Friday, February 10, 2017

Worth Mentioning - X-Treme Espionage

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

Xander Cage is introduced, killed off, and brought back over the course of the xXx trilogy.

xXx (2002)

Director Rob Cohen's xXx was a film that rode a wave of boundless enthusiasm into theatres in 2002. According to the filmmakers and the marketing department this Vin Diesel vehicle was going to become a juggernaut action franchise that would be the heir apparent to the James Bond series - it was a twist on the concept of Bond for modern times, a movie meant to signify that the days of a suit-wearing spy making his way through high class establishments were over. The heroes of the 21st century were going to be characters with street smarts, people that the average teenager would relate to much more than they could relate to James Bond.

Of course, Bond is still going strong while the xXx franchise has turned out to be something of a shambles, but Cohen and his cohorts were aiming very high at the time.

The film begins with a demonstration of the idea that James Bond is outdated. During a mission, a suit-wearing spy finds himself in a situation where he sticks out like a sore thumb: having stolen some kind of computer chip from a group called Anarchy 99 - whose members dress in leather pants, wear trenchcoats with either band shirts or no shirts underneath, are covered with tattoos, etc. - he finds himself being pursued through the crowd at a Rammstein concert. A sharpshooter uses his suit as a target. The spy is killed, the chip is retrieved.

The NSA fears that Anarchy 99 is trying to get their hands on an old Soviet bio-weapon called Silent Night, and after three failed missions scar-faced agent Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson) has an idea on how they can infiltrate the group and thwart their plans: since the members used to be in the Russian military, they can spot agents who have military training. The NSA needs to bring in a civilian who might hang out at the same sort of clubs and concerts these villains would, someone will seem like just one of the guys. But someone badass enough to get the job done.

Enter extreme sports enthusiast Xander Cage (Vin Diesel), who hosts a show called The Xander Zone on an underground website where he pulls off crazy stunts like driving a conservative senator's Corvette off a bridge and base jumping from the falling vehicle. Xander is on Gibbons' list of potentials, but he isn't just approached and asked if he wants to work for the NSA. His place is raided, he's shot with a tranquilizer dart, and when he wakes up he's being put through field tests that evaluate his ability to handle himself and read situations.

The first test involves stopping a staged diner hold-up. The second test is actually dangerous, and finds him being dropped into Colombia alongside some other potentials to face off with a drug lord played by a machete-wielding Danny Trejo. Trejo's a hell of an obstacle to be placed in the way of a novice, but luckily for Xander this character isn't full capacity Trejo. He may have a machete, but he's no Machete.

After busting heads, dodging bullets, ripping around on a dirt bike like a madman and ramping it through the air to escape explosions, and saving the life of a fellow potential Xander has displayed courage, leadership, and heroism. He's offered the job to work for the NSA - and he tells Gibbons to kiss his ass. Unfortunately, he's facing a Leavenworth prison sentence, so he takes the gig in exchange for his record being wiped clean. His legal record is part of why he's called xXx - he's got three strikes against him. Plus his name starts with X, so he has a triple X tattooed on the back of his neck. He's edgy, you know?

Now officially a government agent, Xander is sent to Prague to cross paths with Anarchy 99, and in case there's trouble he is equipped with some weaponry provided by this film's version of Q from the Bond films, here a young MIT graduate named Toby Lee Shavers and played by Michael Roof. It's interesting to note that the Q character would eventually be reimagined as a younger guy in the Bond series as well. By the end of the film Shavers has even given Xander a car packed with special features like flamethrowers, ejector seats, and rocket launchers. Rather than an Aston Martin or a Lotus, Xander drives a 1967 Pontiac GTO.

With some unconventional manipulation of his local contacts, Xander quickly gains the acceptance of Anarchy 99, befriending the members, including their leader Yorgi (Marton Csokas). Xander also engages in some casual sex, much like Bond would do, while finding himself a love interest as well - Yorgi's girlfriend Yelena, played by Asia Argento. Yes, the daughter of "master of horror" Dario Argento.

