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"XXX"
(2002) (Vin Diesel, Samuel L. Jackson) (PG-13)

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QUICK TAKE:
Action/Adventure: After being recruited by the NSA, a cynical, adrenaline-junkie troublemaker sets out to infiltrate an Eastern European gang and stop them from using biochemical weapons on the world.
PLOT:
Xander Cage (VIN DIESEL) is a cynical, adrenaline-junkie troublemaker who loves being a rebel and taking and participating in all sorts of risks and wild stunts. To NSA executive Augustus Gibbons (SAMUEL L. JACKSON) he thus seems like the perfect person they need to recruit for some of their covert operations in Eastern Europe.

It seems that former military man Yorgi (MARTON CSOKAS) has assembled a group of fellow ex-military types - including hitman Kirill (WERNER DAEHN) and burly bodyguard Viktor (JAN FILIPENSKY) - called them Anarchy 99, and is preparing to use a biochemical weapon known as Silent Knight on the world.

Since they've already killed an undercover NSA agent, Gibbons believes that Xander's antisocial demeanor will fit in with them and allow him to infiltrate the group and uncover their plans. After being equipped by NSA gadget guru Toby Shavers (MICHAEL ROOF), Xander meets his local Prague contact, Czech intelligence officer Milan Sova (RICHY MÜLLER).

It's not long before he introduces himself to Yorgi and his crew by acting like an exotic car buying front-man for a wealthy American. While some of Yorgi's crew recognizes Xander from his former wild stunts, the icy Yelena (ASIA ARGENTO) is suspicious of Xander and his bravado personality. As the American gets deeper into the organization and discovers Yorgi's plan, he then sets out to save the day.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
Ask any smart company owner and they'll tell you that the secret to business success if in finding the right job for the right person and vice-versa. Of course, sometimes that takes moving a person from one position to another until the proper fit is found.

The same holds true in the movie business where people move through a variety of titles before finding their niche. That also applies to performers who play a variety of characters or character types before finding the one that best suits them.

In the case of actor Vin Diesel, that's also true, although he's managed to bend those rules to his advantage. Whether it's playing Chris Varick in "Boiler Room," Richard Riddick in "Pitch Black" or even voicing the title character in "The Iron Giant," the bulky and bald actor with the gravely voice has seemed perfect for each and every part.

Yet, while some of those films were successful and some were not, they weren't Vin Diesel vehicles - or at least were not intended that way - although he often ended up coming off as the star thanks to his rampant on-screen magnetism and charisma.

"XXX" - pronounced "Triple X" - may just be the vehicle to carry him to Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Willis style stardom. That's not meant to imply that the film - which isn't about the porn industry despite the title - is any good. In fact, it's a piece of trash, much like Diesel's last collaboration with director Rob Cohen, "The Fast and the Furious."

Yet, unlike that film, at least this one's palatable garbage as it's the ultimate dumb but fun and stupid but often exhilarating summer popcorn flick. Essentially a dummied-down, Americanized version of a James Bond film, the effort is clearly designed for the teen and twenty-something crowd or anyone who still has some pangs of raging adolescence left in them.

Now, don't get me wrong - the Bond films weren't and still aren't exactly the epitome of credibility or believability, what with the wild stunts, shapely, gorgeous and willing women and the suave spy character who single-handedly manages to save the world from some sort of nefarious villain.

Of course, roller coasters and other wild, loud and over-the-top amusement park attractions aren't exactly noted for their cerebral qualities, and this is nothing but the cinematic equivalent of one of them. In fact, it's essentially the 007 thrill ride aimed at an audience that hasn't exactly tasted, let alone adopted, the shaken, but not stirred martini as their drink of choice.

In it, we have all sorts of outrageous and spectacular stunts (the film's technical work is top-notch), a gadget guru who provides the gear, a stern boss who sets up the assignment, attractive eye-candy women and one strong female lead who nevertheless falls under the spell of the charming and daring hero.

In this case, he's not wearing a tux or working for the better good of his Majesty or the world. Instead, he's a self-centered, extreme sports dude who's coerced into saving our global butts. He fits the mold of the action anti-hero near perfectly, thanks in great part by what Diesel consciously and automatically brings to the character.

It's too bad that the actor doesn't have a better script - from screenwriter Rich Wilkes ("The Jerky Boys," "Airheads") - or better work from Cohen ("Daylight," "Dragonheart") behind the camera. Granted, the film isn't intended and certainly never poses as an Oscar caliber picture, but while the Bond films are and have been classy productions, this one's just big, busy and decidedly noisy (I think my ears are still ringing from it). Simply put, if bad dialogue, erratic pacing and unbelievable developments and lapses in logic -- even for a film like this -- might bother you, then you're definitely not part of the target audience.

I was rather surprised to see the great Samuel L. Jackson ("Star Wars: Episode II: Attack of the Clones," "Changing Lanes") playing the Bond M-like character - the check must have been quite big - and came away equally disappointed that he wasn't given much to do beyond the obvious (and the huge scar make-up on his face does nothing for his character). Keeping with the Bond parallel, Michael Roof ("Black Hawk Down") plays the Q part by equipping the hero with all sorts of gadgets.

Marton Csokas ("The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Rings," "Rain") embodies the standard-issue villain with a grudge against the world and Werner Daehn ("Enemy at the Gates") is his mostly silent but cool as a cucumber right-hand assassin. Asia Argento ("Ginostra," B. Monkey") is actually quite good - considering what's expected of her - playing the female lead across from the star and nicely manages to avoid disappearing into his looming shadow.

A guilty pleasure if there ever was one, the film passes my litmus test for this style of entertainment. Simply put, if you're an adolescent or still have some of that blood running through you and you end up wanting to drive really fast after seeing this sort of picture, then it's succeeded at delivering some exciting, escapist entertainment.

With its intentions more than readily apparent on its sleeve (or heavily tattooed arm as it might be), the film delivers exactly what's expected of it and that's a turn off your brain cinematic ride filled with dumb, over-the-top thrills and excitement, all headlined by a charismatic performer whose star is definitely on the rise.

If anything, "XXX" has fired an impressive, stunt-based salvo over the bow of the H.M.S. James Bond and we'll have to wait and see if 007 can keep up with this year's latest release. This film rates as a 6 out of 10 for pure adrenaline pumping bravado.




Reviewed July 29, 2002 / Posted August 9, 2002


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