In case you didn't happen to read the tagline on the ubiquitous poster, Xander Cage, also known as XXX because he's tattooed his first initial three times on the back of his neck, is "a new breed of secret agent." The old breed, we learn pretty quickly, is Bond, James Bond, but to avoid copyright infringement, the name of the tuxedoed superspy we see during the movie's opening credits is never spoken. All we know is that he has some sort of valuable microchip and has chosen to make his escape from the bad guys in the midst of a Rammstein concert. Quickly offed, he's left to be tossed around in the mosh pit. This ain't your daddy's spy movie.
Only it is, in a way. What's most astonishing about XXX is how slavishly, almost to the point of parody, it replicates the James Bond formula, making changes only where necessary to replace outdated stereotypes. Cage, played by designated Next Action Hero Vin Diesel, may be a tattooed badass who films illegal extreme stunts for Internet rebroadcast, but once recruited, he still has to have drinks with megalomaniacal bad guys, find their secret lairs (complete with underground weapons laboratory) and turn their girlfriends against them by being so damn suave. The vodka martinis may be replaced by cranberry and club soda, the smoking is now a point of ridicule and our hero can quote Vandals lyrics, but he's still cocky enough to use his real name while undercover and seduce women in PG style (fade out after the first kiss), and he even has his own personal Q, who is a computer geek (Michael Roof) vicariously living through XXX.
Even the film's end credits feature gratuitous CGI that plays like a parody of the Bond films' opening visuals of chicks and guns. And, yes, Cage does get to use a parachute colored in stars and stripes. Heck, even the film's title comes from Bond: "XXX" was the codename for Barbara Bach's KGB agent Amasova in The Spy Who Loved Me.
The big difference is that the recent Bond movies have been too long trapped in a rut of stodgy and outdated formula the producers can't or won't change, and with no remaining Ian Fleming stories to translate to screen. The concept needed shaking up, and putting a tattooed wiseass in there is as good a way as any. Plus Asia Argento (B. Monkey) is way too cool to be a Bond girl, but she fits in here just fine. Cage is also too cool to make bad puns; besides, Schwarzenegger claimed that crown from Bond a while back. Cage's lines go from cool nihilism--"If you're gonna send someone to save the world, make sure they like it the way it is!"--to pseudo Butt-head-isms: Confronted by a vicious Danny Trejo commanding him to talk, Cage responds, "Uhhh...OK. You're short?"
Which isn't to say that XXX is the savior of spy movies, at least not yet. This vehicle's still a little shaky. Vin Diesel is a good lead and has proven acting ability in non-shoot-'em-up films (see him in Boiler Room, or hear him in The Iron Giant), and as his scar-faced boss, Samuel L. Jackson makes the perfect anti-mentor, explaining his facial wound as "a small price to pay for putting foot to ass for my country." It's unfortunate that the story's a little nebulous, with belated explanations flying too fast and thick toward the end (screenwriter Rich Wilkes is responsible for such gems as The Jerky Boys and The Stoned Age). Why exactly does evil Russian Yorgi (Marton Csokas, best known as the elf Celeborn in Lord of the Rings) want to carry out his master plan of mass destruction? Ummm...because he didn't like being in the Russian army. Was he abused in the army? Did they force him to stay? Nope. He just quit because they didn't share his values, one of which appears to be anarchy, something you can't imagine him ever expecting to find in the army in the first place.
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What the movie may lack in story, however, it makes up for in sheer volume. Director Rob Cohen, who arguably made Diesel a star with The Fast and the Furious, doesn't hit a home run on every action sequence--an early bit set in Colombia is too long and too disjointed--but there are one or two bits in the movie's latter third that are guaranteed to hook action fans. Cohen also scores with some wonderful surreal humor early on (watch for the diner scene), though he loses points for shooting in Prague, which has already been the setting of every other international crisis movie this year. XXX still isn't the best Vin Diesel action movie to date (that'd be Pitch Black), but as the start of an inevitable franchise, it shows potential. Let's face it, even Vin's fake tats have more charisma than Pierce Brosnan.