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xXx: Return of Xander Cage Movie Review

The most remarkable thing about xXx: Return of Xander Cage that it’s a reboot of a long dead franchise, or that the xXx franchise was rebooted at all, but that it’s actually a solidly entertaining action thriller, that not only surpasses the original, but actually leaves you wanting to see more from this franchise in the future.
Stick a pin in that for now though, because we can’t talk about xXx: Return of Xander Cage without first touching on the extreme action oddball that started it all, xXx.
Way back in the halcyon year of 2002, xXx was the fever dream of director Rob Cohen, who had long ago swapped the fantasy of Dragonheart for the “extreme” flavor of The Fast and the Furious, now turned to 11 in an action vehicle for breakout star Vin Diesel. Though very much a product of its time – let’s be frank, the only reason half of you remember it is because xXx has practically had the TNT logo branded on it for most of the last decade – the movie was huge for the time. This was the movie that gave James Bond a mid life crisis for crying out loud. More on that for another day.

Of course, plans for a franchise died back then with one of the most disastrous sequels of the modern era, xXx: State of the Union, though with Diesel’s still notable star power, and the billions of dollars made by the still going strong Fast and the Furious franchise, a reboot has been in the works for years. That’s not the surprising part of this though, the surprising part of this is that xXx: Return of Xander Cage is actually a very solid action movie.
The movie opens with Xander Cage, who has spent the last few years off-grid traveling the world, called to action following the heist of a satellite crashing superweapon and an attack on Agent Gibbons. Now again in the fold of the xXx program, Cage and a group of rebellious allies are tasked with tracking down the group responsible. Of course, it becomes clear very quickly that there are no bad guys or good guys here, only rebels and tyrants – and the question of which side Xander and his group of rebels without a cause will fight for.
A big part of what makes xXx: Return of Xander Cage work as well as it does is that it takes what works well from xXx – the stunt work, exploration of colorful criminal underbellies, rebel-without-a-care protagonist Xander Cage – and got rid of what didn’t work – the utter fixation with extreme sports and turn of the millennium edginess – and more often than not replaced it with what works so well about the Fast and the Furious franchise, chiefly the globetrotting and the international cast. Better still, the movie has a wicked sense of humor, and a winking knowledge of the franchise’s “mythos” which makes it a lot of fun to watch.
That cast alone bears special mention, because the crew put together for xXx: Return of Xander Cage is one of the most colorful and eclectic we’ve seen in an action movie probably outside of one of The Expendables movies. Drawing from Hong Kong, Bollywood, Thai and British cinema alike, the interesting thing about the cast of the new xXx movie is that Vin Diesel’s return as Xander Cage is one of the less interesting part of the film, even if he does anchor the film nicely.
If there was any doubt Donnie Yen had the chops to make it the leap from Hong Kong to Hollywood after Rogue One, his role as antagonist Xiang should erase that soon after his first fight scene, as Yen’s ample charisma makes him a perfect foil for Diesel, and his action choreography is a highlight of the film.
Similarly, it’s great to see Deepika Padukone really shine outside of a Bollywood movie, more than holding her own in scenes alongside Diesel and Yen. Tony Jaa even manages to swap his usual stoic badass performance for one as a colorful goofball, and Rory McCann is a hoot as an adrenaline junkie stunt driver. Hell, even Ruby Rose shows that she has some ability beyond offering her usual LGBT-branded fan service. Samuel L. Jackson quickly reminds me why his performance as Agent Gibbons in the original xXx movie is one of my favorites, and let’s just say he and Diesel aren’t the only xXx veterans returning to the fold.
If there was any worry that DJ Caruso didn’t have the action chops for a movie like this, they’re gone by the 15 minute mark, delivering some brilliant stunt work and fight scenes from start to finish, including a zero-G aerial combat scene in the climax that may well end up a strong contender for years best fight scene right out of the gate. Really the only weakness from a production standpoint is the score, which is pretty lousy and doesn’t quite jive with certain scenes, but adrenaline and action junkies will get more than their fill with xXx: Return of Xander Cage.
We could have easily gotten another lazy cash grab reboot from this, especially given how movies like Ghostbusters and Ben-Hur aren’t even immune from this these days, but instead xXx: Return of Xander Cage manages to be that rare beast of Hollywood studio film making, a franchise reboot that is fun, inventive, and just maybe better than the original. It’s both laugh-out-loud funny and thrilling, brilliantly cast, and delivers a strong first action offering for 2017.

If xXx: Return of Xander Cage is any sign of things to come, I would certainly be up for a few more trips to the Xander Zone.

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