroller has gotten magazines from Premiere to GQ and the newsweeklies to anoint him as a superstar and Xander as a pop-culture archetype. The bulky, bullet-headed Diesel has a look and approach similar to Telly Savalas' - blunt, confrontational, broadly emotional.

Savalas must be looking down from heaven and wondering why he was born three decades too soon. Savalas had to play the homicidal-rapist psycho in The Dirty Dozen; he became a specialized, patriarchal sex symbol only on TV, as Kojak. But Diesel, as a dirty dozen of extreme sportsmen wrapped into one, gets to be a romantic lead and erotic object, too. XXX, the insignia tattooed on the back of his neck, functions as a porno pun. (An all-out Dirty Dozen update, with Diesel as a member of a team, not a maverick, actually might have spunked-up this genre the way X-Men did comic-book movies.)

Presumably, as Xander, Diesel's musculature, attitude and patches of naked emotion make him irresistible to Anarchy 99 lieutenant Yelena (Asia Argento). But I kept thinking Diesel would be better cast in the next Austin Powers movie as Maxi-Me.

With a gleeful, supposedly disarming crudeness, the filmmakers state their intention - in magazines and in the movie itself - to demolish the suaveness and coolness of James Bond as obsolete qualities. (In the opening minutes the bad guys kill off an agent in evening clothes during a Prague rave.)

The director, Rob Cohen, himself a staggeringly old 53 years of age, sweats bullets - no, excuse me, sweats designer splatter-darts - to make sure that the various motorbiking, snowboarding, skateboarding and skydiving stunts cut the right visual profiles and set off sounds that will win the approval of extreme sports fans. But most of the picture is so frenetically cut and flashily shot that you can't appreciate any real athleticism, whether it belongs to Diesel or his stuntmen.

The movie's own style is strictly an anti-style, all pre-packaged post-punk. When Xander struts around in his muscle shirts, the producers seem to be daring you to think, "The Emperor has new clothes, and they're ugly."

It's hilarious to read how Cohen and cinematographer Dean Semler patterned their glossy if shadowy views of Prague on the magically mysterious images of Vienna in The Third Man. It made me feel more fondness for the makers of The Scorpion King: At least those schlockmeisters didn't say they based their work on Intolerance.

XXX may have distinctive marketing angles; it has no original ideas. Anarchy 99 leader Yorgi (Marton Csokas) and his crowd gyrate in the all-purpose decadent manner of the rock crowds in movies like Queen of the Damned. For comic relief we get Michael Roof as a gadget geek out of Bond's Q by way of Kevin Weisman's far funnier Marshall Flinkman on TV's Alias.

Indeed, Alias has done a new-style Bond or Man from U.N.C.L.E. with much more intelligence, panache and personality. A better title for XXX might well be Anonymous.


Starring Vin Diesel

Directed by Rob Cohen

Rated PG-13

Time 113 minutes

Released by Universal Pictures


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