Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: About a year ago, we singled out some of our favorite unloved summer blockbusters. With the event-movie season upon us again, it’s time for the sequel.
Given the current ubiquity of the Fast & Furious franchise, it seems odd that the first thing producer Neal H. Moritz, director Rob Cohen, and star Vin Diesel did upon finishing the original was launch full-bore into the extreme-sports action gala xXx rather than 2 Fast 2 Furious (or whatever the Diesel-fied version would have been). It’s even odder that everyone at the time thought this was a good idea. The oddest thing of all is that it actually kind of was.
Two central elements, inextricable from xXx’s existence, tie it tightly to the year 2002: It celebrates “extreme” sports as a cultural phenomenon, to the extent of having luminaries like Tony Hawk and Mat Hoffman cameo as themselves (Hawk even serves as Diesel’s getaway driver in one scene); and it was born of the notion that James Bond was moribund. The latter idea led to Doug Liman’s surprisingly excellent The Bourne Identity, which proposed that the “new Bond” should be grounded in more of a sense of naturalism. And it gave the cinema xXx, which proposed that he be not grounded at all and instead snowboard off the Alps in the middle of an avalanche.
Diesel’s Xander “Triple-X” Cage—a tattooed, iconoclastic, secretly conscientious master of every extreme sport on God’s earth—seems like an early draft for what F&F‘s Dominic Toretto evolved into, with his constant defiance of physics and valuation of what is right over what is legal. But Xander is a lot lighter and quippier (“Stop thinking Prague police; start thinking PlayStation. Blow shit up!”), a leading man with no need for comic-relief sidekicks.
Interestingly, Xander Cage’s moral code is so flexible that the early stages of his infiltration into a rogue Russian anarchist group finds him almost entirely siding with their agenda, until head baddie Yorgi (Marton Csokas) commits an act of horrific cruelty that puts an end to the sympathy. It’s at that exact point that xXx is stripped of everything but its action. This would normally not be a bad thing at all, but the action is directed by Rob Cohen.
It may be that one has to have seen xXx when it was released to still enjoy it, so far have we come from its days as a piece of mainstream pop culture. It is not a terribly well- or carefully directed movie. But it’s not without its charms. Asia Argento is far more interesting and a lot more fun than a less-inspired casting choice would have been, while Samuel L. Jackson kicking off monologues with lines like “You ever see lions at the zoo?” is always top entertainment value. And Vin Diesel, as we knew then and now know again, is a fantastically charismatic lead. If nothing else, xXx is something you can throw on to tell your kids, “This is what the summer of 2002 looked like.” Blockbusters should be time capsules.
Availability: xXx is available on Blu-ray and DVD from Amazon and possibly your local video store/library. It’s also currently streaming on Netflix, and can be rented or purchased from the major digital services.