After 15 years and a spin-off sequel (in which he did not appear), Vin Diesel reprises the ludicrous role of an extreme sports master turned master spy in “xXx: Return of Xander Cage.” Fans of Diesel and of gonzo action have plenty of reason to rejoice. This franchise resurrection is so overloaded with high-octane and absolutely insane stunts that it should require helmet.
Don’t sweat the details of the first two films. “xXx: Return of Xander Cage” is kind enough to begin with courteous handle holding courtesy of Augustus Gibbons (a campy Samuel L. Jackson), the head of xXx, a spy team made up of the best and most extreme sportsmen, hackers and DJs (why not?) the world has ever known. As Gibbon pitches a position on his team to real-life soccer star Neymar Jr., the audience is gifted a colorful crash course on the agency’s mission (save the world from tyranny) and style goals (do it while looking dope). Similarly, characters new and old are introduced with splashy graphics that layout names, proficiencies, and character quirks like favorite karoke jams (Gibbons favors “What a Wonderful World”) or gaming handles (sexy sniper Adele Wolf goes by Lady_Boner online). It’s a cheap and glossy way to make this third film in the action franchise an easy (re)entry point for fans old and new.
All you really need to know is Xander is a legend thought long-dead by most of xXx. But when Gibbons is sidelined, his side-eying replacement (Toni Collette rocking sneers and dress suits so sharp your eyes may bleed) unearths Xander for a mission to recover an almighty McGuffin described as “the one device that could cause a global power shift!” Xander is given a massive plane, a treasure trove of weapons, a bespectacled and thirsty IT technician (Nina Dobrev looking like she’s rebooting the first half of “She’s All That”) and the go-ahead to bring in his own team. To face off against some mysterious baddies led by Hong Kong action icon Donnie Yen (“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”), Xander assembles a crash-happy getaway driver (Rory McCann, A.K.A The Hound on “Game of Thrones”), a justice-minded and openly queer sharpshooter (Ruby Rose), and a DJ (Kris Wu), who uses his powers of getting the party started for good. Seriously.
Yen’s team boasts Bollywood star Deepika Padukone, fellow martial arts luminary Tony Jaa, and UFC middleweight champion Michael Bisping. So whatever the scant excuse this movie concocts to make these bad-asses face off against Xander’s bizarre but mesmerizing crew, it’s enough. The plot is beyond stupid, with character’s chasing down a device so inherently evil it’s called “Pandora’s Box.” But none of that matters. No one comes to a “xXx” movie for the plot. They come for action and PG-13 appropriate sex appeal. And “xXx: Return of Xander Cage” delivers plenty of both.
With a cast full of beautiful people, director D.J. Caruso takes advantage, with cruising shots up bare legs (both Diesel’s beefy tatted calves and Padukone’s tone and slender thighs), across bellies and booties. With girl-on-girl flirtations, Yen slo-mo swaggering in a tight tank top and snug leather jacket, and an offscreen orgy that ends in a bevvy of women lounging in panties (with no bare breasts), there’s something modestly arousing, no matter where you land on the Kinsey scale. But the real joys come in the other kind of action.
The stunt sequences fold in skiing through jungles, skateboarding down mountains, and a chase scene involving motorcycles on skies ripping through waves. Plus — as the trailer teased — Xander punches a guy out with a running motorcycle. Every action scene is full of imagination and blissfully devoid of real-world logic. “xXx: Return of Xander Cage” delivers unapologetic escapism. And with an ensemble as charismatic and kick-ass as this, they do it with aplomb and attitude. McCann brings a manic energy that’ll surprise and thrill “Game of Thrones” fans. Rose is spunky, playful and exhilarating, whether she’s shooting off rifles or one-liners. Padukone is striking and a solid scene partner to Yen and Diesel, especially in a scene where the trio plays “Hot Potato” with a two live grenades. And as he did in “Rogue One,” Yen employs his lighting fast fighting to awe audiences with a scene that’s basically him against a small army. It’s time Yen gets his own big glossy Hollywood action franchise. Someone get on this.
Then there’s Vin.
This might be Diesel as his most Diesel. The questionable and decidedly throwback fashion sense that felt way fresher in 2002. (So many jorts and sleeveless buttondowns!) There’s the emphasis on a family formed of friends and misfits that feels very “Fast and Furious.” There’s the macho posturing, including random sex scenes where Diesel breaks the fourth wall with his “It’s good to be the king” grin. In one climactic moment where Xanderraces out of a nose-diving plane as it heads to absolute destruction, he chuckles, “I love this shit.” It’s a meta moment. It’s Diesel talking directly to us. He loves to knock us back with spectacle stupendous, action outrageous, and masculinity warm and welcoming, and in no way toxic. He loves to be the out of this world anti-hero, who’s a good guy even if he won’t let anyone call him a “good guy.” He eats it up. And when he serves it up this cheesey and piping hot, so do we.
“xXx: Return of Xander Cage” is in theaters now.