Thursday, November 8, 2012

Heavy Action: xXx

Because we're talking a lot of James Bond this month, it only makes sense to take a Heavy Action look at director Rob Cohen's attempt to reinterpret everyone's favorite secret agent for the 2000s: xXx.

Oh, the early 2000s. America's brief love affair with "extreme" sports was in full swing. The self-made celebrity of Jackass was just starting to be a thing. Everyone wanted more of this hulking, gravel-voiced Vin Diesel character in their eyeballs. And in 2002, all of those paths converged at a single action movie.

Diesel is Xander Cage, an extreme sports star and self-made daredevil celebrity who we first meet stealing a car from a senator (because he wants to get rid of PORN and VIOLENT VIDEO GAMES and everything that's COOL) and driving it off a bridge as he parachutes out. He's later knocked out and wakes up in a diner that's being robbed; Xander quickly figures out that it's just a test being run by NSA agent Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson) to see how Cage handles himself in a crisis. He's being recruited by force ("I see you have three Xs tattooed on your neck...that's appropriate, because you have three strikes!") to become a secret agent, sent undercover to the Czech Republic to infiltrate Anarchy 99, a terrorist organization bent on tearing down organized society. Before long, Xander is in good with Anarchy 99's leader, Yorgi (Martin Csokas) and his girlfriend Yelena (Asia Argento), for whom Xander quickly develops feelings. There's also a bunch of shootouts and snowboarding and a big chemical weapon.

As an action movie, xXx is big and dumb. As a contemporary American take on the James Bond franchise, it's downright depressing. Every idea presented in the movie paints a portrait of Ugly Americanism: whereas James Bond wears a tuxedo, Xander Cage wears a sleeveless t-shirt. Bond received the highest level of training by MI6. Xander Cage played video games. James Bond devotes his life to Queen and Country. Xander Cage says "fuck you" to everything. Bond is all about class and wit and refinement. Xander Cage lives life like it's a Mountain Dew commercial. Bond is a "double 0." Xander Cage is "triple X," because it's ONE MORE LETTER and also XTREME and boners. GET IT? If Rob Cohen really wanted to "Americanize" Bond, he did so by making Bond fucking moronic.

And maybe that's right. I don't want to get into any America bashing, what with the newly re-elected Barack Obama and gay marriage votes passing in more states just days ago, but it's probably not a mistake that some American filmmakers and studio types got together to do an updated, Americanized James Bond and reinterpreted the character as a tatted-up, extreme sports douchebag with no respect for authority and no ties to anything but himself. Everything about him and the movie is loud and tacky, from the nu-metal soundtrack ("LET THE BODIES HIT THE FLOOR!") to the ugly production design. In so many ways, xXx is a perfect representation of our foreign policy under George W. Bush: move over, fuckers -- I GOT THIS. And hand me a Red Bull.
The Bond comparisons continue: Instead of "M," we get Samuel Jackson barking orders into a computer. He has a giant scar on one side of his face, probably because Jackson insisted on having something to suggest he was playing a character (in the absence of substance, turn to prosthetics). Instead of "Q," we get Toby Lee Shavers, an obnoxiously unfunny comic relief character who's half leg-humping nerd and half asshole frat guy (he's played by Michael Roof, an actor who used to perform stand-up comedy under the stage name "Chicken," in case you're wondering just how unfunny the performance really is). Even the worst Bond movies had memorable villains. A View to a Kill had Christopher Walken and Grace Jones. Die Another Day had ol' Diamondface and a Korean dude who had plastic surgery to become a reflection of Michael Fassbender in a car door. These things are terrible, mind you, but we remember them. xXx has a whole bunch of generic Eurotrash led by Yorgi, who is supposedly an anarchist (because he leads an Anarchist group), but that's only ever apparent in two lines of dialogue where he recites some punk rock lyrics with Vin Diesel. You know, anarchy stuff. There is no Oddjob. There's not even a Nick Nack. Every henchman is just some variation of facial hair, tattoos and fur collars. There are a LOT of fur collars in xXx.

Maybe it's because we're far enough out from the 1960s now that we accept the period as being part of those original Bond movies, but holy shit has xXx dated way worse than something like Goldfinger. Again, the '60s are part of that movie's aesthetic in a way that works in our collective memory. No one has any fondness for the early 2000s, when Hoobastank was a word that no one laughed at and everyone wore ironic trucker hats and Napster was democratizing (ruining) the music industry. And xXx wants SO BADLY to be relevant in 2002 that it fails to foresee it might be dating itself before the movie is even out of theaters. Extreme sports lasted only slightly longer than the XFL (go Enforcers!). Fred Durst gave up his "music" to direct a family football drama. Nearly everything presented in the movie amounted to only a fad, making xXx feel like a relic during the very same decade in which it was released.

