xXx: The Return Of Xander Cage Review

The first xXx came out back in 2002. I vaguely remember it; explosions, stunts and Vin Diesel in a fantastic fur coat. I know even less about the sequel xXx: State of The Union, save for that Xander Cage (Vin Diesel’s character) had apparently been killed off so instead Ice Cube was brought in to fill the gap. Now, fifteen years after he first starred in the role, Vin Diesel comes back for more extreme stunts.

xXx: The Return Of Xander Cage stars Vin Diesel, Donnie Yen, Tony Jaa, Deepika Padukone, Ruby Rose and Samuel L. Jackson and is directed by D.J. Caruso. The film follows extreme sports star Xander Cage (Diesel) as he is brought out of the retirement by the CIA to stop a rogue faction from destroying the world.

I’ve given the most blandest of synopsis I can because this a film without a story. Oh sure, there is a lot of nonsense about crashing satellites and covert-government types, all interchangeable and doesn’t do much apart from set up to some crazy stunts. And really, I’m okay with that. So many films nowadays take themselves too seriously, it’s good now and again for a film that just leans right into the madness and has some fun to it.

Vin Diesel does his usual grumble-mumble and cute one-liners, no different from the fifty other Vin Diesel roles he has. It’s the newcomers that are the most interesting characters. Ruby Rose gets to show off her action chops while flipping the table of what an “action heroine” should be, Donnie Yen get’s to kick ass in his style but has an actual backstory and motivations, Deepika Padukone is a freedom fighter who is conflicted over how to achieve liberty, this is all cool stuff in an industry that just labels characters as “the Asian One”, “The Girl” and “The Other Girl.” Granted, the other actors; Tony Jaa, Rory McCann, Kris Wu and Michael Bisping don’t have much to them apart from a name and a one-line backstory, but it’s still an improvement over Hollywood.

The other major point I want to show off is how diverse the cast is. It’s cool to see these big actors from Chinese, Thai and Indian cinema get some major roles and screen time in an American blockbuster.

I was drawn to xXx 3 because I was promised action, and damn if it isn’t filled to brim with stunts. While there is noticeable instances of green screen, most of the action seems to be done for real. Even with the use of handheld cam, the action is bone-crunching and visceral. This is why you get Donnie Yen and Tony Jaa in; these guys know how to fight, how to pull off stunts and make it look good. The plot enables these top notch performers to just let loose, with Jaa having an excellent parkour-infused chase on a freeway, while Yen get’s to show off his martial arts in a six-on-one fight in the finale. The finale ratchets up the ridiculous to eleven, with zero-gravity plane rides and robot boxing gloves, but is it still filmed relatively well, not obscuring any of the over-the-top action.

The film has downsides. I’ve talked about the plot, it has so many holes and loops that there is no point trying to figure out how and why things happen. This is one of those “plot armour” situations, just go with it. The film does start pretty slow with at least an hour before it becomes a full-on action fest, with only minor action sequences to tide us over. Also, near the beginning of the film there are so many navel shots and full-body pans, it’s just tasteless. Refreshingly the main female characters aren’t sexualised in any way, but there is still a romance sub-plot that comes out of nowhere.

In the end, I left xXx: The Return Of Xander Cage with a huge grin on my face. For those looking for some good action and fun characters, but zero plot, this is one for you. I wouldn’t mind seeing this one again.

Score: 7/10 Over-the-top fun for the action fans.

Straight Outta Compton Review

Every year there is at least one musical biopic. We’ve already had one in 2015, with The Beach Boys film Love and Mercy. Rappers and rap groups have not been focused on as much though, with only a few exceptions such as 8 Mile, The Notorious B.I.G. and Get Rich Or Die Trying. Does the new rap film, Straight Outta Compton pave the way for more rap biopics?

Straight Outta Compton stars O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell and Paul Giamatti and is directed by F. Gary Gray. The film follows the formation of the rap super-group N.W.A., and follows it’s members Ice Cube (Jackson Jr.), Dr. Dre (Hawkins) and Eazy-E (Mitchell) during the 1980s and 90s.

The story starts by introducing our three main protagonists, with a small, handwritten scrawl appearing somewhere on the screen, telling us who they are, along with their alias. The film introduces most of the main characters this way; it’s a nice little feature that gives the film a little bit of personality itself.

The acting by all is well done. Jackson, Hawkins and Mitchell, along with the other members of N.W.A., MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Drown Jr.) all portray their respective characters effectively, each with their own traits and flaws. All should be praised for how they throw themselves into the performances on stage during the first half of the film and then for some emotionally charged scenes near the end of the film.

To go back to the on stage musical performances, I honestly couldn’t tell you whether the actors are rapping themselves or just lip-syncing to the actual tracks, but that doesn’t matter. The actors sell the idea perfectly that these guys are passionate musicians who want to express themselves in the way they know how. This is where the film shines, when we see the passion fuelling Dr. Dre, Ice Cube and Eazy-E to create their next big hit. I found it extremely hard to not get caught up in the beat of the songs shown in a montage of the N.W.A. Tour, making me either constantly tap my foot or mouth the words along to some of the N.W.A. songs that I know.

However, these scenes, of Ice Cube riding the school bus writing down lyrics or Dr. Dre listening to his favourite albums are confined to the first half of the film, with the second half focusing more on the feuding between the different band members and socio-factors that were happening at the time. This divide in the film is the main problem I had with Straight Outta Compton, as the film loses some of the sparkle that the first half had. The constant movement between the sun-drenched pool parties to the studio boardroom arguments back to the pool parties again just isn’t as engaging to watch as the young rappers working together to create some amazing songs.

The film also feels a little disjointed, with some powerful emotional scenes ending and then the main cast returning to a composed state. It might be due to the editing, where these scenes are pushed together to seem like they are happening on the same day, but it just feels a bit off kilter. The length of the film is also a problem. Straight Outta Compton is the better part of two and a half hours, and with that divide I mentioned earlier, it feel a lot longer than it actually was. What seems strange is that there are scenes in the trailer that don’t appear at all in the film. It feels as if the film had been a lot longer before being cut to make it more manageable. This could be the reason why a few of the aforementioned scenes feel disjointed, along with the ending feeling like it abruptly cuts off, instead leaving us with an epilogue of archive footage of the real members of N.W.A. and the artists and rappers that cite them as an influence.

In summary, Straight Outta Compton is a well-made biopic, with a stellar cast and a killer soundtrack. If you’re a fan of rap music then I fully recommend it.

Score: 7/10 A brilliant insight into one of the most influential musical groups of recent time.