xXx2 – The Next Level

I knew this was going to be rubbish when I sat down to watch it. So why did I watch it? I often wonder what I get out of crappy action films. I think it’s that no matter how bad the script, or how poorly acted or directed, they usually have some unique and inventive way of putting lives in danger. That’s the hook an action flick uses to pull you in. Once you’re there, it has to pay off its promise with chase scenes, fight scenes, stunt work, and explosions. None of which are particularly easy to do–even to do badly. See? There’s a craft there that I can appreciate, even while I’m despairing over the hammy dialogue.

xXx2 lacks that initial hook. For the original film, the premiss was that Xander Cage (Vin Diesel, and you can slag him all you like, but I dig the Vinster) was an extreme sports fanatic with an attitude problem, who gets recruited by a secretive US government department to go on an undercover mission in Eastern Europe. You knew that this would lead to brash James Bond-style stunts and escapades with an extreme sports twist: snowboarding, bungee-jumping, and all that. It was the Extremeness that gave the film its very name, and which tantalized you with its novelty. I enjoyed it.

Vin Diesel dropped out of the (inevitable) sequel, and was replaced by Ice Cube, another man who takes a lot of heat for the quality of his acting, but whom I like. In the story, Xander Cage has been killed, and Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson) has to come up with a new xXx (the code name for extreme deep undercover agents). The new agent has to be tougher, more extreme, more “off the grid”. And they come up with…Darius Stone (Ice Cube), a former US Navy SEAL who served with Gibbons, but who is now languishing in military prison for insubordination and breaking a General’s jaw. He has bags of attitude, and the combat skills to back it up. But Extremeness? Not so much. He’s just another cookie-cutter action hero.

The replacement hook for the film takes the form of a plot by the US Secretary of Defence (Willem Dafoe) to stage a coup during the President’s State of the Union address. Taken on its own, that is a perfectly acceptable concept. But to do it justice, you’d need the characters to be close to the President, and for most of the action to take place in and around that setting. Most of xXx2, however, is taken up by Stone and Gibbons trying first to figure out what the conspiracy is, and then how to get close enough to the coup to throw a spanner in the works. It takes far too long for the hook to kick in, and by the time it does, its impact has been squandered by a dreadful succession of movie stereotypes of government agents (Scott Speedman), politicians (Peter Strauss), and gangsta homies (Xzibit).

In short, it falls flat. Waaaay flat. By delaying the hook, it even failed to live up to my low standards of what constitutes a decent action flick. There are a few nice fight scenes, and one good set piece where Darius uses an aircraft carrier’s launch catapult for target practice, but it didn’t deserve to be released under the xXx brand. DTV is would have been more appropriate.

(Oh: and as a last note, if you’re going to spend two minutes on a scene where the resident geek introduces a cool gadget like a powerful electromagnetic suction glove then I EXPECT TO SEE THE HERO ACTUALLY USING IT TO GET HIMSELF OUT OF A TIGHT SPOT BEFORE THE CREDITS ROLL. Come on, people. Get with the program.)

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