More noise than signal

xXx 2: The Next Level

This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site, theOneliner.com

You’ll have to excuse the lack of enthusiasm for seeing xXx 2, alternately subtitled The Next Level or The State of the Union depending on geographic preference and interplanetary alignments. After all, 2002’s xXx was one of the most banal excuses for a big-budget action extravaganza yet seen, if you exclude anything Michael Bay has had anything to do with. Look! It’s the new Bond for the new generation! Fifty percent more snowboarding! One hundred percent more Vin Diesel! Audiences rightly ignored this marketing pap, although thanks to some saturation marketing it pulled in enough doughrayme to be considered a modest success in financial terms, if not critical. It wouldn’t have escaped the suits’ attention that the proper Bond outing of that very same year, the no-less silly but substantially more fun Die Another Day pulled in more greenbacks.

Which leads us to a sequel. With Mr. Diesel off ruining his career with critical and commercial flops ala Chronicles of Riddick and The Pacifier, and with xXx director Rob Cohen patently unable to deliver the goods it’s all change at Columbia. If you’re going to market this franchise as Bond Extreme if makes a sort of sense to drag a Bond director along, so Die Another Day megaphone-wielder Lee Tamahori get the nod. Of more interest to most is who’s in front of the camera, with the replacement for homme dujour Diesel coming in the unlikely shape of angry rap fella Ice Cube. Fresh from the ‘success’ of Torque and Are We There Yet, the reasons for the aforementioned lack of enthusiasm no doubt become apparent.

All of which is largely by-the-by, however it’s perhaps more interesting than actually talking about what’d wound up on the celluloid. Augustus Gibbons (Sam Jackson)’s extreme subdivision of the N.S.A. is being targeted by unknown assailants, which handily accounts for Xander Cage’s off-camera offing in Bora Bora. With near enough his entire staff killed, sadly excluding returning gadget division irritant Agent Shavers (Michael Roof), they decide to find a new, even more extreme xXx agent in the shape of ex-Navy Seal Darius Stone (Ice Cube). Busting him out of chokey after disobeying previous C.O. George Octavius Deckert (Willem Dafoe), now Secretary for Defence, after displaying some of his trademarked extreme attitude they gang sensibly agree to find out who’s trying killing them before they get killed.

Hooking up with his old ghetto mates including Zeke (Xzibit) and Lola (Nona M. Gaye), the path back to the culprit extends all the way to that big white house on Pennsylvania Avenue. I think it’s called the Middows. Anyway, the plot is something of a veneer. As befits the extreme nature of the extreme extremity of display in xXx 2 this film is all about extreme action, and extremely silly action at that. Quite why the evil assault teams after our heroes have been taking fashion tips from the Combine off Half-Life 2 and armaments from Halo we can’t be entirely sure, but at the very least it flags up early doors not to expect any grounding in reality. Part of me doesn’t want to complain about xXx 2 too vociferously, as in many ways it’s a return to the 80’s action movie ‘explode first, question later’ ethos that we’ve oft bemoaned the death of round these parts.

Except it’s a return to the shitty parts of that ethos. Silly guns, silly stunts, silly plots and a fairly silly choice of lead. Fond as we are of the Cubester this is not the role for him to shine in. It’s not that he’s incapable of acting reasonably well, as Boyz n the Hood and Three Kings prove, however suspension of disbelief is one thing and asking us to take a chubby, rapidly approaching middle aged rapper as ‘Hardest Man on the Planet’ is another; pushing the envelope so hard it rips open.

It seems Die Another Day was actually a remarkable act of restraint on Tamahori’s part. Going by xXx 2, approximately half of America is combustible, the other arranged into ramps enabling boats to jump up onto bridges and crush State Trooper patrol cars. Which, the agile minded amongst you may already have noticed, is pretty much what Jimmy Bond’s been doing for four decades now. Leaving aside any thorny issues of genre progression, the main differential between the franchises is a matter of style. While recent offerings might not reach the rarified air of the top of the Bond Mountain, Brosnan is still imbuing the character with the trademark touches of refined class. Admittedly normally just before getting into an invisible car or somesuch nonsense, but the franchise still has its moments of elegance.

In comparison, and it’s a comparison it inviting itself, xXx 2 is a twelve pound lumphammer with a Stanley knife sellotaped on top of it. It’s course, loud, slightly obnoxious, although at the end of the day it’s arriving at much the same destination. That the script is the brainwrong of Simon Kinberg, responsible for the impending Mr. and Mrs. Smith and the odd credit of ‘script doctor’ on the poor Elektra and the atrocious Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (both of which needed and undertaker more than a doctor) explains quite a bit. It has the lowest common denominator plotting that writes everything in big, bold, fire tinged letters. I’d be angry, but this is hardly the genre for subtlety.

I’m not sure the actors could quite be bothered this time round. Jackson displays the trademark nonchalance of a contractually obligated outing, Cube mistakes grumpiness for attitude and Michael Roof is roundly annoying, Goodness, even Dafoe looks embarrassed to be here, and he can do ‘evil maniac’ in his sleep. Here he’s just asleep.

xXx 2 isn’t exactly a film for the ages, and if you can remember any of it by the time the DVD hits the stores I’ll be vastly surprised. This doesn’t necessarily make it a bad film. Something like this isn’t viewed for intricate plotting or thespianism. A lot of things blow up, and as such it achieves it’s lowly aims far more than the first outing did. Not that we’re damning it with faint praise or anything.

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