Now playing: XXX

Posted: Friday, August 16, 2002

There is a tangible feeling of excitement surrounding XXX that has nothing to do with the myriad motorcycle jumps, car chases, or snowboard antics. It buzzes around the edges of the screen and coats the air in the theater. It's a whispered, gleeful exclamation coming directly from the film's degenerate superspy himself, Vin Diesel. "I a big star! I'm really a big star!"

Vin Diesel has been struggling to make it big in Hollywood since the mid-'90s, when he was stumping to get his own personal project, a short called Multi-Facial, shown at Cannes and the Sundance Film Festival. This may not seem like all that long a time to pay your dues, but in the rush, rush, rush of the last couple decades, stars are making it big and going bust faster than ever. Plus, I don't think Diesel has much in the way of patience. In a recent interview, Diesel stated that he's been proclaiming himself an action star since he was a little kid. I guess the rest of us are just catching up. After winning plum roles in Saving Private Ryan, Pitch Black, and Boiler Room, he was tapped to play the "heavy" in The Fast and the Furious. Furious was, surprisingly to everyone except Diesel, I guess, a huge hit. Kids loved the high octane action, the stunts, and the slammin' music. It was like a video game, though not like a movie based on a game. While that combination is rarely successful, Furious was the perfect fusion of Sega-style action and throwaway plot. And Diesel, who looks like he could be a computer-generated character anyway, emerged as its undisputed star. After the cash started rolling in for Furious, director Rob Cohen and crew began searching for a way to make lightening strike twice. What they came up with was the X-Games meets James Bond action thriller XXX.

Now, before you avoid the movie altogether, XXX is the title, not the rating. Although, if you aren't one of the tattooed, multi-pierced 15-25 year-olds that this movie is so blatantly marketed to, you'll probably want to skip it anyway. Diesel plays Xander Cage, an adrenaline junkie with three X's tattooed on the back of his neck, who films himself performing death-defying stunts and sells the tapes to other adrenaline junkies. He could have his own video game, we are told, but he's got too much dignity to sell out. Had this been a different, read: better, movie, it might have tried to delve into the minds of these people just a little bit; tried to discover what makes them tick. Every 12 year-old boy will tell you that they would love to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge with a parachute, but few would actually do it (unless all their friends did it) even then, let alone when they are supposedly old enough to know better. XXX could have taken a hard look at this phenomenon without sacrificing too much of its action, but I suppose it's a little too difficult to set introspection to Rob Zombie.

Cage, after a strange sky-dive-from-a-plummeting-car stunt, is nabbed by the NSA and forced into service with the threat of prison. Cage caged would kill his free-wheelin', heart-of-a-lion spirit, and so he relents. After proving himself in a Columbian drug battle, involving some of the fakest motorcycle stunts I've ever seen, he is sent to Prague in order to get close to a rebellious band of hedonists who call themselves Anarchy 99. The rest of the story is all typical save-the-world stuff: biological weapons, killer submarine, etc. What is supposed to set this movie apart is the amazing stuntwork.

Some of the stunts, to be fair, are amazing. The car-dive at the beginning, though weird, is pretty cool looking. There is a sequence in which Diesel has to outrun an avalanche on a snowboard that was genuinely thrilling, though living in Alaska gives it a whole other cach. But unfortunately, most of the stunts are done on motorcycles, and they are just plain lame. I was reminded, and not happily, of Speed, where the bus jumps the hole in the freeway without even the hint of ramp. Diesel flies through the air with the greatest of ease, grimly dispatching bad guys while hanging by his fingertips to the seat of his bike, and it just looks ridiculous.

This movie isn't about the acting, I know, but I thought it worthwhile to mention that it's not any better than you might expect. Diesel, who played his previous roles more effectively with as little emotion as possible, looks at times like he's going to pop, he's emoting so hard. He comes off as kind of thick, which would be ok if he would just embrace that instead of trying to give us more than we ask for.

XXX will be a big hit, exactly as it was marketed to be. It will have it's own video game, action figures, dirt bikes and soft drinks. It's a relatively fun bit of summer excitement, but it's interesting to note how effectively Hollywood is able to sell to a group of people who claim they would rather die than sell out. Grade: B-

XXX is rated PG-13 for violence and language.

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