Despite her relationship with Yorgi, Yelena is not on board with his plan to use a solar powered submarine to launch a missile packed with the deadly Silent Night gas into the middle of Prague, and then more cities after that. Especially not after she watches him turn a room full of the scientists who made his scheme possible into a Silent Night gas chamber, a moment straight out of Goldfinger.

After Xander's cover is blown, Gibbons orders him out of Prague, but it's his connection with Yelena that causes him to continue playing the hero even when he doesn't need to anymore - and has in fact been told not to. He embraces this new gig completely, setting out to extract Yelena from Anarchy 99's clutches and stop the Silent Night attack.

xXx is no Bond movie, but I find it to be an entertaining spy thriller although its style doesn't appeal to me nearly as much as the filmmakers had hoped it would. Sorry, folks, but I was a teenager when xXx was released and even then I was more of a Bond guy than a Xander guy. I didn't relate to Xander, I didn't want to hang out with him, I wouldn't have watched The Xander Zone, and I was never into extreme sports. I would much rather watch a middle-aged British guy in a suit take on villains than watch a younger dude in leather pants and a tanktop. My favorite moments in xXx are the ones that are most reminiscent of Bond, and there are plenty of nods, right down to an Americanized version of the Union Jack parachute sight gag from The Spy Who Loved Me.

The script and characters aren't much to get enthusiastic about, but they're serviceable. The scenes between flare-ups of action go by quickly enough, and when the action does happen Xander's athletic skills prove to be quite helpful, whether he's snowboarding down the side of a mountain during an avalanche, parasailing behind a death machine, or using a dinner tray in place of a skateboard to grind down a stairway railing. The concept is cheesy, but it works.

Bond, Mission: Impossible, Jason Bourne, I'm a fan of all of them. As far as I'm concerned, the more spy franchises, the merrier. So when I walked out of a theatrical screening of xXx back in 2002, I was totally down for the franchise that we were supposedly in store for. I would gladly have watched a new Xander Cage adventure every couple years. xXx screenwriter Rich Wilkes was already working on a script at that time, Rob Cohen and Vin Diesel were planning on coming back... It just wasn't meant to be. Instead of becoming the next big action hero, Xander Cage just faded into the past.

We weren't seeing new xXx movies getting pumped out on a regular basis, but one family who lived in my area kept the memory of Xander Cage alive as the years passed - soon after xXx was released, I saw a birth announcement for a couple who had named their newborn child Xander Kage. Someone must have been a major fan.


The development of a sequel to xXx began with that film's writer Rich Wilkes working on a screenplay that took hero Xander Cage on a new adventure in Southeast Asia, in the Strait of Malacca. Wilkes's approach was to write another spy action movie would be along the same lines as the first film. xXx director Rob Cohen wanted the option to take things down a different path, though. He thought the right story for a sequel would be to have Xander "save the United States", so he eventually hired Simon Kinberg to write another script while Wilkes continued working on his own, a story set in Washington D.C. that would be more of a thriller. The thought was that if everything went well Cohen and Diesel might even be bringing both of the scripts to the screen. They wanted a franchise, after all, and thanks to Wilkes and Kinberg they might have xXx 2 and xXx 3 ready to go.

Everything did not go well. Although Diesel was rumored to like Wilkes's script, he apparently didn't like Kinberg's script, and when Kinberg's was the one chosen for xXx 2, Diesel opted out of the project. Xander Cage was not going to be our new James Bond. He was done. But Diesel's departure did not deter Columbia Pictures from moving forward with the sequel, nor did the fact that Cohen was too busy directing Stealth for them to take the helm of the film that would come to be known as xXx: State of the Union. They would just have Kinberg rewrite his script to remove Xander Cage from the action, then hire a different director to introduce a new hero in the sequel.

Although the hype around xXx said that this series was going to be the one to replace the outdated James Bond franchise, xXx did not match up to the Bond movie that was released in the same year. While xXx made $277,448,382 at the global box office in 2002, the Bond offering Die Another Day made $431,971,116. Well, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Columbia hired Die Another Day director Lee Tamahori to direct xXx 2, a choice that did make a lot of sense. Tamahori may have directed a Bond film, but his sensibilities didn't always mesh with that series. His style was much more suited for something like xXx - in fact, Die Another Day had Bond surfing and featured an extremely CG scene in which Bond parasails on a tidal wave, things that would have been right at home in xXx.

