Login

DJ Caruso Talks xXx: Return of Xander Cage

Image for DJ Caruso Talks xXx: Return of Xander Cage

While there are moments where it feels like you're watching The Fast And The Tattooed, director D.J. Caruso nonetheless manages to provide a fresh sense of action in xXx: Return Of Xander Cage, third entry in the series that began fifteen years ago. And a film which also happens to mark the return of Vin Diesel to the franchise, Ice Cube filling in for 2005's xXx: State Of The Union.

xander-cage2

Caruso, who began his career as second unit director of such films as Point Of No Return, Another Stakeout, Drop Zone and Nick Of Time, transitioned to directing for television before taking on features like Disturbia, Eagle Eye and I Am Number Four. Not to be too obvious about it, but the new xXx is certainly the largest project he's taken on to date — which happens to be where this exclusive conversation kicks off. Beware of spoilers!

This is your biggest film from a scope point of view, isn't it?

This is a big one. This is, from a scope standpoint, jumping all over the world. It was a fun jumping off point to kind of get into this bigger cinematic arena that I hadn't really been in before.

But what is it like to suddenly be standing in the center of this whirlwind of insanity?

It's interesting, because as crazy as some of it is, you realize that it all boils down to the cameras and the seven people around the camera. You find yourself always trying to capture that image and as a result, in a way, it's very insular. But then when you take a step back and you look at, wow, here we are up in Navarrete in the middle of the Dominican Republic where we landed helicopters, and they've never seen a helicopter before. And we're skateboarding down this hill at sixty miles an hour. When you kind of get back and look at it, the absurdity of it all is so nutty. But when you're in there doing it, you're so insular, and so focused on getting what you need to get, that you kind of block out how absurd some of the things are around you.

xander-cage-poster1 .

How would you describe a xXx film? When the first film came out, Rob Cohen and Vin Diesel spent a lot of time saying James Bond was passe, and xXx was the answer to that. First off, "Hah!" to that notion.

[laughs] What I liked about that first film the most was you had this really rebellious character who was just sort of selfish and doing his thing. But also trying to fight for the common man. He was this rebel who sort of became patriotic accidentally, and did the right things and did it in such an extreme way. I remember the coat and the snow boarding. "I live for this shit" I thought, "Okay, that was fun." I'm not saying it was camp, but it was a lot of fun.

And I thought what would be interesting is to take that today and say, okay, in the fifteen year absence of Xander Cage, whether he died or didn't die, who would Sam Jackson have to get together in order to have an agency of extreme people? That sort of opened up what I thought would be more of a global team of agents that obviously Xander would come back in and be the centerpiece of. But this individualism and uniqueness of all these agents and what they can bring was what I thought I could bring to the franchise.

xander-cage6

The other thing is that I was so blown away by Deadpool last year, because I went in and I was laughing so fucking hard. You know what I mean? And I had such a wonderful escapist kind of time. Everything they did I just loved, and while I was developing this script I was, like, "Okay, let's just have that kind of fun with this movie. Let's not get too serious." We have this McGuffin with Pandora's Box [which can turn satellites into weapons of destruction], which will be cool and we can make that all work. But let's really celebrate the uniqueness and the craziness of these individuals. Let me find stunts that are pliable, that are actually being done, but can also be so extreme and so outrageous that they would fit the whole Xander Cage profile. So I found these guys that were skiing in the jungle without snow. I'm, like, "Okay, great. That's a Xander Cage thing." Let's find ... You know, I saw [Australia's motobike stunt rider] Robbie Madison's movie The Pipe Dream, where he got his motorcycle to get into a wave. I thought these will be the kind of things to really bring Xander into this decade.

xander-cage7

When you get into the idea of Vin Diesel and a team of misfits, were you concerned that people were going to compare this to the Fast films?

I do like the Fast films, they're great. But I never really felt like there's a third dimension to some of the characters in Fast, because the movies go so quickly and you have a lot of good one-liners, but are those characters really equal to what Dom is? You know what I mean? I felt like I was getting Donnie Yen, who can go toe to toe with Vin. Let's get East vs West. Two of the biggest fucking stars in the world. Donnie Yen is just as vital as Xander, so it's not like we're just bringing him in as a nod. You know, when I wrote the character of Talon, it was, like, "God, if we can get Tony Jaa to really do something..." And we did.

