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’s got 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.

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The Last Witch Hunter Review

Actor pet project films are always interesting to watch. Vin Diesel, being a large Dungeons and Dragons player, talked with screen-writers to try and get a big-budget adaptation of his favourite past-time into theatres, and finally, after three years, they made it. Does Diesel’s passion for table-top role playing games come through in the film?

The Last Witch Hunter stars Vin Diesel, Rose Leslie, Elijah Wood and Michael Caine and is directed by Breck Eisner. the story follows Kaulder (Diesel) an immortal witch hunter who works for the secret society The Axe and Cross, to defend the human world against those in the Witching World who would attempt to destroy it.

The film starts with a very Dungeons and Dragons style battle set in the Dark Ages, as Kaulder and other hunters attempt to rid the world of the Witch Queen. It’s a fun opening, full of swords, bows and arrows and magic spells and it also shows us what Vin Diesel looks like with a full head of hair. This Dark Ages setting though is soon dropped, with the Witch Queen’s apparent death and Kaulder being cursed with immortality, so the film transports us to modern day New York, where Kaulder is still fighting to keep the worlds of witches and humans separate. It’s similar to Men In Black or R.I.P.D. in terms of a two-world story but it never comes anywhere close to being as good as those two.

The acting is really quite poor. Vin Diesel is playing the same character as always, but the main problem is that he seems to be trying to blend all his words together. It sounds like he’s gargling gravel, without hardly any sounds being recognisable as words. Michael Caine and Elijah Wood seem to be retreading their roles of Alfred and Frodo from Batman and LOTR respectively, but both look bored to be in The Last Witch Hunter. Caine especially, who speaks in a monotone voice and doesn’t change his facial expression once in the film.

The story, despite a few good moments of lore-building, is very undercooked. Even with all the lore that the story tries to cram into the film, none of its engaging. I fell asleep for a good five minutes in the middle of the film and when I woke up I didn’t care if I had missed anything important. The problem I can trace it all back to is Vin Diesel’s character Kaulder being an immortal warrior. The film tries to play Kaulder off as the best fighter in the world (much like another Vin Diesel character, Riddick), but that doesn’t make him empathetic.

The best heroes are ones where we can see they are in peril. Characters like John McClane (except in Die Hard 5) or any one of Jackie Chan’s characters, we empathise with them because we can sense the danger they are in. Even Wolverine in the X-Men series, despite being immortal there is always at least one character who can best him in each film. Kaulder on the other hand, is always on top of the situation and never seems to have any trouble taking down wave after wave of enemies. Even though the film tries to de-power him in the final act, the stakes never feel high enough that we think Kaulder will lose.

All in all, The Last Witch Hunter had the crux of a good, if overused idea at its heart. But a weak script, abysmal acting and an un-sympathetic main character make it one of the most boring to watch. I would give the film a lower score, but it doesn’t actively offend me. It’s just tedious.

Score: 2/10 Vin Diesel can do better than this.