So how do you replace Xander Cage in his own franchise? You start by killing him off. Not in a scene, they didn't get Diesel to come back for that, just with a line of dialogue: "Xander Cage was killed in Bora Bora last night." Then you need to explain why the movies will still be called xXx, since that was Xander's nickname. So now xXx isn't a specific person, it's a designation Samuel L. Jackson's NSA higher-up character Augustus Gibbons gives to deep cover agents with special skills. After a group of assassins with hi-tech gear invade an underground NSA bunker and wipe out multiple agents, Gibbons escapes with weapons maker Toby Lee Shavers (Michael Roof) and starts planning to find a new xXx, "Not another skater, snowboarder, or biker. The new xXx has gotta be more dangerous. Deadlier. More attitude." This atrocious piece of dialogue is spoken before Gibbons has even heard about Xander's death, and this line might as well have been spoken directly to the audience, since it only serves to hype up the new character in an effort to calm any worries. "It's okay that Vin Diesel isn't back, because the new guy is going to be even better." The movie won't let you forget that Diesel has been replaced, though, as there is line after line about "the old xXx" and "the new xXx".

The new xXx Gibbons has in mind is Darius Stone - Ice Cube as a character who started off as a secondary character in Kinberg's initial drafts of the script, now promoted from sidekick to star. If you want someone who has an overabundance of attitude, Ice Cube is certainly one of the best casting choices you can make to get that personality trait across. Currently nine years into a twenty year Leavenworth prison sentence, Darius is a former Navy SEAL who has history with Gibbons; he was actually serving in a special unit with Gibbons in Kosovo when Gibbons got that burn scar on his face. When four-star General George Deckert ordered the men to set a fire that put civilian lives at risk, Darius led a mutiny against him. That resulted in his prison time. While Darius was preoccupied with Deckert, Gibbons was getting burned while trying to save people from the fire.

Off the grid, Gibbons and Shaver spring Darius from Leavenworth to help them figure out what's going on and who attacked the NSA, but no sooner has that Deckert back story been revealed than Deckert himself, now Secretary of Defense and played by Willem Dafoe, shows up to let us know that he is the film's villain. A fact he proves by (appearing to) kill Gibbons in a house explosion.

Darius and Shaver are wanted by the authorities for their answer-seeking methods - and, you know, the fact that Darius is an escaped convict - but they do find an ally in NSA agent Kyle Steele (Scott Speedman) when they manage to convince him that Deckert is a bad guy. Backed up by the crew of a chop shop run by Darius's old pal Zeke (Xzibit), a shop that used be run by his once-and-future sweetheart Lola Jackson (Nona Gaye), our heroes set out to thwart Deckert's evil plan. Unsatisfied with the way the United States is headed, Deckert is plotting a military coup to overthrow the President and take over the country, and he's knocking off everyone who might stand in his way - including the men that sided with Darius against him all those years ago.

xXx: State of the Union may be lacking Xander Cage, but it's certainly not lacking in action. There are several action sequence packed in here: the opening minutes in the NSA bunker, Darius's prison escape, not-so-stealth missions, a boat chase, several physical altercations, a couple sequences in which Darius rips around in tanks, a military vs. street criminals battle on the streets of Washington D.C that spills into the Capitol building. It all culminates with a chase scene in which Darius tries to catch up with Deckert as he attempts to escape on a bullet train. If you've watched many Tamahori movies you know that you can usually expect him to show you some horrendous CGI at some point, and this train sequence is State of the Union's contribution to the director's trademark.

