XXX

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XXX

XXX wants to be a spy film for the next generation, and it wastes no time making this clear with an opening scene that assassinates a tuxedo-clad secret agent and sends his body to surf the waves of a Rammstein concert. What follows has more than a whiff of pandering, although that odor tends to get buried beneath the scent of gunpowder and gasoline. The kids love extreme sports, the logic goes, so why not make a hero out of an "action sports" hero? Fortunately, the role has fallen to the charismatic Vin Diesel, who in the past few years has assumed the thinking-person's-action-hero mantle previously worn by Mel Gibson and Bruce Willis. Not that XXX requires much thought. First seen stealing a censorious senator's Corvette to videotape a destructive stunt for his underground web site, Diesel soon finds himself unwillingly enlisted as a potential agent for a top-secret government agency overseen by a scarred Samuel L. Jackson, who seeks "the best and brightest of the bottom of the barrel." After passing a series of tests, one of which involves a sideways trip through a barbed-wire fence on a motorcycle, Diesel becomes an agent in exchange for a promise of amnesty that will remove his exxxtreme crimes from the record. Next he's off to Prague, the site of so much recent cinematic espionage, to infiltrate Anarchy 99, a government-hating terrorist group seeking to unleash a biological weapon on the cities of Europe. At that point, XXX pretty much abandons its attempts to avoid the familiar. Soon, it's Bond-esque gadgets and stunts galore, as Diesel takes on the terrorists while trying to rescue moll/mole Asia Argento, whose performance suggests she spent the shoot enjoying a joke not shared by anyone else involved. Rob Cohen directs, and as with last year's Diesel vehicle The Fast And The Furious, he strives to make the action look concrete, at a time when digital effects have drained the sense of danger from many action movies. He succeeds less often here than before, but the effort still pays off enough of the time to make a difference. Diesel clearly has fun playing a character so bullish that his skin seems to be made of leather, and he's self-conscious enough to pull it off even after the film surrenders to formula (and even in scenes that strain to connect his anarchic past with his nihilistic new acquaintances). Memorably staged explosions and all, this big, busy Mountain Dew ad of a movie wouldn't stand a chance without him.