The failures of xXx (if you're going to call it a failure; there is an argument that can be made the the movie is goofy fun) as a Bond update have as much to do with the filmmaking as it does with a shifting of attitudes in action movies in the early 2000s. Though the previous decade had produced its share of classics, the genre had mostly migrated to the direct-to-video market by the end of the '90s. That meant that most of the action movies coming out of Hollywood had to justify their existence (and their theatrical releases) by being BIG and EXPENSIVE. And because they were costing so much, they now had to appeal to the widest possible audience to recoup those budgets (and that includes international audiences who may not even understand the language), meaning stupid things like character and story had to be tossed aside for the sake of coolness. There were exceptions of course, like the Bourne movies (which can be blamed for ruining action movies for entirely different reasons), both Kill Bill movies and even the Matrix sequels, which tried to turn our expectations for both action movies and sequels on their heads and were crucified for doing so. Mostly, though, the 2000s were a pretty lousy time for action films. xXx belongs squarely in that bad part of the decade.

xXx is also the movie that changed the career path of its star, Vin Diesel. He started out a guy who was hard to pin down -- not only did he have a mysterious, multiracial look about him, but he made interesting choices in the movies he made. He provided the voice of The Iron Giant. He was part of Tom Hanks' platoon in Saving Private Ryan. He was the dark, cool antihero of David Twhoey's cult sci-fi movie Pitch Black. He was one of the best parts of Boiler Room, demonstrating that he was capable of doing solid dramatic work. Then he made The Fast and the Furious, in which he was well cast and which confirmed his status as a movie star. Worse, it told both him and Rob Cohen that he could have a future as an action star, and the two put that theory to the test. xXx is the result, giving way to A Man Apart and The Pacifier and The Chronicles of Riddick and Babylon A.D. It wasn't until he went back to the Fast and the Furious franchise that his movies made any money again. On the plus side, that gave us Fast Five.

Diesel isn't the problem with the movie, as he still has the ability to command the screen and, in a better movie, might have made for a decent action hero. He has a tendency to shout all of his lines ("SUPERMAN!") and little knack for comedy, but at least there's an attempt to lighten Xander Cage up more than in other Diesel action movies. He's usually the coolest guy in the world, growling his lines and showing no signs of weakness anywhere. The dialogue doesn't help him at all, as it is, like the movie, stupid and obvious. At one point, X tells a henchman who's smoking "One day that cigarette is going to kill you!" At this point in the movie, it's not a threat. We're really supposed to believe that the guy who just surfed a sports car off a bridge and escaped from the torturous clutches of Columbian terrorists is all like "Smoking? What, you got a death wish?" No, it's there so that later the henchman can be killed in a smoking-related way and then X's foreshadowy warning pays off and the screenwriter gets to jerk off all over himself and sit basking in his gooey cleverness. It's so stupid.

There is one very good thing about xXx:
That's Asia Argento, still the only good thing Dario Argento has produced. She feels miscast in xXx and mostly unhappy to be there, and has absolutely no chemistry with Diesel (the first time they kiss, he wraps his giant sausage arms around her and mauls her like a multiracial bear eating a cigarette wearing eyeliner), but she looks the part and fits in with the movie's general aesthetic. They didn't even need to draw any tattoos on her. Those are all hers. She's the kind of actress who is impossibly sexy without really even trying and has a presence on screen that's more valuable than anything she can bring to a role. She's an ill fit for movies of this size -- the scale and volume of the thing pretty much swallows her up -- which is probably why she doesn't show up in too many big, dumb tentpole movies. She's much happier to write and direct her own crazy multi-language sex movies (ask Doug some time about Scarlet Diva).

So I object to xXx on a fundamental level, because it reminds us in America that we can't have nice things. But just like how I will sometimes order Pizza Hut on purpose, the movie is not without its charms -- provided you are willing to give yourself over to its sheer boneheadedness. Several of the set pieces are done in by bad CGI (at one point, xXx outruns a cartoon avalanche), because Rob Cohen's ambitions are greater than both his resources and his abilities, but it's all very watchable in a VERY EARLY 2000s kind of way. As action movie fans, we have conditioned ourselves to appreciate all kinds of different entries into the genre, from the lean and mean (The Raid: Redemption) to the experimental (Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai); from the art house (Haywire) to the outhouse (Bad Boys II). Like Pauline Kael once said: if we can't appreciate stupid shit like xXx, how can we appreciate great art like Die Hard? I might be paraphrasing.

One last thing. xXx made a bunch of money, so, naturally, there was a sequel commissioned -- nothing is worth doing that can't be franchised. Only Vin Diesel wouldn't do the movie, so xXx: State of the Union was released in 2005 with Ice Cube as the new xXx. I know Vin Diesel, and you, O'Shea Jackson, are no Vin Diesel.

Got a movie you'd like to see included in a future installment of Heavy Action? Let us know in the comments below.

9 comments:

  1. "xXx" has one of the dumbest one-liners I've ever heard in an action movie (which is saying something): Dude, stop thinking Prague Police and start thinking Playstation. Blow shit up! I was into videogames at the time and even I, the type of male guy who would have been receptive to a shout out of the most popular videogame system of the moment, just rolled my eyes. Terrible.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Well, I've never seen XXX, and I'm not inspired to do so anytime soon. I'll just look at the picture of Asia Argento. That's good enough for me. I do remember it being released and thinking how incredibly dumb it looked.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You have no idea how hard it was to do a Google image search for "xXx." And I do mean difficult.

      Delete
  3. This movie has one advantage over Bond which is this line of dialogue:

    A small price I paid for putting foot to ass for my country.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I am amazed that more than one person has been able to quote dialogue from xXx already.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I can't even think about this movie without thinking of you pretending to be Vin Diesel saying "The things I'm gonna do for my country."

      So....thank you?

      Delete