I went into this sequel with an open mind, willing to give the franchise a chance to continue without Xander Cage. Maybe it might have worked against all odds, but not with Tamahori and not with Kinberg's script. Diesel reportedly didn't like the script because it "didn't feel like xXx", and I can see where he was coming from. State of the Union feels very different than its predecessor, and admittedly that was by design. Cohen wanted it to be a political thriller with some street wise characters mixed in. It's still jarring that the film so often feels totally removed from the xXx roots. The initial idea was to get away from the suits and swanky locations of the Bond films, and yet here we have Darius disguising himself in a suit, infiltrating a fancy party in a tuxedo, hanging out in a D.C. mansion.

Not only does the script not feel like xXx, it's also not very good. A complicated, scattered plot is wrapped up in some absolutely horrible dialogue, and I rarely knew why characters were doing the things they were doing. I could switch my brain off and watch the explosions and gunfire, but if I tried to think of how one scene led into another I'd be at a loss.

Setting aside any question of whether or not the movie should have even been made after Diesel's departure, State of the Union is just not a very well made or well written movie. Ice Cube does a fine job as Darius Stone, there's nothing wrong with him as the hero, it's the movie that lets him down.

When xXx: State of the Union was coming out, there was some talk that the series could continue as a sort of anthology series; there would be a new xXx in each sequel. Rob Cohen even suggested that the next xXx could be a female, and floated out the possibility that she could be played by either Michelle Rodriguez or Michelle Yeoh. I was willing to give that idea a chance, too. Yeoh doesn't really seem like a xXx, but Rodriguez would definitely fit into the franchise. It didn't happen because State of the Union only made $71,022,693 worldwide. Quite a drop from $277,448,382.


Vin Diesel must have really upset the folks at Columbia Pictures when he decided not to reprise the role of Xander Cage in xXx: State of the Union. If that weren't apparent enough from the fact that they wrote him out of the sequel with a line saying that Xander Cage had been killed, it was made even more clear when they went so far as to produce a short film called The Final Chapter: The Death of Xander Cage, which was included on the director's cut DVD release of xXx in 2005. In this short, which runs just 4 minutes, Xander is seen re-connecting with xXx one night stand Jordan King (Leila Arcieri) when State of the Union henchman Lieutenant Alabama Cobb (John Gleeson Connolly) and his men show up to ruin their night, abducting Jordan and tricking Xander into entering a building that has been rigged to explode.

Of course, Diesel did not come back for this short. Xander is played by Khristian Lupo and we never get a clear shot of his face - we're using looking at him from behind. Xander speaks only one line in this short, and it's a Diesel line that was lifted from xXx ("The things I'm gonna do for my country.") and just nonsensically dropped in here. Xander goes into the building, it blows up, and among the flaming debris that rains down on the street is a piece of Xander's body: the back of his neck, which has that xXx tattoo inked into it. Yeah, you really have to piss people off to get them to make a short film just to reduce you to nothing but a piece of bloody, burning neck meat. Adding insult to injury, Cobb picks up this piece of neck meat and quips, "Poor Xander, he never had very much between the ears." Ouch.

Despite this effort being put into killing him off, Diesel started talking up the return of Xander Cage just one year later, in 2006. He seemed confident it would happen someday, and as years went by there would occasionally be rumblings that Xander was going to come back. At first, xXx director Rob Cohen intended to bring Xander back into the screen, then in 2009 Ericson Core, who served as cinematographer on the 2001 Cohen/Diesel collaboration The Fast and the Furious, was brought on to direct. There was a script in place, written by John Brancato and Michael Ferris with a polish by original xXx writer Rich Wilkes, and the movie was expected to start filming in 2010. That didn't happen. Instead, D.J. Caruso ended up replacing Core at the helm in 2015, and it was Caruso who was finally able to bring Diesel's Cage back to the screen, working from a screenplay by F. Scott Frazier.

Released by Paramount Pictures rather than Columbia, Return of Xander Cage is here to tell audiences that the formerly trusted explosion is actually one of the least reliable methods of dispatching a character. After briefly being killed off with an explosion in the fake-out moment in State of the Union, Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson) is still alive and well at the beginning of this sequel, trying to recruit Brazilian futebol star Neymar Jr. as his latest xXx agent. The recruitment scene is interrupted when a satellite drops out of the sky and lands right outside the restaurant Gibbons is in, catching him in a massive explosion... But don't get too sad about Gibbons. Explosions can't be trusted.

