xXx

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

xXx

5/10

UK 2002 : Rob Cohen : 124 mins

xXx has, quite rightly, been vigorously attacked on all sides as a prime example of all that’s wrong with Hollywood – what people talk about stupid American movies, they’re talking about films like xXx, a fairly moronic 007 update (double-0 becoming triple-X) in which ‘extreme sports’ star Xander Cage (Vin Diesel) is recruited (shades of Rollerball?) by the US government and sent to Prague (shades of Blade II) on a hyper-dangerous mission.

It’s a nonsensical action movie, one which doesn’t even cut the mustard in terms of action – there are set pieces every five minutes or so, none of them especially convincing or exciting, and the climax, featuring a lethal “high-tech” submarine loaded with nerve gas, is like something out of Spy Kids. Diesel’s stunt double is distractingly identifiable in several shots, and even the much-trumpeted avalanche sequence, in which a snowboarding Xander (known as ‘triple x’) manages to stay one yard ahead of a rampaging wall of snow, is marred by cack-handed computer animation (light-years behind the nifty ‘pure’ CGI used for the end titles).

Diesel’s wooden performance is only marginally more convincing: “I live for this shit” he dully intones at one stage, sounding as if “this shit” is the last thing he actually ‘lives for.’ As in Cohen’s The Fast and the Furious, Diesel’s character is held up as a shining example of COOL – machine-tooled to appeal to the teenage boy in us all – but it’s hard to take seriously any character whose ‘pad’ so closely resembles the loft in Zoolander where Owen Wilson’s Ansel hangs out with all his groovy pals.

The plot, meanwhile, is a tired variation on the standard cliches last aired in the Ben Affleck vehicle Sum of All Fears: a shady European terrorist organisation plans to spark global conflict using (topical) biological weapons (“. soon the whole world implodes!”). While Alan Bates’ ridiculously-accented Fears baddie was a Haider-style far-rightist, the enemy here is from the other end of the fanatical spectrum: Anarchy 99, made up of disgruntled former Russian soldiers under the guidance of Yorgi, played by Marton Csokas with a Bates-style ridiculous accent, a world away from his nuanced performance in the Kiwi drama Rain.

xXx may not work in terms of action, but in political terms it’s even worse – like Fears, the underlying message is unashamedly pro the US government, despite a very thin anti-authoritarian veneer. While Cage starts off as a crusader for freedom of speech and against censorship (he trashes the car of a nasty senator planning legislation to outlaw ‘violence-inciting’ rap and videogames), but by the end he’s become an unlikely emissary of a distinctly George W Bush-ist form of US interference in world affairs. Indeed, xXx is so ideologically repellent that it’s often more interesting to analyse in terms of current geo-political debate than it is to actually watch.

We’re a long way from, say, The Bourne Identity, in which Matt Damon’s character received a series of painful lessons in the CIA’s murderous and cynical tactics. But Doug Liman’s film, for all its bracing cynicism about Uncle Sam, was fundamentally no less absurd than xXx (basically Bourne on steroids), with Matt Damon’s model-handsome killing-machine protagonist enmeshed in increasingly implausible plot mechanics. Both films wisely hook up their all-American heroes with a feisty Eurobabe played by a refugee from relatively arthouse movies: Franka Potente was probably the best thing about Bourne, and Asia Argento likewise adds unexpected elements to the apparently straightforward xXx formula.

As Yorgi’s double-agent girlfriend Yelena, Argento brings plenty of very welcome personal baggage to the role – especially for those familiar with her chaotic private life and her other-worldly performances in the films by her maverick-genius father Dario, not to mention her own wayward directorial debut Scarlet Diva. During the chaotic climax, Yelena blithely deconstructs the souped-up auto provided for Xander by his geekish Q equivalent: “Parachutes built into the seats – ejectable roof. it’s all useless!”

Argento delivers this line while speeding through the other major plus in xXx‘s favour: its Prague setting. The Czech government’s tax-break largesse has seen an influx of high-profile Hollywood productions to its photogenic capital and they must be delighted with what emerges as a two-hour advert for the stunning scenery of the city-centre (the inevitably cavernous underground club here features guest appearances from Orbital and Rammstein) and the surrounding countryside – Yorgi’s base of operations is a mist-swathed hill-top castle. To underline the central European ambience, Cohen at one stages features a local musician picking out Anton Karas’s legendary ‘Third Man theme’ on a zither.

But hold on – The Third Man was set in Vienna, not Prague: a unforgivably basic error, surely? Well, perhaps not. It’s hard to believe that any film savvy enough to cast Dario Argento’s daughter as female lead would be thick enough to make such a knuckleheaded mistake. Especially when the Mozart evidence is considered: at one stage Xander boorishly interrupts his boss (Samuel L Jackson) enjoying a performance of the Prague-premiered Don Giovanni. The two arias we hear are (1) the lament of a woman stuck, like Yelena, in a dangerous, sado-masochistic relationship, and (2) a paean to the unquenchable spirit of rebellion: the spirit to which Xander, and xXx, both so lamely aspire.

20th October, 2002
(seen 4th, Odeon Mansfield)

by Neil Young
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