"X" marks the spot - and blows it up too
Despite its title, the excitement in "XXX" comes from its literally non-stop action sequences, not from anything untoward. "XXX" obviously wants to have a sense of humor (unfortunately, not often enough). The one truly clever moment comes early on when a tuxedo-clad spy finds himself completely out of his element at a kinetic, flaming, metal rave party. The James Bond avatar is quickly and oddly dispatched, much to the crowd's rejoicing. This scene exists to lend credibility to the NSA's conclusion that old school stylish super-spies are out. Instead of training one of their own to infiltrate vague Eastern European adversary Anarchy 99, they assemble the "scum of the earth"- expendable criminals who can blend in with other criminals easier than a standard-issue secret agent.
The opening half hour of the film consists of one action scene after another as the NSA's Agent Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson, looking vaguely amused behind a facial scar) sets up a series of mock (and not-so-mock) tests to weed out the best of the worst. Of course, the winner by a wide margin is Xander Cage (Vin Diesel, easily taking his place as an action hero). Through and extended motorcycle chase Xander, or 'X', proves himself not just an extreme sportsman, but also a man of resources, attitude and a modicum of conscience.
Director Rob Cohen, who also teamed with Mr. Diesel on the more modest "The Fast and The Furious" loves his star. His camera trains itself on Mr. Diesel's physique and especially the "XXX" tattoo on the back of his neck. As an action director, Mr. Cohen is competent, but this film - which is pretty much as non-stop as an action movie can get - needed a director with a little more finesse. Too often things explode from multiple angles, changing perspective to such a degree that it's impossible to know where the characters are. Of course, that may be the point. So many of the stunts are so physically impossible that Mr. Cohen needs to use sleight-of-hand in order to retain the thread of credibility that holds the film so tenuously together. The film's most fantastic action scene (and that's really saying something), which involves Xander out-snowboarding an avalanche, is an exercise in suspension of disbelief. But with each scene, the film raises the adrenaline level higher and higher until a climactic boat chase during which Xander appears to be doing nothing more than purposely waiting until the last possible second solely to build as much tension as possible.
"XXX" is like an adolescent who rebels against his parents while still driving Daddy's Lexus SUV. The film wants to takes its place as the new Bond franchise, but it forgets that it owes everything to Bond. All the pieces are in place: the over-the-top villain (walking stereotype Marton Csokas), the pouty, conflicted beauty (Asia Argento), the gadget-freak (Michael Roof), and of course the action. Ironically, though, Xander simply does the same kind of stunts James Bond has been doing for years: instead of parachuting, he sky-surfs; instead of skiing, he snowboards. At one point, he uses a waiter's tray to "board" down a banister, but I got the feeling that simply running might have been the optimal solution.
Yes, Xander wears tank tops instead of tuxes and sounds like he's from New York instead of England. And yes, Vin Diesel actually looks like he could do these stunts more than, say, Pierce Brosnan or George Lazenby. But other than that, "XXX" should be paying some respect to the perennial spy series that paved its way. And yes, I would probably go see the inevitable "XXX 2" for the thrill of the stunt work. But I also look forward to the day when that adolescent grows up, puts on a suit and does some real spy work. That'll be something worth watching.