From a synergistic standpoint it made great sense to me, but I also think from a global business decision the studio was ultimately pleased with how we put it together. If you look at all the franchises that have sort of evolved, and have been successful, this has been the template for what needs to happen. There's very few that can just sort of linger on. Even Bond has his people, you know?

xander-cage-poster2

Speaking of Bond, there's that one moment with the motorcycles on skis riding the ocean... if that wasn't a Bond-type moment, I don't know what was.

That's what I'm saying. I think it's also such a xXx sequence. Robbie Madison who came up with this, is a real, extreme, Evel Knievel great guy who wants to do something insane. That, to me, was what helped define xXx. This is something Robbie did in that movie I mentioned, Pipe Dream. It's pretty crazy. I wanted to be the first to put it in a movie.

How difficult is it in the action genre to give the audience things like that sequence which they haven't seen before?

It's important to push that particular envelope. If there's a familiarity in a motorcycle chase, this is on the water. If there's a familiarity with skis, we use them in the jungle. I always fantasized about having a great sort of fight in traffic on a moving road where traffic is racing by, and so that was really fun. I thought okay, you've seen elements of it before, but maybe not quite like this with Donnie Yen doing his style of kicking and Vin being the extreme athlete leaping cars. I just thought if you could push those elements, there might be a familiarity in it, but at the same time you just haven't quite ever seen it done that way. Yeah, you've seen zero-g fights before, but you know, in a C-17 that's diving? Have you seen a zero-g fight with Donnie Yen against five guys and Vin against five guys? So, again, can we just kind of take that element and push it?

This also feels like there's a lot of practical action rather than everything being CG.

What I've noticed lately is I find myself talking to people a lot more about action scenes from movies like Die Hard and Lethal Weapon from the 80's and 90's, before CG took over too much. I think it's interesting to see sort of the respect that they're getting now in the genre. Despite the success of Marvel and all of these things that are happening, there's something about the action when it had to be done for real and a high fall really was a high fall. There might be something about that that's getting people's attention again. Maybe, you know, if we're lucky enough, it's like seeing a motorcycle ride on the water. Those are crazy fuckers. That's the fantasy. That's an escape element that I love. And I think everyone, as reserved or as outgoing as we are, there's a little daredevil in everyone and I think that it appeals to the nature of fantasizing about being able to do that.

xander-cage1

What is the ratio pf CG to practical in this film?

Most of it is practical. This is an eighty-five million dollar movie. They wouldn't give me a dime more, because they weren't sure how it would all work. So I was going for practical, but practical with CG enhancement. You know, the guy skiing in the jungle — there's certain times they're on a cable where I have to paint that cable out, because they're falling three-hundred feet sometimes. The motorcycles on the water — we got right up to the wave, we tried to get in the wave. The wave was crushing us, crushing us, crushing us. Let's get a little CG help to get this wave that's really small and to make it bigger. So we're always trying to come from a practical standpoint and use CG to enhance. The zero-g, just a lot of wire and cable removals painted out, you know what I mean? But everyone is kind of floating up in the air and doing their thing.

The street traffic, you know we actually choreographed it really well where it feels like Donnie and Vin are in the middle of a moving highway. But it's all choreographed and done as real as we can. A couple of plates in there, just to kind of have some background movement. But the cars and the crashes — in my movies I like to crash cars, so we did as much as we could with CG enhancement.

xander-cage4

So it's not like we're watching CG stunt doubles taking on the major action of the film.

Think about Xander's introduction. You're up on a tower. You're bald and you have tattoos. Okay. You shave your head bald, you have tattoos, you're wearing a tank top. Okay, so how many people are going to jump off a three-hundred-and-twenty-five-foot tower? Well, there's two people that can do that. Okay. Let's see. Oh, he's one-hundred-and-fifty-pounds and he's a skinny duck. Okay, let's shave his head. Let's put fake arms on him, right? And in that jump we're going to have a helmet on him, so we're going to have to paint that helmet out. But the great thing is when Vin can ride that long board, there's a couple of really great shots of him that are mid-sized shots, not just close-ups where you can go, "Fuck, there's Vin. He's riding that long board." And then sometimes, with some of the more dangerous stuff, it's the stuntman who has fake arms on, because he doesn't really look like Vin but he's the only guy that's good enough to go down a hill going seventy miles an hour.

This is admittedly a pretty broad question, but what is it about the action genre that captures people's attention the way it does?

I think it's sort of the idea of that risk-taker or that energy that we all think we have inside of us, that we all want to push. What would it feel like to jump out of an airplane? What does it feel like to go ninety miles an hour? It's the fantasy and the escapism cinema allows us.

xXx: Return Of Xander Cage Review

xXx: State Of The Union Review

xXx Review

More from Empire