xXx: Return of Xander Cage – Review (***)

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Living up – or down? – to just about every expectation of a belated jolt to the heart of a long-expired franchise, the third xXx movie may be lunk-headed and wholly unnecessary, but it’s also a ton of fun thanks to a game cast, self-aware tone and wealth of ultra-absurd action.

Terrorist Xiang (Donnie Yen) has broken into the CIA and stolen a technological MacGuffin known as Pandora’s Box, which is capable of transforming satellites into homing missiles which crash back down to Earth. When nobody else is apparently fit for the job, Agent Jane Marke (Toni Collette) recruits believed-dead xXx operative Xander Cage (Vin Diesel) to track Xiang down and retrieve the hardware.

The plot’s as scarcely functional as fans of this unlikely franchise would probably hope for, because all the fun here comes from the characters, their off-hand banter and, of course, the ludicrous set-pieces.

This is not a smart movie but it is a self-aware one, winking at the audience at every errant opportunity and clearly learning a lesson or two from the tonal shift of the more recent Fast and the Furious movies, upping the ante with hilariously over-the-top digital-assisted action and having little pretense to seriousness.

Diesel may merely be doing his Diesel thing here, as he’s easily overshadowed by many of the supporting players; martial arts legend Donnie Yen in particular is a blast, and Toni Collette clearly savours the opportunity to munch some scenery and get paid nicely doing it.

Tony Jaa is a welcome presence but, aside from a few nifty stunts here and there, he’s disappointingly under-used. Ruby Rose is also surprisingly good as a sassy sniper and Game of Thrones’ Rory McCann fills out the oddball quotient nicely, while a litany of cameos – some best left unspoiled – represent fun added value.

Bar a pacing sag in the pic’s middle as it actually stops to, gasp, explain things, the focus is plainly on sexy women and nutty action, the latter of which is especially delivered in spades, well-shot by D.J. Caruso with above-average visual coherence for the genre. If you’re after anything approaching realism, you’ve come to the wrong place, but if you can get on-board with shenanigans not too far divorced from Loony Tunes, there are plenty of chuckles to be had.

You pretty much know what you’re getting here and whether you’ll like it or not. It’s campier and more aware of its own stupidity than many might expect, but basically delivers what it says on the tin.

***

xXx: Return of Xander Cage is in cinemas now

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