[box cover]

XXX: Special Edition

Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment

Starring Vin Diesel, Asia Argento, Marton Csokas,
and Samuel L. Jackson

Written by Rich Wilkes
Directed by Rob Cohen

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Review by J. Jordan Burke                    

(Yorgi:) "Now that our business is finished, we party."

(Evil Henchman:) "Bitches, come!"

— Some of the urbane, witty dialogue to be enjoyed in XXX.

Does the world really have room any more for legitimate movie stars?

One would suppose not. Currently, big-budget, high-concept franchise pictures are where the Hollywood studios prefer to park their money. Boy wizards and superheroes and hobbits gross hundreds of millions worldwide, and gone (for now) are the days when a big star could be guaranteed to "open" a picture on its first weekend and secure profitability — critics be damned.

After all, who's still on the A-list? Where have the major players gone? Harrison Ford has appeared in a handful of the biggest-grossing films in history, but as of late his career has foundered in box-office disappointments. Arnold Schwarzenegger is too old to carry the sort of action pictures he used to dominate, forcing him into upcoming sequels of The Terminator and True Lies. Anybody remember Sylvester Stallone? Believe it or not, he used to be golden at the box-office with his Rocky and Rambo films. Not anymore. Burt Reynolds' last known address is a mystery.

Meanwhile, other notables remain hard at work. Robert De Niro, for one, has veered into ill-fitting comedy franchises. Al Pacino continues to be the best veteran actor working today, mostly by aligning himself with such directors as Michael Mann and Christopher Nolan. Jack Nicholson's still able to deliver on a picture, but just in the small-budget category. The sun hasn't set on Tom Cruise by a long shot, but the actor seems to prefer choosing projects that allow him to work with a variety of talented directors, and for every Mission: Impossible, he's likely to take supporting work in something like P.T. Anderson's Magnolia, or even just his winning cameo in the opening of Goldmember.

All of these actors understand that a successful career is a product of successful collaborations. They can't sell a movie by themselves. They've seen what's happened to those who ignore the new rules. Like Eddie Murphy. Plaster your face on a movie poster and don't worry about quality control, and suddenly you're taking a year off in Hawaii, talking to your agent about using what celebrity you have left to do a TV series. That's right — television. Because you can't find one studio chief who would lend you two quarters to park your Porsche.

Nobody gives a damn about movie stars any more.

But then there's Vin Diesel.

His friends call him "Vinnie," but you probably shouldn't it. At least, not at first. It's sort of hard to know how he'd react to such casual familiarity. Maybe he'd flash you that big grin, wrap a thick elbow around your neck, and give you a friendly, frat-house noogie on your head. You've just been blessed by Hollywood's new King of Cool.

Then again, if he doesn't want some punk-ass like you to call him "Vinnie," he might lay one fist across your jaw and plant the other one on your solar plexus. As you crumple over in a spineless heap, maybe he'd also give you a swift kick in the nuts and tell you that he'll throw you another beating in five minutes — if you want it. Right now, he's gonna talk to some ladies. And there you will lay, on the floor, in horrible agony. You've just had your ass stomped by Hollywood's new King of Cool.

You can't figure Vin out, no matter how hard you try. Is he friendly? Sometimes. Nasty? Yes, when provoked. Handsome? Not really. Sexy? Absolutely.

Vin isn't quite white, black, Asian, or Native American. He's big and burly, but not a sculpted bodybuilder. He isn't dumb, but he doesn't over-analyze matters either. He can be tough, but there is a capacity for tenderness as well. He doesn't have a perfect smile, but he does have a totally disarming, goofy grin that he saves for special occasions.

And then there's his secret weapon — that voice. It's deep, and it's resonant. But listen closely, because it's also very nasal. Vin speaks in hi-lo stereo, with his sinewy larynx offering up rich, melodious words that resonate in his upper sinus cavities as they simultaneously strike the air. It's part chic, part geek, and it doesn't make sense.

But then, neither does anything else about Vin. It's why he's a Movie Star, and why you'll never be.

