In an age where studio blockbusters seem more passive and indistinct than ever, “xXx: Return of Xander Cage,” the undemanded-but-nevertheless-vibrantly-provided sequel to 2002’s mediocre “xXx,” sticks out like a sore thumb. Not necessarily because it’s good, or maybe even halfway decent. No, because it’s so brazenly, bewilderingly proud of itself and its debauchery. As far as unnecessary, unpunctual follow-ups go, star/producer Vin Diesel’s return to the action franchise he discarded the decade prior is a gleefully, almost manically absurdist piece of work.

Never less than ridiculous in its extremist approach, in ways both good and bad, this high-flying, wise-cracking, guns-blazing, fast-kicking, plane-jumping, parkour-performing, motorcycle-on-waves-riding third installment is at once farcical and fearless, screwy and sincere. Whether this one is supposed to restart the series or give it one last hurrah, Diesel and his crew don’t pull any punches, punts or pounces. It might be the most stupefyingly stupid thing I’ll see all year, and I’m still not entirely sure if that’s the best or the worst thing I can say about it.

xXx: Return of Xander CageYou’d be forgiven if you haven’t kept up religiously with the “xXx” narrative. Beyond Diesel’s closest friends and relatives, who has? For all intents, ‘Return of Xander Cage’ — like so many action blockbusters today — serves as both a sequel and a reboot, and it tells you any and all information you need to know upfront. Presumed dead by the government, the titular Xander Cage (Diesel), aka xXx, lives his days in the Dominican Republic in as much solitude and seclusion as jumping off cable towers, sliding-and-skateboarding down tropical hillsides and sleeping with nameless local beauties can allow. Ah, the desirable, perilous life of a late-40s extreme sport-loving daredevil. A fable as classic as time itself, really. All is well in the life of Xander Cage, but his undaunted ass-kicking services are, once again, in dire need.

Upon the untimely death of NSA Agent Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson), i.e. the man who once recruited Cage into the government field, Agent Marke (a horrifically-underused Toni Collette) seeks the former agent’s badassery in order to uncover “Pandora’s Box,” a military satellite-controlling device stolen by the villainous Xiang (Donnie Yen), which led to Gibbsons’ unexpected, ultra-explosive demise. But Cage can’t pull this mission off alone. He’ll need to build his own Expendables to secure the world’s safety, and he knows exactly who to get: expert shooter Adele (Ruby Rose), spunky driver Tennyson (Rory McCann) and DJ dumbass Nicks (Kris Wu), along with giddy tech operative Becky (Nina Dobrev) and a certain familiar face to the franchise who, unfortunately, was already spoiled by an overzealous marketing team.

xXx: Return of Xander CageIf nothing else, ‘Return of Xander Cage- is audaciously cocksure. With each free-wheeling action sequence and knowing wink to the audience, director D.J. Caruso perpetually nudges you and reminds you that, yes, everything and anything on screen is pure cheekiness. Nothing in this movie is played seriously. Not a single goddamn thing. From beginning to end, it’s idiotic, bombastic, crazy and massively, grinningly goofy, and it’s proud of it. In fact, the movie wears its dunce cap like it’s back in fashion. Does that make it better or worse? Well, a little bit of both.

There’s nothing wrong with going full-blown sillypants. In all honesty, I encourage more movies to do so. Several films have gone that distance, especially of late, and more than a few of them have done it well. Quite well, even. Sometimes extraordinarily well, like the delightfully bonkers “Mad Max: Fury Road,” for instance. With ‘Return of Xander Cage,’ however, it’s clear that Diesel hopes to emulate the resurged spunkiness seen in “Fast Five” through “Furious 7.” Accepting themselves as pure, unadulterated cheese, with only the sky as the limit (sometimes, quite literally) to their flat-out redonkulousness, that Diesel-led franchise is a rare revitalized success story in Hollywood. With pure optimism, ‘Return of Xander Cage’ tries to achieve that level of unabashed silliness at full throttle. It’s only partially successful, however. The problem isn’t necessarily with its lighthearted approach, but rather its limited sustainability.

