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XXX: State of the Union Movie Review

originally posted many years ago

Three years ago, a fifteen-year-old critic praised Rob Cohen's XXX as one of the best action films of the new millennium. The older critics almost unanimously disagreed with him ("mediocre," they said, as they always do), but the boy couldn't see where they were coming from. After all, XXX was fast, grand entertainment with a James Bond spirit and enough energy, inventive tricks, and persistence to thrill any audience (or, at least, a boy of fifteen). The fact that it also had the magnetic Vin Diesel as its star and the talented action director Rob Cohen (who is perhaps too good for the genre of film he typically dwells in) at its helm sealed the deal for the young critic-XXX was the unbeatable good time at the movies in 2002.

Three years later, the boy critic is eighteen and has just seen XXX's inevitable sequel, XXX: State of the Union, a considerably weaker film that has me sounding like the older critics I once challenged. I look at this sequel, directed by Die Another Day front man Lee Tamahori, and I have to say "mediocre," as I often have to these days. I have to look the explosions, the shootouts and the espionage of this film and frown about how less fun XXX has become. It's not even close to the giddy good time I had in 2002. Which leads me asking my inner fifteen-year-old, "What was so great about the first XXX that isn't here this time?" Luckily, the answer is simple-XXX was not a sequel, but a sublime homage to action movies of the past, beguiling itself and us with the memory of 007's ski-slope battles and Indiana Jones' Venice boat chase. It wasn't living up to a standard, or even aiming to be a blockbuster, really-it was more like a curious little boy innocently trying to emulate his adventurous father. XXX: State of the Union, on the other hand, is a sequel and nothing more. Its ballistics have lost their punch, and its eye has lost its twinkle.

Two things have changed since the original XXX-we now have a new director and a new star. Rob Cohen (who remains a producer) gave his seat to the lazy Tamahori, and Vin Diesel's secret-agent-to-the-extreme, Xander Cage, aka XXX, has been killed off. Right from the beginning, we realize what a void Diesel's absence leaves-he really was the perfect actor for this part. The other characters tell us in passing that the old XXX died in Bora Bora ("Bora Bora? Why can't I get that kind of assignment?" another agent disrespectfully scoffs), and that Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson), leader of a secret chapter of the armed forces, is scouting for a new XXX agent. Gibbons discusses the selection process with his gizmo guy Toby (Michael Roof) in the same way that State of the Union's casting directors must've discussed Vin Diesel's replacement. "We need to go off the grid this time," says Gibbons, "not with some skater or biker. The new XXX needs to have more attitude." "More attitude?" Toby asks, so perfectly the straight man. "Yes," we say to Toby. "Give us more attitude."

And we get it. The filmmakers give us Ice Cube, who certainly has the attitude to fill Diesel's shoes. He plays Darius Stone, a former Navy Seal who's now on lockdown after leading a mutiny against the current Secretary of Defense, George Deckert (Willem Dafoe). Gibbons, who was part of the mutiny (yet escaped without any jail time), breaks Darius out of the clink in a sequence on par with the best action scenes in the first movie, and takes him back to home base. It's here we realize the extent of Darius' attitude. He tells Gibbons that he don't take no orders from nobody, and that if he's the new XXX, Gibbons has to play by his rules, dammit. Ooooo. This is gonna be good.

But, no, it turns out to be bad. Turns out, Lee Tamahori can't rear his star in the right direction, and the potential for a good pedal-to-the-floor action film is wasted. Ice Cube, a talented man no matter how you cast him, seems lost. His comic timing is off, and his gritty, tough guy mug feels forced. When XXX dives headlong into an impossible action stunt, it's never the same rush as when Diesel did it. When XXX commandeers a small boat, guns it down the Potomac River, launches it off some convenient ramp and onto a busy bridge, smashes it into a cop car pulled over on the shoulder, and abandons it for a half-million dollar car waiting there for him, we are unimpressed.

We realize that while Ice Cube may have attitude out the wazoo, XXX: State of the Union has all the attitude of a dead fish. There's no swagger to this picture, and no real sense of fun. It's just kind of going through the motions, creating potentially great action sequences and then filming them without so much as a shrug. I'd expect this from some disposable picture like Sahara. It's sad to see it happen to XXX.

There's a plot here too, but what's it to you? Willem Dafoe plays a conniving Defense Secretary who plans to kill the President (Peter Strauss), and Ice Cube has to stop him. Along the way, XXX meets a pretty white lady who's bad (Sunny Maybrey), a pretty black lady who's good (Nona M. Gaye), an NSA agent (Scott Speedman) who collaborates with XXX, and rapper Xzibit shows up to pimp XXX's ride, so to speak. And, wading through this muck, the only good thing that comes our way is an occasional square-off between Willem Dafoe and Ice Cube, a confrontation I never thought I'd see, but one that I'm glad I saw. Cube (does that qualify as a last name?) and Dafoe are both great actors working on entirely different wavelengths, and, scientifically speaking, when they meet up the interference is constructive. No boat chase could spark the energy Cube and Dafoe manage to muster.

The other actors are far less successful. Samuel L. Jackson gets to do nothing more than cash another paycheck, Scott Speedman is the acting equivalent of Nyquil, and Peter Strauss is almost unbearable as the President. In fact, when we learn that Willem Dafoe's character wants to kill Peter Strauss and become President, I caught myself thinking it might be a good idea. As long as Ice Cube is his VP.

The ending of XXX: State of the Union tells us that Ice Cube won't get to reprise his role in the inevitable third installment. Which means that the XXX franchise, provided it lasts, will have a new star every time. Which means we won't have Ice Cube to lean on next time. Which means I'll be staying at home next time, watching the original XXX, remembering my inner fifteen-year-old, and crying a little inside.

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