*          *          *

The movies have been kind to Vin Diesel ( Mark Vincent) since he got his first big break. That came from Steven Spielberg, who saw a short film with Vin and gave him a supporting part in Saving Private Ryan. Originally a New York theater actor, Vin was set on a Hollywood career at a young age, and he's always been careful about selecting his material. He won the lead role as the voice of The Iron Giant in 1999, an animated film that deserved much more box-office than it received. Audiences noticed him once again in Pitch Black (2000), a sci-fi thriller that was a surprise box-office hit. It would not be the last time Vin knew the value of his material better than the pundits and bean-counters — Rob Cohen's The Fast and the Furious (2001) was a box-office sensation that took nearly everyone by surprise, mining the American subculture of custom street-rods and illegal drag races to become one of the year's biggest hits. His central role immediately made him a bankable commodity.

Bear in mind that this rapid rise happened in a field where Next Big Things are anointed monthly by the industry press, only to find themselves back in their agents' offices after a couple of box-office flops, wondering if they can get a supporting part in a large film, if they should take work on a low-budget, high-cred indie, or pretend they really don't care about Hollywood and do off-off-Broadway for a couple of years. They got unlucky, or they just couldn't beat the system.

Vin Diesel, on the other hand, knows a lot more about the movie business than most folks would suspect. After all, he turned down $20 million to appear in a sequel to The Fast and the Furious. Joining the $20 million club is monumental enough — deciding to join it on your own terms is something different altogether. All Vin said was that he knew he'd have to pick a franchise that was appropriate for his talent, and he didn't think The Fast and the Furious was the right property.

That might sound a bit nuts. But Vin also had just completed XXX. He had already planted his flag on the film's distinctive logo.

*          *          *

XXX draws quite a bit from The Fast and the Furious, which should come as no surprise, since both films have the same director and star, and both men clearly have similar aesthetic tastes and enjoy working with each other. From a marketing perspective, this time around the film once again targets a built-in core audience from a marginal American youth subculture — the world of extreme sports. XXX is the sort of movie we'd get if John Woo was handed an $85 million budget from ESPN-2. The fact that mainstream Americans actually bought tickets — folks who wouldn't know the difference between a 720 and rail-slide — made it a crossover success, a $142 million win in the crowded summer market.

But XXX draws from one other thing — the 007 movies, as established by Ian Fleming and Albert Broccoli. It's a spy film, after all, and one that's hell-bent on exposing the shibboleths of an older generation, unmasking its clichés, and then dismissing the claptrap altogether (granted, XXX comes up with its own unique blend of clichés and claptrap, but that will be for an unborn generation to address a few decades from now). James Bond himself — or a reasonable facsimile — is disposed of in the film's opening scene, as a tuxedo-clad American agent finds himself at a Rammstein concert, where he's summarily assassinated, only to have his limp corpse body-surfed over the crowd to some final, nebulous resting place.

Our story then commences with the introduction of Xander Cage (Diesel), an extreme sports hound who performs outrageous stunts on videotape and then sells them online, calling the series "The Xander Zone." However, after he steals a politician's sportscar and drives it off a high bridge (base-jumping to safety from the free-falling convertible), his lawless habits draw him to the attention of the National Security Agency and Agent Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson), who has presented his superiors with a Dirty Dozen-style plan to send hardened criminals on dangerous missions, precisely because they are more expendable than trained operatives.

After Xander passes a couple of survival tests, he is then sent by Gibbons on a mission to Prague, where he is to meet a crime syndicate known as "Anarchy 99," a renegade group from the Soviet military that's up to no good. Now dubbed "XXX" by Gibbons, our hero discovers Anarchy 99 is dealing in much more than stolen Ferraris — they have, in fact, acquired a Russian nerve agent called "Silent Night," and their leader Yorgi (Marton Csokas) plans to send a submarine through European rivers to the largest cities to release the gas on millions of civilians. Meanwhile, XXX butts heads with Yorgi's main squeeze Yelena (Asia Argento), unaware that she has her own secrets to keep.

