The XXX Factor

Actor Ice Cube is up to the challenge of being the new hero in the action-movie franchise, filed in Baltimore

September 30, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

It's a beautiful September afternoon here in Baltimore County's horse country, a perfect day to grab a bad guy by the throat and throw him to the ground.

And that's exactly what rapper and film star Ice Cube, in town to film XXX: State of the Union, the big-budget sequel to the 2002 megahit, XXX, does.

Again and again, he leaps out of hiding, seizes an actor dressed in full riot gear and forces him to his knees. Finally, director Lee Tamahori is satisfied, and the crew begins the long process of setting up the next shot.

Rough stuff momentarily behind him, Ice Cube, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, soaks in the decidedly nonviolent surroundings.

"I never knew Baltimore had such a beautiful countryside," he says during a break inside his dressing room. "It's got kind of an over-the-valley and through-the-woods kind of feel to it. You don't see that in L.A."

So it goes on the set of the latest Hollywood production to be filmed in and around Maryland. In the movie, Ice Cube plays a former Navy SEAL who's called upon to foil an attempt to overthrow the U.S. government. In today's scenes, a majestic north Baltimore County mansion doubles as the Washington home of General Pettibone, one of the fictional joint chiefs of staff.

Ice Cube's character, Darius Stone, finds Pettibone dead and quickly realizes he's being set up as a murderer. Thus the extreme measures he employs to avoid being caught.

For the past two weeks, Ice Cube and more than 200 other cast and crew members have been shooting at local sites including the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Bridge on Baltimore's Hanover Street, the state penitentiary at Jessup and the rolling pastures near Monkton. So far, the crew, which this week will wrap up shooting in the Baltimore-Washington area, has staged a prison escape, blown up a police car and filmed what onscreen will appear to be the mother of all train wrecks.

The first XXX film starred Vin Diesel as an X-Games champion asked to serve on a team of superspies that operates outside conventional law enforcement or intelligence agencies. That movie brought in more than $142 million at the U.S. box office - thanks to its larger-than-life star and its raucous, let's-see-what-we-can-blow-up-this-time attitude.

No Vin Diesel

But Diesel, whose charisma wowed audiences of the first film, is nowhere to be seen in the second. This time, it's up to Ice Cube and fellow XXX newcomers Tamahori and actors Peter Strauss, Willem Dafoe and Scott Speedman, to fill theaters. Revisiting a franchise without bringing back the franchise player may seem a daunting task, but no one on the set of State of the Union is fazed.

Just as Diesel's character was plucked from a select group of potential superspies, so, too, was Ice Cube's character, points out producer Arne Schmidt, who worked on the first XXX film. And that, he insists, was the idea all along: Spotlight a different member of the superspy team in each new film.

"The premise from the start was that each XXX would have a new superhero ... not superhero, but hero, whose specialty skills applied to the particular mission at hand," he says. "In the first, it was an X-Games champion who infiltrated this crazy Russian gang operating out of Prague, and he used his fame and skills to be able to do that. This one, it's more about someone who can be trusted, and who has the skills of a Navy SEAL in terms of covert action."

Ice Cube also seems unconcerned about following in anyone's footsteps. "Vin is great, he was good in the first one," the 35-year-old actor says. "But I think the action was just as big a star as the star was. As long as we deliver on the action ... we've got a good story, I think we've got a better story this time than they had the first time. I think we'll be all right."

Ice Cube seemed a natural for the role, not least because he had a relationship with the production company (Revolution Studios) and producer Neal Moritz, says Schmidt.

"They think that he's got the kind of crossover appeal and the kind of charisma that will make him a big star," the producer says. "He's got the acting chops, he's in terrific condition now. I think he looks the part, he acts the part, and I think he's a pretty popular guy all over the world."

A pioneering rap star, both as a founding member of the group N.W.A. and as a solo artist, Ice Cube has sold more than 12 million albums. And he's been appearing in films since 1991, when he landed a key part in John Singleton's Boyz N the Hood. Since then, he has acted in more than 20 movies and been the star player in two comedy franchises. In the three slapstick Friday movies, (for which he wrote the screenplays) he plays an L.A. homeboy struggling through life in the 'hood. In the two refreshingly warmhearted Barbershop films, he's the second-generation owner of a neighborhood business that's become integral to the cultural life of its community.

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