Saturday, April 30, 2005

REVIEW: XXX: State of The Union

I may or may not have taken a few cheap shots at the original "XXX" (said, for the record, as "Triple X") in previous film reviews posted on this blog. It's possible that shots may also have been taken at it's expense in non-review articles about film also posted on this blog. And maybe also in articles about TV. And censorship. Come to think of it, unkind words directed at "XXX" are so ingrained in my day-to-day personal lexicon that it's likely even to have come up in articles posted about weather, attractive lingerie models and varieties of soup I enjoy (or don't enjoy, for that matter.)

Yeah, wasn't a big fan of the original "XXX."

You may or may not have some difficulty recalling the specifics of "XXX," a difficulty which will rise and fall largely on your being OR being in the close proximity of either an employee of the film retail business or a member of the audience demographic (male "street"-culture poseurs between the ages of 12 and 16) for whom it's otherwise-talented star Vin Diesel occupies the center a Holy Trinity of pop-culture demigods slightly below Eminem but slightly above Tony Hawk.

In any case, the film featured Diesel as one Xander Cage, aka "XXX" owing to a helpful neck-tattoo, an extreme-sports devotee recruited as a deep-cover secret agent by Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson,) the apparent leader of a super-elite cloak-n-dagger government division. His mission: Throttle eurotrashy terrorists using as much conveniently-placed extreme-sporting equipment as available (which turned out to be quite a lot.)

"XXX" was, putting it mildly, a disaster. You're shocked, I know, since the idea of a catchphrase-spewing commercial for marketable faux-additude saving the world by snowboarding has such obvious cinematic potential. No more than a disgustingly calculated cash-grab for the disposable incomes of teenaged boys who'd developed an instantaneous fixation on Diesel after seeing him embody their wish-dream fantasy of self-perfection as romanticized drag-racing superhero Dominic Toretto in the embarassingly popular "The Fast & The Furious" and an even MORE disgusting calculated attempt to turn Diesel into the next-big-thing in action heroism. In what can only be described as an unexplainable minor-miracle, something was wrong in the marketers' math and the film was greeted with a lukewarm "eh" by even it's notoriously-undiscerning target audience.

But it wasn't a TOTAL loss and now, for good or ill, we have a sequel in "XXX: State of The Union." Diesel declined to reprise his role as Xander Cage, a move which will likely benefit his future career prospects and has in my opinion GREATLY benefitted the "XXX" franchise. Yes, you read that right. Here's an action-sequel that blows the original out of the water and, heaven help me... I liked it.

Almost from the get-go, it becomes apparent that the filmmakers are heeding the age-old wisdom about how to proceed when life gives you lemons: Rather than scrapping the whole thing in the event of Diesel's departure, they've taken the opportunity to jettison the Xander Cage character entirely along with all of the moronic grasping at the X-Games culture he represented and get about the more agreeable business of fashioning an action hero for whom being the angry-young-American answer to James Bond is it's own gimmick. As Gibbons (Jackson again) speeds away in a narrow escape from one of the cleverer opening action scenes of late, he informs his aid of the immediate need for a "new Agent XXX," (Xander's nickname and tattoo having, apparently, been absorbed into the agency-proper,) and pointedly adds "no more surfers, bikers, snowboarders, etc.," a sentiment which nearly drew from me a reflexive shout of "Amen!" which would have been loud enough to be deemed inappropriate were I even in Church at the time.

(Xander Cage, by the way, is expositioned-away as having been recently killed; an event not shown in the film but available to anyone with the lack of respect for their money to spend it on the new "Special Edition" of the original "XXX" on DVD.)

In any case, Gibbon's choice for the new XXX is Darius Stone (Ice Cube,) a thug turned Navy SEAL turned convicted felon. Stone, played by Cube as a natural (in an action-movie) progression of the streetwise persona he's honed to a fine art since his early rap career, makes it immediately clear that he WON'T be joining Xander on the half-pipe anytime soon: "I don't play with my life, I'd rather play with your's." It's a cute line, well-delivered. Cube is a good actor who's had better, meatier roles before this and will have them again, but he knows enough that it's more fun to play this material straight than to try to go too far with it. If Xander Cage was a studio marketing committee's idea of cool; Darius Stone is cool, period.

The bulk of the story takes place in and around Washington D.C., as XXX and the remnants of Gibbons' elite unit blast their way through a conspiracy involving a military-led coup of the Presidency, somehow tied to the President's planned introduction of a new anti-isolationist "make allies of our enemies" direction for National Security at the State of The Union address.

The somewhat stunning lack of cynicism on the part of the film in this respect is almost charming, as it eventually means that the "big evil scheme" is hinged entirely on the premise that once the President merely voices an idea before the public that it will become and immediate and unstoppable force for change and thus must be stopped by whatever means necessary. Nope, lobbying or watering the initiative down in Congress or media skepticism or even the possibility that the President might just be floating a nice idea for polling's sake are NOT possibilities in the world of this film. Somehow, this level of wide-eyed faith in the absolute honesty of presidential declarations is strangely endearing occuring, as they do, in a film where a later exchange sums the situation up as follows: "Freedom is in the hands of a bunch of hustlers and thieves." "Why should tonight be any different?"

So yeah, it's dopey. But I can't say that it doesn't succeed at being what it wants to be: Namely a fun, diversionary action-vehicle for Cube that revels in it's own action-movieness. Given the implications of the subject matter, i.e. a militaristic overthrow of Washington, the omnipresent unreality of the film's execution gives it license to produce scenes that no "serious" political thriller would dare attempt: Like an architecture-busting shootout in the Senate rotunda or the Capitol Dome blasted open by a tank shell. I'm even tempted to seriously suggest that the film's knowing veneer of shoot-em-up silliness allows it to inject the possibility of relevant social commentary (of a sort): Surely SOMETHING bigger must be bubbling in the subtext of the film's final-act, with Stone leading a makeshift army of street-tough thugs from the poor ghetto neighborhoods surrounding the U.S. Capitol on a mission to save America from an internal threat.

Also, the film uses it's percieved unseriousness to handle the innevitable subject of race in what I can't deny is a deft and proper manner. The film-proper and Darius himself never make any explicit reference to the noteworthiness of his black leading-man stature, (save for a single scene of verbal-comedy at the expense of a clueless bigot) but the fact is cleverly and naturalistically acknowledged in a few key moments. Stone's choice of disguise for "blending" at a swank D.C. bash leads to the film's funniest visual punchline, and later on the topic provides Cube with his best action hero one-liner of the show: When told by a skeptical lawman that he "looks guilty" after being set up, he shoots a stone-faced glare at the camera and knowingly intones "I was BORN looking guilty" in a manner that leaves little doubt to the multi-tiered meaning behind the statement.

NONE of this, you'll understand, is meant to suggest that "XXX: State of The Union" is some deep well of social commentary or racial insight, but it's just slightly smarter than an action-movie sequel needed to be; and that's a big part of why this is a superior film to the original and FAR better than any sequel to "XXX" had any right to be.

As strange as it is to type these words... I'm reccomending it.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

1 comment:

Keith said...

I'm just looking into your past reviews to see if there were any gems I may have missed, when I came across this and wanted to reminisce about it's predecessor.

The point at which I could no longer forgive XXX came very near the end when, armed with a "heat seeking missle", XXX becomes an anti-smoking comerical. This moment in film is the singular worst of my life. I don't know why as I have seen some terrible movies, but this continues to haunt my dreams. Just wanted to share.