xXx: Return of Xander CageDiesel can sometimes forget that audiences aren’t necessarily invested in his acting chops. Rather, they’re invested in the dexterous stunts and the beautiful cars that speed around him. They fuel the story around the story; that’s what has kept the ‘Fast and Furious’ series going. With “xXx: Return of Xander Cage,” however, it’s more on par with last week’s “Monster Trucks” than Diesel’s other, hyper-drive action spectacles. It loves itself wholly-and-unconditionally for being what it is, no doubt about that. And it doesn’t have any predisposed ideas about itself in the process. Sure, ‘xXx’ still desperately wants to be Bond for younger, dumber Americans, but with this overdue sequel, it accepts that it’s likely not going to find that success anytime soon. Yet, such unbridled silliness can soon grow stale, and that’s unfortunately what happens here.

Much like “Kingsman: The Secret Service” in 2015, it’s nostalgic for the action films of yesteryear. You know, the bouncy, bloodless, often bawdy action affairs replaced by gritty realism post-9/11. While often smirking to the camera, ‘Return Of Xander Cage’ isn’t necessarily meta or self-referencing. Beyond its rambunctious and knowing stupidity, there’s nothing particularly novel about this film. The stunts are wacky, certainly, but they’re not necessarily impressive. The tone is appealing in its frequent self-amusement, but it’s never funny or exciting enough to keep us that invested. It has all the ingredients for a fun throwback action-comedy, but the results remain kinda moderate.

xXx: Return of Xander CageFor better or worse, “xXx: Return of Xander Cage” plays like a surreal, demented, deranged and slightly perverted journey into Diesel’s current mindset. That’s part of the fun, but a lot of the struggle. Xander Cage might be middle-aged, but he still knows how to perform all the sickest tricks, throw all the silly quips and sleep with almost every female character near him, minus Collette’s. While ‘Return of Xander Cage’ isn’t porn, it certainly feels like softcore sleaze at times — and not the kind anyone wanted or asked for. One should applaud Diesel and Caruso for breathing unexpected energy into what could’ve been another lame, uninspired continuation. It’s wild, loud and totally out of control, and that’s periodically a pretty good thing. Fueled by the power of Red Bull, Mountain Dew, ‘00s extremism and teen hormones, this one is both a bang and a bust, tenacious and tedious. At the very least, it probably features the best toilet-related death sequence of 2017. So, that’s something. [C+]

  • Paul Adrian

    In your opinion which I am not bothered about mate.
    Your opinion is your own opinion, you can express it as long as you don’t try to shove down people’s throats.

    • Liam

      Cool. A contrarian. Also, I don’t think anyone “overhyped” Passengers. Unlike the other films you listed, it got dreadful reviews.

    • MonaBriss.

      The best film industry is in Asia today, especially in China/HK. I, for one, was so tired of the corrupt, inbred and politically correct crap that HW is spitting out by the numbers, so I just started to look for new entertainment and escapism. When I found a list of Chinese movies on IMDb, it just opened up the door to a fantastic new film world, and I’ve never closed it since. Two years later I watch only Chinese movies, and also the most fantastic TV-series that one can think of. I recommend you to try it if you are tired of the western kind of movies.

  • MonaBriss.

    Who cares about what the critics are saying, when you for once have the opportunity to watch the world’s most awesome, amazing, incredible, magical and gorgeous MA actor Donnie Yen. Seen almost all his movies multiple times, but not in the cinema though, since I’m Swedish, but this time I will watch it on the big screen maybe three times. I’m a total Donnie Yen addict, and he just never disappoints. He delivers even if the movie isn’t top notch, always worth seeing. He’s just the greatest, and he has a habit of outshining his compatriots, so Vin really has to watch out. With this said, I do want to emphasize though, that his Chinese/HK movies are superior to everything that HW has to offer. They should have used DY as the action director for xXx, and the fight scenes would have been a lot better filmed, less cut and edited and more realistic.