There are stunningly choreographed sequences of balletic action within XXX: Return of Xander Cage that recall the kind of movie the late Roger Ebert once called the Bruised Forearm Movie. For those not educated in the particular lingo the dearly departed film critic adopted for films that showcased certain trends, that was the kind of action masterpiece in which the audience member grabbed the forearm of the person (stranger or friend) sitting next to them until bruises appeared and grins were formed. One such sequence comes to mind here: a knock-down, drag-out chase scene in which, in one scene, Vin Diesel chases Donnie Yen through oncoming traffic by leaping over cars and narrowly avoiding wreckage that occasionally encircles them and, paired with this chase, Deepika Padukone chases Tony Jaa on the tops of stationary cars.
Everything about this sequence is mesmerizing in how it builds to a series of glorious moments involving a van that upends itself in order to upend another that must be so perfectly timed and executed that the van ends back on its wheels (on top of yet another car, naturally). Then the scene halts as expository dialogue must be exchanged and as we, the audience, must be caught up on who has accomplished which necessary point within the nonsense plot that surrounds these sequences. It's enough to make one wish that F. Scott Frazier's screenplay just wouldn't bother with this information. On one hand, a film made almost exclusively of action scenes sounds like a tough proposition; on the other hand, it's worked before, including in the very films praised by Ebert and considered touchstones of this genre.
This is an oddly distended action picture that puts far too much stock into a plot it simultaneously finds inconsequential. That sentence doesn't follow any logic of which you are aware, reader, but you'll get the same sensation, I swear. It's been 15 years since skateboarding, stunt-happy Xander Cage (Diesel) was approached by government agent Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson) to handle some business with those Czechoslovakian goons and 12 years since he apparently died and they replaced him with a convicted felon. Now, Gibbons has died after a satellite falls on him, and Cage, who of course faked his own death, is approached by Jane Marke (Toni Collette) to avenge her old colleague and steal back the device that was used to do the destructive deed. Joining him are agents played variously by Kris Wu (as a deejay who doesn't really fit into this group), Ruby Rose (as the one that glares moodily at everyone between one-liners), Nina Dobrev (very funny as someone who is decidedly not a field agent but who gets the best combative moment in the climax), and Rory McCann (as the one who thinks of the craziest plans and attempts them, whatever the risk to himself and others).
Their personalities don't get them too far, and neither do those of the opposing team of thieves and plunderers, played by Yen, Jaa, and Padukone, all of whom are at least convincing physical performers when asked. There's a villain to stop, a traitor to unveil, and carnage upon carnage to facilitate, although at least Frazier and director D.J. Caruso don't dip low enough on the taste scale to introduce the Ticking Bomb cliche. Still, the particulars of this plot are nonsensical, featuring various plot developments that fall apart upon the mininum of scrutiny, but are put into such focus that the high energy of the rest of the piece is brought to a screeching halt. Dumbness wouldn't be a problem in XXX: Return of Xander Cage, which climaxes with another orgy of action that includes a zero-gravity fight and an ancillary character wearing rocket-powered punching gloves, except that it ultimately metastasizes to the film's overall impression.
Vin Diesel (Xander Cage), Donnie Yen (Xiang), Deepika Padukone (Serena Unger), Kris Wu (Nicks), Ruby Rose (Adele Wolff), Nina Dobrev (Becky Clearidge), Tony Jaa (Talon), Rory McCann (Tennyson Torch), Toni Collette (Jane Marke), Samuel L. Jackson (Augustus Gibbons), Ice Cube (Darius Stone).
Directed by D.J. Caruso and written by F. Scott Frazier.
Rated PG-13 (extended gunplay/violent action, sexual material, language).
Released on January 20, 2017.