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January 24th, 2017

XXX: RETURN OF XANDER CAGE (2017) ** ½

Well, it only took fifteen years, but Xander Cage (Vin Diesel) is finally back. That’s right, the extreme sports star-turned-secret agent returns to save the world. After the death of his mentor (Samuel L. Jackson), Cage builds an extreme team of XXX agents to take down a former agent (Donnie Yen) who is possession of “Pandora’s Box”, a computer program that can down satellites, effectively turning them into weapons.

With XXX: Return of Xander Cage, Vin Diesel tries yet again to reignite a franchise that floundered in his absence. As with Fast and Furious, it’s a near-miss, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction. Another thing that it has in common with Fast and Furious: The set-up to the next movie feels more promising than what is actually on screen.

I wasn’t much of a fan of the original XXX because I felt all the “extreme sports” nonsense was inane. (Although I have to admit that any movie in which the hero and the villain bond just because they can quote Vandals lyrics is kind of funny.) Thankfully, in this one, they drop the “extreme sports” angle pretty quickly. Diesel still skateboards and shit, but a lot of the sports-themed stuff is enjoyably dumb. I liked the scene where Diesel proved you don't need snow in order to ski down a mountain and the scene in which he rides a wave using a motorcycle is one of the most cheerfully over-the-top moments in action cinema since The Transporter 2.

The other action sequences are hit-and-miss. The freeway chase, in which Diesel and Yen bounce off speeding cars like pinballs, starts off well enough, but it’s ultimately too similar to the foot chase in Captain America: Civil War to pack much of a punch. We also get a zero-gravity fight sequence that brims with promise, although the editing sort of gets in the way of it achieving its maximum potential.

The editing, while certainly better than many recent action films does botch a couple of action beats that should’ve been badass moments. I mean when Vin Diesel bitch-slaps a bad buy with a motorcycle, it should be cause for celebration. However, the way it’s framed and edited makes it hard to tell exactly what happened.

All of this is, I should point out, is fitfully amusing. While it lacks the fun of XXX 2, it isn't nearly as dumb as the first one. Well, let me rephrase that. At least this one knows it’s dumb, embraces its dumbness, and goes full-throttle with it.

Case in point, the part where Diesel promises to kill a henchman in an outlandish and specific way in the second act, and then goes on to follow through with his promise during the climax. This is fast-becoming one of my new favorite action movie clichés (See also: Jack Reacher: Never Go Back), but they really upped the ante this time out. In this one, Diesel vows to flush a henchman down a toilet. True to his word, in the third act, while fighting in a bathroom on a plane that is hurtling toward the earth, Vin shoots a hole in the toilet. This causes the bad guy to get sucked into the vacuum and go flying out of the plane. To really shine the guy on, Vin quips, “It took two flushes!”

It’s truly a glorious moment in the history of motion pictures.

Vin gives you just about what you expect. He delivers his lines in the same manner you’d expect him to while pulling off the action with his trademark swagger. I don’t know why he waited fifteen years to come back to the franchise, but this is proof that with a competent director and a fun script, he can command the screen with charisma to spare.

The supporting cast is a lot of fun. Yen in particular is great and gets more moments to shine than he did in Rogue One. Toni Collette, who looks like the heavily Botoxed, indifferently embalmed corpse of Tilda Swinton, is good for a laugh as XXX’s new boss. Nina (Never Cry Werewolf) Dobrev is freaking adorable as XXX’s computer techie. She throws herself into the action with gusto and is super sexy when casually tossing out her safe word. (To which Diesel replies, “With me, nothing is safe!”) If there is a great takeaway from this flick, it’s that Dobrev is a goddamned movie star.

The bad news is that the incredible Tony Jaa (who also co-starred with Diesel in Furious 7) is pretty much wasted in a nothing role as one of Yen’s henchmen. Much to my chagrin, they only give him one (ONE) scene where he takes out someone with his lethal kneecaps. To make matters worse, he’s also given a terrible bleach-blonde fauxhawk that more or less strips him of his dignity. Because of that, I have to knock off a Half Star. You just can’t treat the greatest martial arts superstar of the 21st century like that and get away with it.

