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'xXx: Return of Xander Cage' is so fun even Vin Diesel has a good time

Vin Diesel's other roided-up franchise gets exhumed, with silly but not ridiculous results.

xXx: Return of Xander Cage

Look! The often dour Vin Diesel looks happy in "xXx: Return of Xander Cage."

Paramount Pictures

‘xXx: Return of Xander Cage’
Director:
D.J. Caruso
Stars: Vin Diesel, Donnie Yen
Rating: PG-13
3 (out of 5) Globes

Remember the “xXx” franchise? The year was 2002, and the tatted-up super-spy romp was Vin Diesel’s ticket out of the still-budding “Fast and/or Furious” series. It was meant as a stake in the heart of the Bond movies, which were too staid, too tailored, too un-Xtreme to cut it in the age of Nickelback, Linkin Park and Avril Lavigne. Then Diesel thought he was too good for the “xXx” films, too. Cut to the present day. Bond is bigger than ever, nu-metal is as popular as prog and the Ice Cube-led “xXx” sequel is remembered only by DVD bargain bin scavengers. As for Diesel himself, he became cinema’s own David Caruso: a model of hubris. Having failed as a free agent, he was long ago forced to return to his first series with tail between legs, realizing he’s only relevant as part of a team, of a brand, of a family.

This is a long way of saying the third “xXx” is, improbably, the kind of dumb fun that dumb, fun movies should be. Where the “Fast/Furious” films have become so ridiculous they could only top themselves now by throwing in dinosaurs, “xXx: Return of Xander Cage” turns a roided-up franchise into a camp version of a blockbuster. From the occasional cut-rate CGI to the goofy details in freeze-frame character intros (including “favorite karaoke song”) to an atypically peppy Diesel himself, it distinguishes itself from the action pack by not pretending to be emotional or serious, even if it’s a lot more willing to draw political blood.

The kind of movie whose first scene kills off both series straggler Samuel L. Jackson and real-life footballer Neymar (as himself), “xXx 3” wastes no time in exhuming Diesel’s Xander Cage, who had unceremoniously died somewhere between the first and second entries. Like a character from a ’30s serial, the latest shows that, whoops — I mean, no, he never died. He just went super-duper-mega-deep underground — if not so deep that Jackson’s replacement (a delightfully vampish Toni Collette, clad in white) can’t find him the second she needs him. She wants Xander to use his Red Bull-fueled might to save the world from one helluva MacGuffin: It’s called “Pandora’s Box,” and it’s a device that can control any of the hundreds of satellites circling the globe, which someone’s using to crash into cities a la the asteroid bits from “Armageddon” but a whole lot cheaper-looking.

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There are many ways in which the third “xXx” crassly turns the series into Diesel’s own, second “Fast/Furious” franchise, as if one wasn’t enough. Along the way Xander amasses his own gallery of rogues — including sharp-shooter Ruby Rose and Kris Wu, whose only specialty appears that he can DJ — and rubs up against another band of Xtreme anarchists, led by Donnie Yen and Bollywood god Deepika Padukone. It even ends (not a spoiler, really) the same way as any of the early “F/F” films, back when Dominic and crew were still mere enemies of the state and not canoodling with them against knock-off Bond villains.

The difference is that “Return of Xander Cage” is a lot zippier, comparatively closer to the real world. There are plenty of outlandish things in store, but they’re never like “Furious 7”’s skyscraper car jump. They think relatively small, as if they were somehow believably ludicrous. The highlight is much too short: a chase scene that briefly turns into “Frogger,” characters hopping from one moving truck to another. Director D.J. Caruso (“Disturbia,” “Eagle Eye”) doesn’t often direct for clarity, but where chaos action is usually only about adrenaline, here it’s about a legitimate sense of fun.

There’s one thing that shouldn’t have aged well. Back in the first “xXx,” Xander was like a corporate drone’s idea of a rebel after a dentist office flip through the latest Details. When he says in the new one, “I don’t work for suits,” he doesn’t sound any more legit — except that he does, on accident, because “xXx 3” hits theaters the day after a wealthy conman has officially taken over the country. This giddy, angry and mostly self-aware nonsense winds up a great way to kick off a new era; it's stupid excapism that reminds you not to trust The Man.

It’s such a giddy thing that even Diesel looks like he’s having fun. He should look stupid, this 49-year-old skiing through jungles then hanging 10 on a skateboard bearing his character’s logo. (He’s also at least twice badly composited into action shots.) And he should be dour, because that’s Diesel’s shtick. Instead he spends a good 90 percent of the movie smiling, giving oomph to his dumb one-liners, looking he’s like he’s truly happy to be there. A bright and chipper Vin Diesel may be the best special effect of all.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 

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