xXx Review

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Having run out of suitable candidates for the American secret service, Agent Gibbons forcibly recruits extreme sports star Xander Cage, whom he threatens with prison if he doesn’t co-operate. Cage is plunged into a Prague-set terrorist plot.

★★★★★

Rumour has it that a couple of years ago, Vin Diesel was seen swanning around the Sundance Film Festival informing anyone who would listen — and given his physique, that was most people — that within a couple of years he would be a huge star.

He turns out to have been right on the money, though quite how he did it remains a mystery. Roles in a low-budget sci-fi flick (Pitch Black) and then last year’s summer sleeper, The Fast And The Furious, aren’t on the face of it any justification for the $20 million pay cheques he’s now demanding — and apparently getting.

xXx is supposedly the movie that will seal the deal and justify the hype.

It almost does — he’s certainly the best thing in it — but it’s a pity that he didn’t choose a movie written and directed with a little more care for his megastar coming-out party.

Essentially xXx is James Bond stripped down for a generation that prefers thrash metal to John Barry. The film declares its revisionist intent in its first minutes by having a weak-chinned, tuxedo-clad 007-lookalike humiliatingly shot and borne aloft by an audience of writhing clubbers.

Enter Diesel, who couldn’t be more unlike the Brit superspy. While Bond is a suave old Etonian naval commander, Cage is an anarchist extreme sports star with a penchant for cringeworthy anti-authoritarian lectures to webcam.

Bond is in it for ‘Queen and Country’, while Cage is blackmailed into it with the threat of jail. (His personal philosophy is deftly illustrated in one of the movie’s few witty lines: “If you’re going to send someone to save the world — make sure they like it the way it is.”) And while Bond is an inveterate womaniser, Diesel looks unaccountably uncomfortable during his on-screen clinches with Asia Argento — at one point his expression suggests that he’s being invited to lock lips with the wrong end of Bella Emberg rather than one of Euro-cinema’s more acknowledged hotties.

But the point of Diesel is not his acting ability but his sheer physical presence, and Rob Cohen puts it to reasonably good use in a couple of fantastically orchestrated action scenes — an early shot of Diesel ‘surfing’ a car off a bridge delivers the goods, as does a motorcycle chase in which Cohen brilliantly uses digital matting to keep his actors’ faces in full view during stunt sequences that only a few years ago would have required the usual fudged medium and long-shots.

But the director unfortunately soon returns to the slightly inept, graceless style of filmmaking that typified Dragonheart and The Skulls. There’s little of the goofy brio of The Fast And The Furious and screenwriter Rich Wilkes’ screenplay threatens to run out of steam before delivering a denouement as damp as most of the movie’s Prague locations are these days (and what the hell the bad guy has in mind constructing a submarine in landlocked Prague is never adequately explained).

All of which leaves us in the end with Vin, on whose ox-like shoulders the movie ends up almost completely resting.

Already anointed as the next big thing, the received wisdom seems to be that he’s “the new Bruce Willis”, but xXx affords Diesel little opportunity to demonstrate the everyman appeal and easy wisecrackery that typified Willis in his best films.

Indeed, on this evidence, the better comparison is slightly more alarming. Consider: the almost steroidal physical bulk; the strange asexuality; the restricted acting range and odd speech cadences… ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together for the new Arnold Schwarzenegger?

Sporadically entertaining, this is nevertheless seriously hampered by a very choppy screenplay. As for the star — well, Hollywood may have backed him all the way to the bank, but critics will likely wait for a better outing to decide whether Diesel really