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xXx: STATE OF THE UNION (PG-13) (2005)

Columbia Pictures

Official Site

Director: Lee Tamahori

Producers: Neal H. Moritz, Arne L. Schmidt

Written by: Simon Kinberg

Cast: Ice Cube, Willem Dafoe, Samuel L. Jackson, Scott Speedman, Xzibit, Nona Gaye

Rating:


A bad action flick is like a big-budget porno. Billowing explosions and showy stuntwork are its answer to persistent nudity and objectified sexuality, and what’s left over usually amounts to little more than begrudgingly awkward downtime between “money shots” (’cause you’ve gotta have a plot, after all). Frankly, there’s only one (earnest) reason to watch either, and both audience and filmmaker know it. Indeed, the extent to which the film good-naturedly acknowledges/embraces this condition—or, conversely, strains to be taken seriously—is often what separates the bad ones from those that are truly unbearable. It is in this arena that the torpid, but ultimately innocuous (and once in a while, mildly fun) xXx: State Of The Union manages a sliver of saving grace. In its most entertaining moments, the picture is vaguely self-aware, even cheeky, lightening things up just enough to rescue itself from the ranks of abject xXxcrement.

The story, insofar as there is one, is as follows (stop me if you’ve heard this one): In order to foil a deadly conspiracy rooted deeply within the upper ranks of the U.S. government, the good guys must seek an outsider, a down-on-his-luck loner who’s been kicked around a bit, but has the potential to make good—by his own rules. So AcademyAward–nominee Samuel L. Jackson (as NSA agent Augustus Gibbons), who discovered and took a chance on loose cannon Vin Diesel (as xXxtreme athlete Xander Cage) in xXx, discovers and takes a chance on loose cannon Ice Cube (as elite-soldier-turned-court-martialee Darius Stone). In the mix somewhere is (sigh) two-time Academy Award–nominee Willem Dafoe, as our antihero’s erstwhile commanding officer, who had ’Cube thrown in military prison, in part for disobeying a wartime order to burn a village or something. Whatever. The point is, if you’re watching xXx2, you’re probably even less concerned with a meaty and cohesive storyline than, say, the creative team behind xXx2. Every once in a while, it’s sort of a nice courtesy for a movie to let you know exactly what to expect from it within the first 8-9 seconds or so. Well, such is the case with xXx2, as it is only about that long before the first hapless dude meets with his unceremonious demise and the detached death-orgy is on. You get an establishing shot of a ranch, a few ticks of an apparently nice enough fella making his rounds through the stables, and then—WHAM! Knife in the kidney. Then these Black Ops guys (pretty sweet-looking Black Ops guys, actually) storm the secret underground NSA outpost that was housed (naturally) several meters below the horsey-farm, and people get busy dying via hand cannon like it’s going out of style. Following a frantically-cut, look-at-me-I’m-an-action-movie bullet-storm that has the approxXximate sensory impact of, say, cramming your head into a dryer full of fireworks (or punching yourself in the face a lot—take your pick,) out comes Samuel L., with the understandable residual crankiness of having punched rifle-holes through a half-dozen extras. He turns to his nimroddish tech-whiz companion (Michael Roof) and says, seemingly out of nowhere, “The next Triple Ex has got to have… more attitude.” And your brain goes, “Well. That was seemingly out of nowhere.” And then the nimrod is talking, saying “More attitude? Where the hell are we going to find that?” And your brain, like a reflex, tells you instinctively, “Now we’ll cut to Ice Cube.” Sure enough, a split second later, we’re treated to a punch-line close-up of ’Cube in military prison, looking pissed in a state-issued jumpsuit. And then you say, “Ohh. I get it.” And you can relaxXx, because you realize now that you’ve essentially seen this movie a million times before, and you’re perfectly free to set your brain on “stupid,” kick back, and just watch shit blow up.

As the latest installment of agent xXx, Ice Cube is terrible. I mean, really bad. Nearly every line is delivered with a numbing combination of over-the-top, tiresome “defiance” and a droning O’Neal-esque monotone (Shaquille, not Ryan). He does have a well-nigh hilarious scene wherein he poses as a Southern Baptist Minister and intimidates the crap out of a white NRA member (minor bright spot Todd Louiso), and manages to log two, maybe three more (intentional) laughs, but these do nothing to erase the memory of his ineffective, perpetual snarl. Sam Jackson made some waves in 2003 when he downed rap-artists-turned-actors, saying that he didn’t feel it was his responsibility to lend credence to co-stars who fall under that heading. Recently, he turned down an upcoming Jim Sheridan film because it would have paired him with 50 Cent. (Yes, that’s right—that Jim Sheridan [In America, My Left Foot] is directing a movie starring that 50 Cent [“In Da Club,” “After My Cheddar”]. And yes, that’s right—Samuel L. Jackson turned down a part.) Soo… ups to Sam for sticking to his guns, but the situation begs the question: Why be all principled and say no to a respected, thrice-nominated director, but break the fast for State Of The Union (which, with Xhibit on the bill, is a two-fer)? Anyway, I’d like to be able to say that I’m disappointed in ol’ Sam, but then, bored, listless performances in sub-par pictures (S.W.A.T., et al.) have become sort of customary for the once-King of Cool—presumably an occupational hazard associated with being the “hardest-working man” and such. Willem Dafoe, who waxes Sam-Jacksonian himself every once in a while (Spiderman, SPEED 2: CRUISE CONTROL??!!) actually manages a pretty good, understated performance in this one—easily the best of the bunch, he is effectively menacing without overdoing it (and thus the direct antipode to Ice Cube’s Stone). This is due to the facts that (1) Willem Dafoe, like Jackson, is a confident, well-trained actor, and (2) Willem Dafoe is one creepy bastard.

Despite all this vicious bad-mouthing, xXx2, for what it is—which admittedly is not much—isn’t the worst thing I’ve seen this year. Don’t get me wrong—it’s ridiculous, but “ridiculous” is nowhere near as horrifying as what it could’ve been had it taken itself more seriously. (See 1998’s Lost In Space, or Spawn). I rather prefer “ridiculous.” “Ridiculous” makes me laugh, which is fun. The bottom line is, it’s worse than the average bad actioner, but not the worst, by far. Verdict: a cut above xXxecrable.

P.S. Re: xXx3

Seriously…

How about Shaq?

—Brian Villalobos

hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

Take a pal and pay full price for both tickets.

Itís worth a full-price ticket.

Itís worth a matinee ticket.

Wait for video rental.

Check out the video from the library, if you must.

While we would never encourage anyone to destroy a video...


Mike Doughty



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