'XXX' is a|
August 15, 2002
By Franklin Harris
Times are tough for James Bond. He seems mismatched against drug lords, insane media moguls and Russian mobsters. Villains like those don't drink martinis, shaken or stirred, and they don't play baccarat. It's a messy world now, and 007 is overdressed.
So, during the opening sequence of "XXX," a tuxedo-wearing spy, who looks suspiciously like 007, wanders into a thrash-metal nightclub and promptly takes a bullet in the chest.
Welcome to the 21st Century. We do things differently here. And if you're wearing a tux, you might as well be wearing a target.
This is where Xander Cage, also known as XXX, comes in.
Played by Hollywood's flavor of the moment, Vin Diesel, Cage isn't a spy at all. He is an "extreme sports enthusiast," an expert at skydiving, snowboarding and avoiding the cops. He is also a crack marksman, following months laid up with a broken leg and nothing to do but play video games.
These are all useful skills as far as Uncle Sam is concerned.
When we meet Cage, he is busy stealing a California legislator's car and driving it off a bridge. As Cage tells his live-via-the-Internet audience, the senator is a creep who wants to outlaw skateboards and video games. So, we're happy to see the car crash and burn at the bottom of a ravine as Cage parachutes to safety. Red-blooded Americans love a rebel with a cause, and besides, it's one of the movie's best stunts.
Bond may be a rogue and a cad, but he is still a loyal agent of Her Majesty's Secret Service. Cage, however, is an outlaw. He works for the government only because his alternative is hard time in the federal pen. He is the perfect spy for an audience that trusts the CIA about as much as it trusts whatever it is that took the place of the KGB.
But even if Cage is the anti-Bond, "XXX" follows the Bond formula to the letter.
The plot isn't really important. A former Russian army officer (Marton Csokas) wants to use a remote-controlled submarine to launch poison-gas attacks on major cities around the globe. But the less one thinks about any scheme that involves launching a sub from the Czech Republic, which, the last time I checked, was a land-locked country, the better.
Cage infiltrates the villain's organization. He meets the villain's conflicted girlfriend. He discovers the villain's ridiculously over-the-top plan for global destruction. And along the way, we get the requisite escapes, stunts and witty one-liners, most of which surpass anything in the recent Bond offerings.
Despite his tendency to mumble — a common failing among action stars — Diesel has an almost unexplainable appeal. He is smarter than he looks, and so is his character. Diesel holds his ground against heavyweights Samuel L. Jackson, who plays Cage's spymaster boss, and Asia Argento, who smolders with intensity as the aforementioned girlfriend.
As long as he isn't reading lines written by George Lucas, Jackson is good even when he is just picking up a paycheck. The man exudes cool. And Argento, daughter of Italian horror-movie director Dario Argento, is a talented actress who will hopefully get better Hollywood roles following exposure here.
But everything is just window dressing for the "extreme sports" set pieces. Cage climbs, parachutes and snowboards his way in and out of danger. It's a gimmick, but it works.
It's almost like the good old days, when the Bond movies were fresh, and it was still OK to hate the Russians. And it'll do in a pinch.