xXx: State of the Union (2005) 
Theatrical Movie Reviews Theatrical
Written by Bill Warren   
Friday, 29 April 2005

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A couple of years ago, “xXx” was released with great fanfare: here was a James Bond for the new millennium! Vin Diesel starred as a counter-culture sorehead who’s an expert on X-treme sports of all kinds. James Bond was (and is) a representative of his country’s conservative class; xXx was a hero for disgruntled teenagers, full of sneering attitude and contempt for most others.

Diesel’s gone—evidently he wanted too much money—so instead of a series about a hero (more like an anti-hero), the xXx movies will be about a succession of rebellious tough guys who are somehow coerced into working for the good of their country. It’s a sassy but limited approach; only two movies in and the concept is starting to show a little strain—even though this is a considerably better movie than the first one.

Not that we’re talking “Goldfinger,” here, despite having a 007 veteran, Lee Tamahori, as director. He keeps things moving mostly at a blinding pace, although whenever there’s a dialogue scene—which is rare—everything slams to a halt and we wait impatiently for the next explosion, which is not long in coming. Instead of true outsider Xander Cage, Diesel’s character in “xXx,” we’re given Darius Stone (Ice Cube), always a staunch defender of his country until he was betrayed by the leader of his insurgency team. Stone shows a bunch of attitude, yes, and ends up with the xXx tattoo on the back of his neck, but he’s more of an insider from the git go than Cage was even at the end of his movie. (His death is brusquely announced in this one.)

As the movie opens, the underground headquarters of the covert xXx division of the National Security Agency is attacked by mysterious warriors who employ a vastly advanced surveillance device, something like a flying buzz saw with eyes. (That this technology is so incredibly advanced is loudly announced—and then completely forgotten.) Among the few to escape are division leader Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson) and gadgetry expert Toby (Michael Roof), both returning from the first movie.

Gibbons instantly realizes he needs a new xXx agent, someone with great skills who can swiftly go deep under cover. What with Case dead, he decides he needs someone with even more attitude; we’re supposed to regard Darius Stone as the ideal agent. But he’s in prison, a result of his betrayal on the front lines. Posing as Stone’s lawyer, Gibbons visits the prison and sets up a spectacular escape by Stone which climaxes with his daring leap off a roof to catch a helicopter he couldn’t have been certain would be there.

George Deckert (Willem Dafoe), the guy who betrayed Stone, is now Secretary of State to President Sanford (Peter Strauss). There’s something about Deckert’s strongly disapproving an element of the President’s upcoming State of the Union speech; he sees it as capitulation to the world’s bad guys. (Just what it means is kept murky; there’s no hint as to whether this President is right or left of center, or squarely in the middle.) So he’s planning a murderous coup. Not for him a bloodless political takeover; he has what amounts to his own private army assembling on an aircraft carrier.

Once out of prison, Stone immediately takes care of his most pressing needs: he wolfs down a burger, shake and fries. He also looks up Lola (Nona M. Gaye), an old flame who now deals in outrageously expensive cars—she used to run a chop shop. He also meets big-time gangster Zeke (Xxibit), an old friend. Things get complicated pretty fast, with Deckert’s apparent murder of Gibbons, the introduction of sultry blonde baddie Charlie (Sunny Mabrey) and her attempts on Darius, who’s framed for the murder of a congressman. Agent Kyle Steele (Scott Speedman) becomes involved when he comes to suspect that Gibbons and Darius are right about Deckert.

But what am I saying? The movie is about velocity, fast cars, big guns, lots of explosions, heroes with attitude, lots of explosions and the destruction of big chunks of weaponry. Darius, a former Navy SEAL, is so adept at tank operation that he can actually DODGE shells fired at the one he’s piloting. Ice Cube swims, runs and leaps while frowning a lot. Good thing, because he actually has a kind of baby face; when he smiles, he looks sweet and likeable, not menacing (probably why he retains the beard and goatee).

It’s only April, and here we have the first of the big summer action movies. It’s as crudely plotted as most of them—everything the heroes need to know they learn, all their opponents underestimate them, all of them are skilled with whatever weapon they pick up. They get to drive big cars and other things—Jackson has a swell maroon GTO—and they are blasted into rivers, take over speeding bullet trains and carry on like figures in a video game. Occasionally there are real eye-poppers: Speedman is lowered from a zooming helicopter to the bullet train below, both going 200 mph. Yeah, it’s video-assisted, but this shot is so brassily conceived that it actually got a vocal “wow” from me. There’s a lot of that kind of stuff here.

Not much plot, though. The bad guys are really bad, but they’re only bad, nothing else—we don’t know why Deckert has chosen this extreme (or X-treme) attempt on the Presidency; we know almost nothing about everyone. We do know that Deckert is so ruthless that he can knock over an expensive chess set and walk away. But we don’t know why he tells a subordinate to kill a captive—when we later learn that he always intended to keep that captive alive. Evidently the flying eye was the only piece of really swell technology the bad guys had; the rest of the time they have to make do with standard action-movie weaponry.

Mabrey isn’t bad as the duplicitous blonde, and Gaye is luscious as the sexy car dealer. But the movie has its mind, if that’s the right word, elsewhere; Ice Cube gets to kiss Gaye just once, right before the end credits roll. The movie is really about velocity and explosions, and it does that kind of stuff very well. Ice Cube is a somewhat eccentric choice for the role; he’s rarely exhibited much attitude in his movie roles (that’s back with his rapper career), and in fact is generally in family-friendly comedies. But he’s acceptable; he knows how to look tough, and apparently is in good enough shape to do a lot of running and jumping and swimming and stuff.

Sam Jackson isn’t on screen very much, which is a shame; he does attitude better than Ice Cube does. Toby is intended to be the standard gadget-obsessed sidekick to the hero, but though the dialogue here is about right, Michael Roof isn’t charming and quirky; should have been Giovanni Ribisi or Steve Zahn. Dafoe was a heck of a lot more interesting in such divergent movies as “Shadow of the Vampire” and “Spider-Man;” here he’s just annoyed.

It’s a moderately entertaining movie, but it does leave one wondering where the xXx series is headed. Vin Diesel’s character was much more of an outsider than Ice Cube’s; despite Jackson’s claims, Ice Cube has less, not more, attitude than Diesel. Are we seeing the James Bondization of what was intended to be the anti-007 series? Will he soon habitually wear tuxedos (Ice Cube wears one here), prefer vodka martinis and drive Aston-Martins? Come on, xXx-ers; make the guy REALLY cranky next time around. But don’t forget the explosions.

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