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‘XXX: Return Of Xander Cage’ review

'xXx: Return of Xander Cage' shifts into high gear as a Fast & Furious spy movie

Of all the film franchises to find their way back to the big screen after a decade, the extreme-sports action series xXx never seemed a likely candidate for resurrection. The initial, 2002 film was a box-office success but a critical flop, and the 2005 sequel – which replaced Vin Diesel with Ice Cube – failed spectacularly on both fronts, seemingly leaving the stylized spy series a two-and-done saga.

And yet, here we are, with xXx: Return of Xander Cage bringing Diesel back for another adventure that’s more like an X Games version of James Bond.

More surprising still is that film does a relatively good job of recapturing the admittedly silly fun that made the first film a success almost 15 years ago.

Directed by DJ Caruso, Return of Xander Cage finds Diesel’s talented, titular adrenaline junkie pulled out of a self-imposed retirement to battle a team of similarly skilled agents led by Rogue One: A Star Wars Story actor Donnie Yen. After the team led by Yen’s character steals a powerful device capable of turning the thousands of satellites orbiting the Earth into devastating weapons, Xander Cage must assemble his own squad of agents with a unique flair for getting the job done.

Fans of the Fast and Furious films will likely feel a healthy dose of deja vu.

Serving as both star and producer on this installment of the franchise, Diesel is clearly hoping to rejuvenate the xXx series in much the same way he did for the Fast and Furious films. Given how dramatically the latter franchise turned its fortunes around after Diesel’s return, the strategy makes sense – and fans of the Fast and Furious films will likely feel a healthy dose of deja vu in Return of Xander Cage.

While 2002’s xXx was essentially a solo film, Return of Xander Cage is a team-building experience. Diesel’s character is the center of gravity for the motley cast of characters – both heroes and villains – and the actor makes it look fairly easy to rein everyone in and make the silliness of what’s going on around him seem natural. It’s a talent that’s served him well in the Fast and Furious films, and the decision to shift the xXx series from a solo story to an ensemble affair in Return of Xander Cage is a good example of knowing what works and sticking with it.

Although Diesel offers up the sort of capable, action-hero performance that’s expected from him at this point, with few surprises, the rest of the cast is a mixed bag.

More: Everything we know about Vin Diesel’s xXx: Return of Xander Cage

Oscar-nominated actress Toni Collette (United States of Tara) chews up each scene as the tough-as-nails CIA agent that brings Xander Cage back into the fold, and is clearly enjoying the opportunity to go all-in on her character – a caricature of secret-hoarding, scheming government spy wranglers typical to these kinds of films. Collette gives the character just the right amount of comical exaggeration to fit in comfortably amid the crazy events transpiring around her.

Like Diesel, Yen provides the sort of reliably exciting performance that emphasizes what he does best: Fast-paced, martial-arts action sequences. A few particular set pieces – including the opening scene – are everything his fans have come to expect from him, and feel like a good fit for the franchise. The same can be said of Ong-bak and Furious 7 actor Tony Jaa, who plays a supporting role in the film but steals the spotlight every time he jumps into action on the screen. The film wisely gives the two veteran martial arts movie stars quite a bit of attention, and they don’t disappoint.

Orange is the New Black actress Ruby Rose also looks surprisingly comfortable as the film’s nimble, trigger-happy sniper, and does an admirable job of holding her own amid all of the action.

That’s not to say that the film isn’t without some disappointments in its team-building efforts, though.

Even when Return of Xander Cage isn’t at its best, it always finds a way to look very, very good.

Pop star Kris Wu never seems comfortable in his poorly defined role, and does little with the on-screen time he’s given in the film. We’re never clear why he’s recruited by Diesel’s character. His only contribution to the team seems to be his ability to amp up a party with his DJ skills. It’s a perfectly fine talent, sure, but it seems out of place – and useless, really – even on such a motley team as the one Xander assembles.

Neither Game of Thrones actor Rory McCann nor Bollywood actress Deepika Padukone really stand out in their roles, either, and it’s easy to forget that mixed martial arts fighter Michael Bisping is even in the movie, despite playing one of Yen’s primary team members.

In casting a long list of sports and entertainment celebrities from around the world in both cameo and supporting roles, Return of Xander Cage also feels too desperate on far too many occasions.

Brazilian soccer star Neymar is shoe-horned into the story in a pair of scenes that feel completely incongruous to the rest of the film and unnecessary, for example, while former NFL player Tony Gonzalez and Miss Universe runner-up Ariadna Gutiérrez are among the countless athletes, pop stars, models, and other celebrities who appear in the film at various points. The effect of seeing so many celebrities crammed into the film creates the feeling of pop-culture product placement, and distracts from what the movie does well.

XXX Return Of Xander Cage review

Despite all of these strategic efforts to expand the film’s audience with an international cast and actors pulled from outside Hollywood, Return of Xander Cage still isn’t a movie for everyone, though.

Much like the Fast and Furious films, Return of Xander Cage offers the sort of escapist fun that prioritizes spectacle and style with physics-defying action sequences and makes every moment look as epic and glossy as possible.

On the flip side, there are also more than a few groan-worthy moments – often involving the aforementioned celebrity cameos – that feel like wasted screen time, and feel particularly out of place in a movie that relies so heavily on high-adrenaline action.

Fortunately, the good outweighs the bad in Return of Xander Cage, and despite having all of the usual shortcomings of a flashy, popcorn action movie – as well as a few extra problems stemming from all the cameos and celebrity casting – the film manages to offer a satisfying, entertaining adventure. Like its title character, even when Return of Xander Cage isn’t at its best, it always finds a way to make what’s happening on the screen look very, very good.