Through the "death" of Gibbons, we're introduced to CIA agent Jane Marke (Toni Collette). A device called Pandora's Box can be used to tap into any satellite in orbit and use it to eavesdrop, to transmit data, or to steer the satellite into the ground like a warhead. Using Pandora's Box, someone dropped that satellite on Gibbons on purpose, and Marke intends to find out who was responsible. Unfortunately, before she can solve the case Pandora's Box is stolen from CIA headquarters in New York City in a violent raid carried off by a group of highly skilled villains: Donnie Yen as Xiang, Deepika Padukone as Serena, Tony Jaa as Talon, and Michael Bisping as Hawk. After seeing this bunch in action, Marke knows she needs to bring back Xander Cage.

Xander Cage did not die. He faked his death, and when this film catches up with him he's hanging out in the Dominican Republic (a place Diesel's Fast and Furious has gone off to as well), the back of his neck still intact. The existence of The Death of Xander Cage short film is most likely being ignored here, but just imagine if it is canon: that would mean that Xander purposely put Jordan King in danger, knowing that he would be lured into a building packed with explosives, and he would have had to have a cadaver on hand with the xXx tattoo on its neck so Cobb could find the body parts... Yeah, we're just going to have to forget about that short film. But don't forget about State of the Union; that is still very much part of the continuity.

Located by Marke, Xander is quickly convinced to return to action. It's soon revealed that Xiang and his team are all rogue xXx agents, so to catch xXx Xander builds his own xXx team by recruiting Adele Wolff (Ruby Rose), "The Torch" Tennyson (Rory McCann), and Harvard "Nicks" Zhou (Kris Wu). The group also receives gadget support from an extremely awkward techie named Becky Clearidge and played by Nina Dobrev, a character who makes it painfully obvious that she desperate wants to get XXX with Xander. The gadgets in the previous films were supplied by Michael Roof as Toby Lee Shavers, and I was surprised that he wasn't brought back for this one. My surprise turned to shock when I looked him up and found that he died in 2009. His presence was missed here.

Rich Wilkes' unused script for xXx 2 had been set in Southeast Asia, and thanks to Xander's London-based pal Ainsley (Hermione Corfield) our heroes are able to track the villains down in Southeast Asia - although the location here is the Philippines rather than the Strait of Malacca, and that's not the last location the characters will be heading off to. They wind up in a location where super spies rarely venture. Detroit.

Marke wants Xander's team to retrieve Pandora's Box. Serena thinks it's too powerful and should be destroyed. Xiang has bigger plans for it. Differing opinions on the device are manipulated, there are twists and double crosses aplenty, and just like the scene where Gibbons appears to get blown to pieces - nothing is as it seems.

Return of Xander Cage is a decent sequel, and certainly a step up from State of the Union. I wasn't as enamored with the characters or wowed by the action as the filmmakers likely wanted me to be, but I thought this was a solid effort to revive the franchise and would be interested in seeing further sequels - as I always have been interested in seeing more xXx movies, ever since 2002.

One issue I had with the film is the fluctuating tone. At times scenes are darker, with a more serious edge. Some of the action scenes are more intense and hard-hitting. And then there are moments that are absurd, presented in a silly fashion, almost like a living cartoon. Caruso has said that he finds Xander to be a campy personality, which seems far from how Cohen intially envisioned him. Cohen truly believed that Xander was about as cool as a guy can get, and while I don't share that sensibility, I do think that's how he should be presented. Things around him shouldn't get too goofy. For some moments, Caruso was inspired by the irreverence of Deadpool, and while I loved Deadpool, I don't think Deadpool and xXx should be mixed. I feel that "We're going to beat James Bond at his own game!" is a much better mindset for a xXx film than "This is ridiculous, isn't it?" Yes, it's ridiculous enough without being acknowledged and enhanced. Thankfully, most of the things that really irked me were loaded up front.

Xander Cage is back, and I enjoyed his return, with some reservations. Here's hoping he won't stay away quite as long next time.

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