I don’t think I’m spoiling anything for anyone who saw the trailer, but (Spoiler, just in case) easily the best part of the movie is the Ice Cube cameo. I actually think XXX 2 is the best in the series and acknowledging his character was a great way to bring the series full circle. He also figures into the ending, which (like the Fast and the Furious sequels) sets the stage for another potentially great installment.

If anything, you have to love the way Vin Diesel embraces all aspects of the franchises he’s a part of. Even if he goes AWOL in a few of the installments, he goes out of his way to be inclusive to the actors who held down the fort in his absence. Imagine if he had played Michael Myers in the Halloween movies. Part 4 could’ve ended with Myers putting a Silver Shamrock mask on Jamie.

I don’t like to get political or anything, but I do have to point this out. XXX: Return of Xander Cage is the first action movie of the Trump presidency. It also contains the line, "There are no patriots anymore. Only rebels and tyrants”. Make of that what you will.

Overall, this is about on par with a lesser Fast and the Furious movie. I do have to say that I am giddy as shit at the prospect of XXX 4, which is something I’d never ever expect to type. If anything, XXX: Return of Xander Cage is further proof that I will always chuckle any time someone gets shot in the chest at point blank range, survives, and then quips, “What a rush!”

AKA: XXX: Reactivated.

Three filmmakers sit around a table and hash out an idea for a nudie movie. They eventually settle on a plot about a girl from the sticks who comes to the big city to make it as an actress by sleeping her way to the top. Since one of the filmmakers keeps pushing to make the flick in color, we occasionally get to see snippets of (very) brief full-color cheesecake stripteases.

These color scenes are the only thing worth a damn in this sorry excuse for a sexploitation film. Even then, they are way too short and not quite revealing enough to get your blood pumping. The black and white sex scenes are even shorter and unfortunately contain no nudity.

What you’re left with is a lot of plot scenes that are so dull that you are likely to go into a coma before you even get around to seeing the color footage. What’s worse is that you have to sit through no one boring plotline, but two! The stuff with the filmmakers sitting around and coming up with the script is totally unnecessary, features no nudity, and is only there to pad out the running time.

The only fun comes from listening as the harried narrator breathlessly tries to cram pages of narration into a short scene. Most of the time, he just superfluously reiterates what’s going on onscreen, so his commentary is pretty useless. However, he does get a few bitter lines like "Jump in a lake four times and come up for air three times!” that are good for a laugh.

AKA: The Sexperts. AKA: Touched by Temptation. AKA: The Xperts.

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THE ROLLING STONES: HAVANA MOON (2016) ****

Ole’ Ole’ Ole’: A Trip Across Latin America documented The Rolling Stones' Latin America tour that culminated in the band playing their historical concert in Havana, Cuba. That flick more or less acts like a prequel (or perhaps an extended DVD supplement) to this awesome concert film. This one gives you some background on the events leading up to the show (some of which are regurgitated from Ole’ Ole’ Ole’), but the real meat of the movie is the performance itself.

What’s incredible about Havana Moon is that the band, now in their ‘70s, still has the goods. They run around on stage and play almost non-stop for 90 minutes, playing the hits, pumping up the crowds, and captivating thousands. I’m half Mick Jagger’s age and I don’t even know if I could physically do what he does on a nightly basis. (Not to mention all the travel that goes into a lengthy tour.)

Another great thing about the concert is the fact that Jagger goes out of his way to interact with the crowd. Most musicians when they travel to foreign countries just play the music, but Jagger actually took time to learn (some) of the language so he can talk with the audience and keep them engaged. That says a lot about the dedication he puts into his shows.

Of course, the music is the universal language. The heart of the movie is the music and the band proves to be in great form after all these years. They do all the hits (“Satisfaction”, “Brown Sugar”, “Honky Tonk Women”, etc.), and while I wish there were a couple more deep cuts (like “Out of Control”), the performance is truly great, so it’s hard to complain.

The band certainly shows no signs of slowing down, which in itself is cause for celebration. The film itself captures the electricity that flows between the band and the audience, which makes it even more special. This is definitely the Stones’ best concert movie of the millennium and a fine document to their continuing relevance on a global scale.

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