Cinema Signal:


Extreme Sports:
In Search of the Ultimate Thrill

. "XXX"

Director Rob Cohen is no dummy. He obviously has learned to appreciate one part of what makes the James Bond series so successful: clever gadgetry, brilliant stunt choreography, high concept. And, he's made sure that this action adventure picture will lack for none of that. But, that doesn't mean he manages to re-create the other part of the Bond formula for success: a classy, insouciant hero that you can take anywhere a tuxedo fits.

For that part of the equation, he turns to a different formula: the action superhero, where our aging stalwarts are leaving a gap. Cohen's entry into this field is the "Fast and the Furious"'s Vin Diesel: no doubt a strongman, but one with a surprising spectrum of sensitivities. He may not pump at the level of a Schwarzenegger or match the high bred style of a Connery, but there's enough muscle on the bone to fit into the action design, which is Bond on steroids.

When facially scarred veteran NSA agent Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson) becomes aware of a scary group of sadists with chemicals led by a former commander in the Russian Army, Yorgi (Marton Csokas, suave and determined) he's hard put to find a man to infiltrate the enemy. He sets up an NSA version of a SAT test for American muscle trash and finds that an extreme sports rebel who goes by the name of Xander Cage (Diesel) and who commands a wide-flung gang of bar-mates comes out on top every time -- whatever the odds. Plus, Cage is bright enough to get the concept that the mission involves a credible threat of world proportions as well as the possibility of avoiding jail time for a few infractions.

The next test is injecting him into the highly protected sphere of Anarchy 99, the group of madmen that Yorgi rules with an iron fist and his consort in crime and terror, Yelena (Asia Argento) at his side. Knowing that appearances don't always tell the whole story, Cage is swiftly and rightly enamoured of this highly spirited, competitive, threatening beauty. By a stratagem of ratting on the agent of the Prague underground who brought him to Yorgi's club, he convinces Yorgi of his criminal character and gets into his good graces, at least initially.

No Bond film would be complete without the new toys developed by "Q" and presented to the 007 hero with full instructions. "XXX" provides an equivalent lab rat with similar mechanisms to thwart evil, which are as much plot devices as they are mechanical ones. Not the least of these is a revolver that takes bullets with different purposes. So it is that Cage can be seen shooting the Prague underground agent in a manner that fills Yorgi's heart with a warm feeling of cameraderie for him -- but without really killing the apparent target. The staging is perfect and Cage has solidified his position in the gang. He has infiltrated to the core of the beast while making a play for his playmate.

Yorgi and his crew are badder than bad. All those years of running stolen cars, high class prostitution and drugs were just steps on the path to the binary chemical bombs his scientist collaborators have been developing for the purpose of world domination. In a scene of arch brutality, we see with what ease he wipes out the science team just as they reach the final step in producing their bio-bomb -- he gasses them in their own lab. With great glee. Do we detect a Saddam wannabe here? But there's more than just our guy who cringes at the sight. What's going on?

Many twists, in the sports action as well as in the undercover agendas, ensue. Fit into the spy-counterspy formulation are skydiving, motocross racing, skateboarding (using a dining room tray down a stair railing), snowboarding, vertical skiing, avalanche running and a betrayal or three. Somehow, director Cohen, working from a script by Rich Wilkes, has put his commercial finger on using digitally enhanced extreme sports and an action hero to pull it off within a credible narrative line of storytelling. The thrills and chills topple one another for sheer audacity of concept and seamlessness of execution. There's no stopping it, and action junkies will get their adrenalin pumped enough to leave the theater in a high state of euphoria.

It's no mistake that he uses Vin Diesel in such a context. In fact, it may be because of Diesel that the stunt hi-jinx were conceived in the first place. It is certainly his athletic prowess (plus the current state of the digital art) that enables Cohen to not just match Bond action choreography but to go beyond the standard of achievement it established.

But, we like Vin Diesel for more. In our review of "The Fast and the Furious" we said of him, "Partly, the success of the movie rides on Diesel's convincing portrayal of a charismatic gang leader with intelligence and an ability to see more than one dimension to life". It's that complexity along with the overstimulus of greatly defined action that gives "XXX" a stature that could inject new energy into the genre.

Twenty Seven year old Asia Argento (born Aria Argento) comes onto the American screen with exotic splash. She may have been previously unknown here but her Italian filmography proves her an established film figure dating back to 1984. This is a world class beauty who may spook you with her similarity to Uma Thurman. Maybe it's the European gene pool but Argento is second to no one for sensuous indelibility and we'd expect a bucket of mainstream American scripts to rain down upon her.

Marton Csokas is no slouch in his department, either, bringing hatefulness for the evil madman to a stylish (where did he get that great leather coat?!) as well as a terrifying edge. We last saw this eminently castable bad guy as Celeborn in "Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring".

The exactly right visual modality for every scene is provided by Director of Photography, Dean Semler ("Waterworld", "The Bone Collector") and all other technical credits are right up there on a totally pro level.

"XXX" is a film with attitude, and an engine of ingenuity that is not likely to run out of gas anytime soon. If the idea was to refuel lapsing interest in the genre, exhibitors all over the globe should be placing their votes for more as the receipts pile up. But it's not boxoffice that'll prove its worth, it's the high standards employed in the intelligent production that we hope will pick up on Cohen's new leadership in action storytelling.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


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