2002, PG-13, 124 min. Directed by Rob Cohen. Starring Vin Diesel, Asia Argento, Samuel L. Jackson, Martin Csokas, Joe Bucaro III.

REVIEWED By Marc Savlov, Fri., Aug. 9, 2002

It's difficult to know what to make of a film that opens with an action-packed prologue set to a live performance by sturm und drang Teutonic industri-fetishists Rammstein, and from there moves to a Prague-for-Vienna homage to Carol Reed via Anton Karas' zither theme from The Third Man, and finally wraps things up with a bouncy number by British techno-duo Orbital. The odd juxtaposition of heavily marketable soundtrack snippets and classic film themes throughout the film makes for strange sonic bedfellows indeed, but it's the storyline's cartoonish take on the whole “extreme sportsman as government agent” genre (you know, that one) which really detonates a cluster bomb in your mind. Remarkably, XXX somehow manages to make director Cohen and star Diesel's previous effort, the hi-octane B-flick The Fast and the Furious, seem like a sudden classic; it's so astonishingly awful in everything it does (stuntwork excluded, natch) that I dare say this is some sort of backwards masterpiece, a loud, proud, in-your-face example of rote actioneering and cringe-inducing one-liners that even Red Heat-era Schwarzenegger would've balked at. Of course, it could also be a spy genre parody in the vein of Matt Helm and Our Man Flint, but the strapping, gravel-voiced Diesel is, by anyone's standards, a far cry from either Dean Martin or James Coburn. No, I think it's the former, and although much of the stunt work here is remarkable (a series of motorcycle gags that run throughout the film have almost as much gutsy zing as some of John Woo's old Hong Kong set-pieces), the rest of the film feels alternately rushed and poorly planned. Often, it's just plain confusing: Diesel plays Xander Cage (nicknamed Triple X, thanks to an unfortunate tattoo decision), an underground extreme sports fanatic given to stealing Corvettes and driving them off bridges while he parachutes off the car's trunk. It's exactly this sort of “hellacool” stunt that draws the eye of NSA bigwig Agent Gibbons (Jackson, sporting an unexplained wad of liquid latex scarring at least half his mug), who kidnaps Cage and a few other Dirty Dozen types and sends them off to infiltrate a Czech-based group of sartorially inclined Russian expats bent on unleashing global anarchy via bioterror. Got that? Good, because that's all anyone gets with XXX; clever plotting is not screenwriter Rich Wilkes' strong suit, nor is character development or logic of any sort, though he does show some promise when constructing scenes of extreme mayhem and speechifying villains. In truth, the best thing about XXX is the presence of cult actress Asia Argento (daughter of Italian horror auteur Dario Argento and actress Daria Nicolodi) as Russian schemer Yalena, who, refreshingly, looks like she hasn't had a decent night's rest since glasnost. She's not given much to do here but sneer at or cozy up to Diesel, but she's obviously having at least a modicum of fun in her first big-budget American role (you can tell because her overripe scowl sometimes curls into a low-grade smirk not necessitated by the script). That's worlds beyond what Samuel L. Jackson manages. His usually explosive presence is utterly wasted here and he's got to endure at least a couple of hours in make-up to boot, poor guy. Honestly, at this point in time there's no legitimate reason to confuse “bad ass” filmmaking with just plain bad. Nice GTO, though.

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XXX, Rob Cohen, Vin Diesel, Asia Argento, Samuel L. Jackson, Martin Csokas, Joe Bucaro III

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