*          *          *

It's hard to criticize XXX, although one easily could do so with little effort. The only problem is that an acrid critic would seem a spoilsport in this instance. In fact, the movie practically is engineered to shrug off its own deficiencies, much like a wayward teenager who admits there are bad grades on his report card, but then insists he wasn't trying to get a 4.0 GPA in the first place.

They are readily forgiven, but the faults to be found in XXX are many: The dialogue is forced and wooden, often coming across as a mere excuse to get to the next action scene. The action scenes themselves are uniformly entertaining, but at times they not only defy notions of credibility, but the incontrovertible laws of physics. Central-casting characters dominate the proceedings, from the asshole Republican politician (Tom Everett), to the evil Colombian drug lord (Danny Trejo), to the slimy Czech spies, to the Eurotrash villains who wear a lot of dark, smelly clothes and look like they just switched from heroin to methadone. As the main bad guy Yorgi, New Zealand-born actor Marton Csokas does little more than sneer and act like a dinner-theater villain, all the while apparently doing his best Bela Lugosi impression, only lacking the white plastic fangs that cost 50¢ in the supermarket every October.

And — dare it be said — Sam Jackson just isn't given enough to do. When he is on screen, he seems restrained, subdued. There isn't a fire-and-brimstone tongue-lashing in sight.

Thankfully, Italian actress Asia Argento fits the bill in the female lead as Yelena, and while she's very easy on the eyes, she's more than a tasty bit of crumpet on a saucer. She's physical, and competitive, and ruthless when necessary — sexy in all the right ways. As NSA agent Toby Lee Shavers, comedian Michael Roof tackles the 'Q' role of gadget-boffin, and he delivers welcome bits of comic timing.

But the only original casting to be found anywhere is Vin Diesel. XXX gets his own bon mots, but rather than snide remarks to bad guys, they normally are anti-authoritarian sneers, both to the NSA's Gibbons and the European agents he later encounters. A spy without a cause, he does not want to fight for his country. But he also abhors malice and injustice, which doesn't jibe with his laid-back, be-cool attitude. XXX saves the world, but with the swagger of a detention-hall veteran. And like that other bad boy, James Bond, when it's all over he escapes to an island paradise with his leading lady, refusing to take any calls.

*          *          *

Columbia TriStar's DVD release of XXX: Special Edition is a packed item for fans, with a variety of supplements. The anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) is superb, with rich definition throughout, while the booming audio is delivered in a strong Dolby Digital 5.1 mix (in English or French).

The extras begin with a full-length commentary track from director Rob Cohen, who speaks in clear, even tones and manages to keep up his monologue for the film's two-hour running-time. Most of the track is informative, particularly as he discusses many behind-the-scenes details. But at other times Cohen can be pedantic, repeatedly pointing out set-up and pay-off plot aspects that don't really require much conversation.

The disc's best feature is the Filmmaker's Diary (40:40), which covers pre-production, shooting in California and the Czech Republic, and post-production. A documentary unit was hired to be on hand during principal photography, capturing cast-and-crew interactions during the varied shoot. The best details to be found here are B-roll videos of some of the film's best stunts, as shown uncut and in actual time (not to be missed are the base-jump from the falling Corvette and the motocross leap over the exploding barn — both real gags with no principal CGI effects).

Four featurettes are included:

A series of three Visual-Effects How To's examine the avalanche sequence and the shack explosion, shown in relative silence or with commentary with director Cohen.

Cohen also offers commentary on ten Deleted Scenes:

Filmographies are included for Diesel, Jackson, Argento, director Cohen, and screenwriter Rich Wilkes.

And also here is the music video of Gavin Rossdale singing the film's title track "Adrenaline," which actually appears in the film over the closing credits. It's a catchy tune and a good fit for the Bush frontman's grunge-tinged voice, but the credit sequence is far more visually interesting, and the song is better enjoyed there.

— J. Jordan Burke

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