Screenplay : Rich Wilkes
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2002
Stars : Vin Diesel (Xander Cage), Samuel L. Jackson (NSA Agent Gibbons), Asia Argento (Yelena), Marton Csokas (Yorgi), Joe Bucaro III (Virg), James Babson (Technician)
XXX is the kind of movie where, when a character needs to destroy a communications tower in order to disrupt a surveillance system, he doesn't simply blow it up or something so middle-of-the-road and typical as that. Instead, he parachutes in on a snow board and lands on a mountain top hundreds of feet above it, sets off bombs to create a massive avalanche, and then snowboards down the mountain at breakneck speed, staying mere inches ahead of the furiously rumbling tons of snow, which, eventually, take out the tower.
Reuniting director Rob Cohen and Vin Diesel, his star from last summer's car-culture actioneer The Fast and the Furious, XXX is a bombastic super-agent action flick, one that embraces tattoos, leather pants, body-piercing, and GTOs in the same way the James Bond series embraces tuxedos, martinis, and Aston Martins. The opening sequence establishes the movie's tone: An American agent trying to infiltrate a terrorist gang of disaffected ex-Russian soldiers in the Czech Republic is killed in an acid-metal underground club. The fact that said agent is wearing a tuxedo when he is killed, which makes him more than a little out of place among the head-banging thrashers in the club, is but one wink-wink hint to the movie's desire to reinvent the tone of the spy genre without ever really altering the framework of the James Bond movies.
The person to whom that responsibility falls is Vin Diesel, who comes across like a true superstar even though this is only the third film in which he's played a major role (the other two being The Fast and the Furious and 2000's sci-fi horror flick Pitch Black, the sequel for which is already in the works). Like those two movies, Diesel plays a likable criminal, in this case an extreme-sports nut named Xander Cage who gets even with a conservative senator out to ban skateboarding by stealing the senator's Corvette and driving it off a bridge. (Of course, Xander also parachutes off the back of the Corvette as it falls and videotapes the whole thing with multiple cameras so it can be played back on various web sites.)
Xander is approached--no, abducted is a better word--by Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson), a chief agent of the National Security Agency who needs to replace his fallen agent in the field to find out what that terrorist group of Russians is up to. After a lengthy series of fantastically improbable tests, one of which involves taking on a Colombian drug cartel and then the Colombian army, Xander is hired--no, forced into service--with his other choice being a stint in Leavenworth.
The majority of the story then takes place in Prague, as Xander goes undercover to infiltrate Anarchy 99, the terrorist group headed by the greasy Yorgi (Marton Csokas) and populated with the kind of trashy-looking East Europeans who didn't quite make the cut for the Die Hard terrorist group. The one member of the group who stands out is Yelena (Asia Argento, daughter of Italian horror maestro Dario Argento), Yorgi's cold-hearted right-hand woman who looks like she has something to hide (of course, the fact that she's the only woman involved with Yorgi who isn't dressed and acting like she's in a Playboy video is key to her significance, as well).
Yorgi has an appropriately diabolical plan involving a rogue chemical agent called Silent Night that will be deployed all over the world via a ridiculously complicated submarine that looks like something out 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Like Xander, Yorgi and his comrades are tattooed and into all things extreme, but the screenplay by Rich Wilkes concocts all kinds of ways to distinguish Xander's anarchic impulses from the genocidal wishes the terrorists. While Xander like to rock the boat for his own political purposes, Yorgi just wants to sink the whole thing.
For more than two hours, XXX maintains its bombast, which is matched only by the sheer volume of the soundtrack. Director Rob Cohen has been quoted as saying, "It's not about being loud, but about the art of being loud," and XXX might as well been his senior thesis to prove that point. You won't catch many people describing it as "artful," but it is a solid piece of work. The action sequences are genuinely exciting, often because, as in The Fast and the Furious, you get the sense of real people doing these crazy stunts, rather than relying on pixels to create the action. Granted, there are plenty of special effects, most notably the aforementioned avalanche, which is a thoroughly convincing bit of computer-generated imagery.
But, always as the center of it is Vin Diesel, in what is clearly his bid to become America's next big action superstar. Like Stallone and Schwarzenegger before him, his centrality to the action genre risks limiting Diesel's range to a certain type, one who conveys power and authority by dent of his very presence. Hulking, but without being overbearing, Diesel brings a sense of humor and a throwaway abandon to the role that's infectious (I loved his way of ingratiating himself into Yorgi's layer, not by subtly working his way in, but by literally barging in). He's a star in the making, and his smaller roles in films like Saving Private Ryan (1998) and Boiler Room (2000) have shown that he can act, too, something that gives his character here a slight edge that makes him more human than cartoon (although the struggle is a fierce one).
Coming at the tail end of the summer, XXX is likely to be seen by many as just another dunderheaded Hollywood blockbuster--loud, simple-minded, and out of control. In some ways, it is those things. But, on another level, it's an interesting reworking of a long-cherished genre, and even if it doesn't run James Bond out of the market completely, it at least adds a splash of diversity and proves that super-agents don't always save the world in tuxedos. Sometimes they wear cut-off tee-shirts and a fur coat.
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick