THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan

"xXx: STATE OF THE UNION"

The original xXx seemed to spur mixed reactions when it came out a few summers ago. Some people really liked the film, believing it to be a new kind of action movie for the 21st century. Others thought it sucked. (Sorry, but there’s no other way to put it.) I was in the first category; whatever flaws it had – and sure, there were a few – the movie worked as a big, loud, non-stop orgy of action. Star Vin Diesel decided not to return for a sequel, choosing to make The Chronicles of Riddick instead. Given that film’s notoriously poor box office performance, it would be easy to make a snarky comment. However, the Diesel-less sequel, xXx: State of the Union really isn’t any better.

Samuel L. Jackson returns as Gibbons, the leader of the super-secret security agency that trains operatives with “special skills.” After a perfunctory explanation of how Diesel’s character, Xander Cage, was killed, Gibbons sets out to the find the new xXx. Due to the sensitive nature of the mission (more on that in a second), Gibbons has to “go off the map.” He selects Darius Stone (Ice Cube), an ex-Navy SEAL turned convict who has a tortured past with Gibbons. The screenplay hints at the reasons for their feud but never delves into it satisfactorily.

After escaping from his maximum security prison, Darius joins forces with his former leader to stop the Secretary of Defense, Gen George Deckert (Willem Dafoe), from staging a coup de tat. It seems that Deckert thinks the President is too wishy-washy on defense spending, so he has decided to eliminate everyone above him on the chain of command. That way, he will be de facto president and thus able to bomb or attack whomever he pleases. Imagine what Michael Moore would make of this guy.

I’m not going to write another word about the plot, because xXx: State of the Union has a plot only in the loosest sense of the word. One gets the distinct impression that it took some screenwriter about two-and-a-half seconds to come up with the story. The original was no masterpiece of storytelling either, but it nevertheless seemed a little more plausible than this one. There are a lot of nagging questions, such as how Deckert finds so many troops willing to help him carry out his scheme. Wouldn’t this go directly against the training philosophy of most soldiers, no matter how covert or “underground” they are?

The plot is really nothing more than an excuse for a series of action scenes to be strung together. Darius gets some help from a chop shop owner, played by “Pimp My Ride” host Xhibit, in the year’s most obvious bit of typecasting. (“Pimp My Movie” anyone?) They trick up some cars, hijack a tank, and get involved in all kinds of general mayhem. Some of the action scenes are pretty cool. I’m partial to the moment when Darius launches a tank from an aircraft carrier. It’s quite amusing – but don’t ask. Other scenes just don’t work at all, despite being presented with lots of energy. The finale features Darius chasing a bullet train in a sports car. You know, today’s computer-generated special effects are a mixed blessing. Use them to create the massive fantasy battle scenes of The Lord of the Rings and they’re breathtaking. Use them to make a car chase a bullet train down a set of tracks and the result looks fakey. That’s what frequently happens with xXx: State of the Union: the effects try to simulate things that are perhaps too realistic. The result is that you feel like you’re looking at an effect, and it takes you out of the movie. This is the exact same thing that happened with last year’s Ice Cube actioner Torque.

I also can’t help but wonder why the filmmakers have made such a conventional movie. What I liked about the original xXx was that its hero was an extreme sports athlete; the action was built around snowboarding and skydiving and similar things. There was a tongue-in-cheek suggestion that the same people who participate in the X-Games have skills that could just as easily serve them in the world of international espionage. State of the Union has a convict as its hero, and subsequently there really is no special skill, despite what Gibbons claims. The action scenes involve standard car chases, shootouts, and stuff blowing up real good. I missed the originality that ran through the original.

I like Ice Cube quite a bit, and he is plausible as an action hero. Samuel L. Jackson is also good, but then again he always is. My problem isn’t with the actors; it’s with the fact that this whole film seems slapped together. The story is half-baked and the action is stuff we’ve seen a million times before. xXx: State of the Union isn’t the worst thing I’ve ever seen - it was diverting enough to sit through – but there’s nothing that elevates it into something worth seeking out. It’s not awful or terrible; it’s just generic.

( out of four)


xXx: State of the Union is rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action violence and some language. The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes.

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