Vin Diesel, armed with the box office success of The Fast and the Furious, has muscled his way into the void left by such aging action heroes as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willlis, Sly Stallone and—dare I say it?—Mel Gibson. Sure. Keanu Reeves outran a fireball on a motorcycle in Chain Reaction. Willis sort of passed his torch to Ben Affleck while hurtling through the heavens on a rogue asteroid in Armageddon. And other pre-Geritol Hollywood hunks have convincingly slung a gun or two or thrown a few authoritative on-screen punches while Sean Penn pummeled the paparazzi. But it’s Diesel who is currently marking this territory as his personal playground with all the fervor of a beefed-up junkyard dog. With the extreme sports spy thriller, XXX, he grabs both action and James Bond genres by their jugular and shakes them senseless.
A man looking at first glimpse like talk show host Conan O’Brien knocks another man unconscious in the doorway of a Eurotrash nightclub in Prague. He pushes his way into the pulsating rave scene, decorated in mad-scientist laboratory motif. With a stolen computer chip in his possession, he shoves his way through the throng and jumps on stage—one of the few places in the entire establishment where he is clearly vulnerable—and is immediately shot in the back.
Back in America, Xander Cage (a heavily tattooed Diesel) is an extreme sports enthusiast with three large X’s inked onto the back of his neck. He pulls covert “tricks” on the Establishment and captures them on video for a program called The Xander Zone. Posing as a Sacramento hotel valet, he snatches a senator’s Corvette, plunges it over the Foresthill Bridge, surfs on it during free fall and parachutes to his buddies’ awaiting escape vehicles with the cops watching overhead.
Cage’s athletic ability attracts the attention of the National Security Agency, who wants to replace its dead agent with a new mole. The Agency crashes a party at Cage’s home and drugs him. He wakes at a diner and is subjected to a skills test lamely disguised as an armed robbery. He is drugged again and dropped with other mole candidates from the back of a taxiing plane in Columbia for an even lamer skills test (surviving a battle between cocaine smugglers and the army). Scar-faced Agent Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson) then coerces him into service by leveraging a three-strikes jail sentence against his cooperation. The objective: stop a group called Anarchy 99 from unleashing a biological weapon called Silent Night on the world.
Diesel (né Mark Vincent) was the voice of the mammoth robot in The Iron Giant, an oily stockbroker in Boiler Room, and an Italian-American soldier in Saving Private Ryan. Here he securely lodges himself in a new franchise. He is excellent as a sort of multi-ethnic anti-hero when the action is fast and furious. He also can be convincingly sweet. But watching him think is as painful for the audience as it appears to be for him, and he’s saddled with some very cheesy one-liners that even Arnold would have trouble squeezing for grins.
Jackson, who has already beat Diesel to the action figure shelves as Star Wars Jedi Mace Windu, is fun to watch as he monitors the expendable Cage through obstacle after obstacle. New Zealand’s Marton Csokas as the Anarchy 99 leader and Italian Asia Argento as the film’s femme fatale are also a plus.
The film is basically a Bond adventure featuring orgy-loving street thugs rather than Cognac-sipping, Baccarat-playing womanizers. The beginning car-jacking sequence is set to a tune from the industrial-metal band Rammstein, there’s a Bond-esque ending in Bora Bora and plenty of globetrotting and sexy women in between.
XXX is a movie for people who like to see things get blown up, people shoot guns and get shot and motor vehicles careen at high speeds. “These guys waste those guys and then those guys go after these guys until there are no governments left,” says an Anarchy 99 member. “Just sweet freedom.” Like XXX, itself, the plan is both simple-minded and just doesn’t get the job done. What Diesel really needs it a script cleverly written around him, not just one he can easily get his arms around.