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Film review: ‘xXx: Return of Zander Cage’

‘xXx: Return of Xander Cage’ is showing at the Sonoma 9 Cinemas. Rated PG-13. Running time 1:50. Visit cinemawest.com.


There is only one film franchise that can give us a cold open featuring an NSA agent (played by Samuel L. Jackson at maximum campiness) pitching Brasilian football genius Neymar on joining his covert squad of extra-governmental operatives. That team is “xXx” and, in the world they inhabit, Jackson speaks in English and understands replies in Portuguese without missing a beat. Sadly, a falling satellite blows up the pair before their pact is sealed.

CIA agent Jane Marke (Toni Collette, given the monumental task of chewing as much scenery as Jackson) must then track down the man who gives the film its full title: “xXx: Return of Xander Cage.” Xander is, of course, Vin Diesel — his voice an electric burr, his lips curled in a permanent smile — a spy like James Bond with an even greater willingness to embrace the violent and chauvinistic madness inherent to his character. He’s a prolific lover and killer, a polyglot comfortable speaking in Caribbean Spanish or with a droll British accent. In this film, he is first glimpsed summiting a power station tower then slaloming down through a jungle on skis for no reason other than providing a stream for a World Cup match to the patrons of a beachside bar.

The “xXx” series operates with the same joie de vivre as the “Fast and Furious” movies, a slapstickiness that doesn’t detract from the fact that these pictures are some of the only Hollywood productions committed to diverse casting. Tapped by agent Marke to find a crew and track down the rogues who are hijacking satellites, Xander has the following descriptors for his ideal partners: “The good, the bad, the extreme, and the completely insane.”

The cast he selects is varied in ethnicity and profession: a DJ named Nicks (Kris Wu, boy band star and fashion designer), a sniper named Adele (Ruby Rose, a genderfluid model and MTV Australia host) and a driver called Tennyson (Rory McCann, that crazy Scotsman with the burned face on “Game of Thrones”).

Xander’s squad chases something called Pandora’s Box, a MacGuffin if there ever was one – it’s an item about the size of a VHS tape that can allegedly snatch any satellite from the sky and send it hurtling, missile-like, at a target. The Box is passed around like a baton from good guys to bad who, by the way, are a pretty chill group of supervillains. They include the hand-to-hand combatant Xiang (Donnie Yen, dapper wushu martial arts champion), the hitwoman Serena Unger (Bollywood powerhouse Deepika Padukone) and the bodyguard Talon (Tony Jaa, former stuntman, Muay Thai fighter and Buddhist monk!).

The twisty plot is less high stakes action and more scavenger hunt at a series of parties. Yen and Diesel have real spark as antagonists – they collide in the Philippines and entirely ignore the problem of Pandora’s Box, preferring instead to play an enjoyable game of hot potato with a live grenade. They depart the premises riding motorbikes modified with water skis so that their chase may continue into the crashing waves. From this tussle, Xander emerges unscathed, rising like a Venus in nipple tattoos.

D.J. Caruso directs with delirious visuals that call to mind both Michael Bay and Snapchat filters while screenwriter F. Scott Frazier explores double entendre with the same ferocity that his namesake F. Scott Fitzgerald explored the Jazz Age.

‘xXx: Return of Xander Cage’ is showing at the Sonoma 9 Cinemas. Rated PG-13. Running time 1:50. Visit cinemawest.com.

While a character who spends much of the film a wearing a hideous fur coat doesn’t make the likeliest political theoretician, it’s hard to argue with Xander’s trenchant analysis of America in 2017: “Patriotism is dead – there are only rebels and tyrants now.”