Monday, January 13, 2014

XXX (2002)

R.I.P. 007
Director: Rob Cohen
Starring: Vin Diesel, Samuel L. Jackson, Asia Argento, Marton Csokas, Eve
Length: 2 hours 3 minutes
Rated: PG-13

In the opening scene of Rob Cohen's XXX, an American secret agent in Prague captures a secret computer chip from a terrorist. As more terrorists pursue him, the agent strips off his black coveralls to reveal a tuxedo. He slips in a nightclub to elude the enemy. Unfortunately for the poor sap, he runs into a Goth club where the band Rammstein is whipping the crowd into frenzy. The elegantly dressed agent sticks out like the hairy wart on grandma's nose. The dapper agent is shot in the back. This scene is Columbia's way of raising their middle finger toward MGM's reliable James Bond franchise. XXX takes the tried-and-true plot devices of the 007 series and injects a Gen X vitality into them. Ian Fleming's novels have been replaced with a "graphic novel" mentality. XXX should have the folks at MGM worried because this film out Bonds Bond with thrilling, non-stop action, great stunts, worldwide locations and some very funny dialogue. While there are certain events that defy the laws of physics and logic, they can be overlooked. XXX reinvigorates the spy film genre with a swift kick in the ass.

XXX should mean big things for star Vin Diesel. Who knew the guy was funny!?! He has proven that he can handle the physical stuff. In The Fast and the Furious he showed some emotional range. He has always had a dangerous edge to him. Never before (on film) has he shown that he had a sense of humor. In XXX, director Rob Cohen, writer Randy Wilkes and executive producer/star Vin Diesel have conspired to create a comic book action hero for the new millennium. If these guys play their cards right, 007 will go the way of the dinosaurs. We might be witnessing the beginning of a new movie franchise!

Xander Cage (Vin Diesel) is an extreme sport iconoclast. He savors freedom. He sports a 'Triple X' tattoo on the back of his neck. Cage, or X to his friends, is introduced in a high octane scene in which he poses as a valet parking attendant in order to steal the car of a super conservative California state senator. X speeds off in the corvette. His team of anarchists meets him. They load the 'vette with digital cameras, and X leads the police on a wild chase. X talks into the camera as he drives. He berates "Dick," the state senator, for being a dick. "Dick doesn't like skateboards, video games and sex (unless it is in the missionary position and the woman doesn't enjoy it)." X then drives the 'vette off of a high bridge and parachutes from the convertible mid-air in what has to be the most extreme case of base-jumping ever. X's exploits are broadcast over the Internet by his sexy manager, played by rap singer Eve. X is a hero to disenfranchised youth and rebels worldwide.

In a secret NSA bunker in West Virginia, the powers that be are worried about a group of former Soviet soldiers in Prague. The group calls themselves "Anarchy 99." The unfortunate agent killed in the opening reel was the third spy killed trying to find out what this group is up to. Before his death, the agent was able to send some of the information he uncovered. It seems that Anarchy 99 has the formula to some very nasty biological weapons. Agent Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson) is a bit of a renegade at NSA. He proposes that the NSA capture a group of American criminals who fit the same profile as the terrorists and see if one can be trained to infiltrate the group. Take a leap of faith if you will and overlook this absurdity. X is one of many athletic, tattooed, risk-taking badguys who are rounded up. X alone passes several dangerous tests that agent Gibbons has in store for him. Once Gibbons is convinced that X is his man, he makes X an offer he can't refuse. Work for NSA or life without parole for his third felony. Either get on the plane to Prague or "three strikes and your out." X makes the right decision.

Once in Prague, X worms his way into the group lead by Yorgi (Marton Csokas). X works his way into the group and discovers their evil plot. He also develops the hots for Yorgi̢۪s girl Yelena (Asia Argento, daughter of Italian horror director Dario Argento). I'll say no more other than to warn you to strap yourself in for the thrill ride of a lifetime.

Writer Rich Wilkes has obviously studied the Bond films. He also seems to have a feel for the attitudes of those who question authority. Agent Gibbons has a massive scar on one side of his face. X tells him sarcastically that he hopes the Stars and Stripes give him comfort every time he looks in the mirror. Gibbons, a true believer, says it's a "small price to pay for defending the freedoms you enjoy." Wilkes doesn't make X a true believer. X is a reluctant hero. He takes the job because he has no choice and because he loves life on the edge. Only when the enormity of Yorgi's evil plot is revealed does X begin to question his own anarchistic traits. At one point Gibbons tells X to abort the mission. Of course, X continues anyway. Later Gibbons says "I'm the authority figure. I tell you not to do something, you're going to do it!" This thread in Wilkes' script gives XXX the boost needed to become a major hit of the summer and possibly many summers to follow.

The cast does a fine job bringing the story to life. XXX is smart in that the characters aren't lost amidst the massive explosions, shootouts and avalanches that rock the movie. Vin Diesel puts himself on the A-list with this one. Asia Argento may break out of her status as cult movie goddess and find mainstream, international success. Marton Csokas is dark and sexy. His Yorgi is a compelling megalomaniac. Only Samuel L. Jackson's character seems two-dimensional. Gibbons is a company man, not afraid to break the rules if it helps the team win. He is gung-ho in an Oliver North kind of way. XXX has its own version of Bond gadget guy Q - in this case a nerdy MIT graduate. He delivers a whole slew of goodies to X in Prague. When he finds out that X has only been with the company a week he says "That sucks! I've been stuck in a basement lab with no windows for six years!" He is kind of a Jimmy Olsen with guns instead of a camera.

I remember several episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies in which Jethro wanted to be a "double-aught spy." Compared to the James Bond of that time, Jethro seemed silly and inept. Now that X is in town, the suave Mr. Bond too looks like just another "double-aught" spy.