The Globalism Of XXX: THE RETURN OF XANDER CAGE

Vin Diesel has the whole world in his hands.

Minor spoilers to follow.

xXx: Return of Xander Cage is an American production, but it doesn’t feel like an American movie. Much like its producer and star, from whose unique sensibilities its ideas stem, its national origin is somewhat hard to pin down. Its opening scene re-introduces the series’ recruitment tool, Augustus Gibbons as played by Samuel L. Jackson, an actor known to most as a recruiter of Marvel superheroes, as he recruits none other than Brazillian football superstar Neymar Jr. (That’s soccer for our American readers). So ubiquitous in footballing countries is Neymar that he needs no introduction, though he’s certainly given one in the form of a title card that makes the film feel all the more ridiculous, since Neymar is playing himself.

Neymar’s superpower and special skill? Football. His method of incapacitating a gun-toting criminal? Football. That’s all he needs to be good at for Gibbons to want to recruit him to be a super-spy. Where football is a somewhat of a niche in America, at best its fourth most popular sport once every four years, football-skill-as-superpower is a seemingly silly notion that rings particularly true in most other nations, and it isn’t even the only time the sport comes up.

In the scene that re-introduces Xander Cage, Vin Diesel attaches a timed mechanical device to a massive government tower and begins evading armed authorities, a scene typical of the American action movie meant to establish the hero’s skill set. He skis through tropical rainforests, skateboards off the side of a bus and high-fives bystanders who treat him like a local celebrity (he’s actually in Brazil, and he may as well be playing Vin Diesel), all before completing his task as the timer hits zero. Given that there’s no information provided during the chase, be it about the stakes or the actual specifics, this kind of scene wouldn’t ordinarily amount to much dramatically. But the information is treated as a reveal – not only of Xander’s mission, but of Vin Diesel’s mission statement.

The timer goes off, and the broadcast of the latest Brazillian football match invades people’s home like an explosion. They cheer and celebrate this simple pleasure as Diesel basks in their joy, giving them unfettered access to culture and information. A young boy approaches and thanks him from bringing the world to his town. Diesel points at the boy’s heart and tells him the whole world is inside him. It’s a statement that runs somewhat counter to what the scene is trying to achieve, but it’s delivered with the kind of straight-faced sincerity that makes for the right kind of cheesy foundation. What’s more, it falls perfectly in line with Vin Diesel’s producer-and-star-as-auteur approach to global action franchises.

The world is Vin Diesel’s and there’s a little boy inside him that hopes to recreate it in his image. Had The Last Witch Hunter been a success, Diesel’s Dungeons & Dragons tribute would’ve been another starting point for the actor to bring his obsessions to the screen repeatedly, and ever since he jumped on board the Fast & Furious train as the franchise’s producer and keeper, it’s become a massive global phenomenon with ridiculous action built on a platform of sincerity. If anything, xXx 3 feels like a competing brand led by the same person.

While it revels in foreign exoticism, Fast & Furious is a wholly, distinctly American franchise. Fast Five takes place entirely in Brazil if you recall, and Furiouses 6 and 7 take the series elsewhere, but they still center around a (mostly) American cast, and thus, through an American perspective. It’s a big step forward for racial diversity no doubt, and Diesel’s continued mumblings of “family” form the right kind of core for a self-aware action series where character dynamics are both window dressing and secret formula.

Similar to the Fast cast is the new Team xXx, with its mantra of “X looks after its own.” An international family comprising spies and martial artists from all over the world, and even a Chinese DJ (No really, boy band member Kris Wu plays a DJ) whose skill is to distract people with music. The American Diesel is joined by Indian actress Deepika Padukone*, Australian agender model Ruby Rose (as a lesbian sniper who shoots lion poachers!), Hong Kong’s scene-stealing Donnie Yen, Thailand’s Tony Jaa at his most ludicriously hyperactive, Bulgarian-Canadian actress Nina Dobrev as tech support, Scotland’s Rory McCann as a guy who likes to crash things, and even English MMA fighter Michael Bisping as the muscle. They all turn against each other at some point, even playing hot-potato with live grenades, but they eventually end up on the same side. What’s more, this inclusive cast of international superstars is an integral part of the narrative.

When the CIA’s Jane Marke tries to recruit Xander Cage she brings up the question of patriotism, a concept that no longer has meaning to him:

“There are no more patriots. Just rebels and tyrants.”

“So which are you?”

“I’m xXx.”

At first, “I’m xXx” is a reference to Xander himself. A singular rebellious identity recognized by everyone he comes into contact with, but as the narrative progresses it takes on a plurality. The “villains” (a team made up of Yen, Padukone, Jaa and Bisping) are revealed to be former xXx agents, now turned against American institutions seeking to misuse power. Everybody’s after “Pandora’s Box,” a satellite-crashing device being used as leverage to dismantles the world’s spy programs. The device falls into the hands of an anonymous rebel organization, seemingly concerned with liberating people from tyrannical governments, later revealed to be a proxy of the CIA. That’s… kind of ballsy for an American movie, painting Langley as the outright villains the rest of the world sees them as thanks to their foreign interference under the guise of “freedom.”

By taking a direct stand against the CIA, and thusly, against shady American interests, xXx is inadvertently positioned as an international and post-national coalition unbound by any government or governments. If the geopolitical status quo is America-as-Big-Brother, there’s perhaps no more direct indictment or upending of it than this ridiculously stupid movie.

To put things into perspective, xXx 3 is a film where a guy with superpowered mechanical gloves gets thrown out of an airplane through the toilet, and that same guy is constantly referred to as “G.I. Joe,” the pop culture symbol for all-American military heroism, and he essentially acts as an extension of tyrannical state policy. All this happens during a scene where a plane is falling out of the sky, as Donnie Yen punches and kicks and shoots, sometimes in the same motion. (Finally, a Chinese star who doesn’t feel wasted in a modern American studio film!)

And yet, this post-national, proto-globalist cinematic hybrid is still very much a Vin Diesel vehicle, and that’s… kind of amazing. Much like Riddick, it’s about Diesel bringing back a character he played and taking center stage – but he doesn’t hog the spotlight. Everyone gets their due in this movie, but that doesn’t stop Xander Cage from being the all-knowing, all-powerful, uber-fuckable liberator of the oppressed global diaspora (at one point he sleeps with a dozen or so women while tracking down a military weapon), and stringing together a diverse cast is part of Diesel’s benevolence as much as it is Xander’s. That’s not an inherently bad thing mind you. Diesel’s concern is absolutely and sincerely putting everyone on screen. Even his narrative camaraderie with Ruby Rose’s character is based entirely in reality:

This is the same goofy sincerity that exists in tandem with Diesel’s reportedly massive ego. He’s supposedly a nightmare to work with on the Fast & Furious films, and yet he treats the series like his baby, and like an epitaph to his late friend Paul Walker. “Now that’s a team I can work with!” says Xander, in this latest Diesel release. He may as well be referencing his alleged on-set tensions with the other Fast stars (it’s sort of fitting that he’s forced to fight them in The Fate of the Furious), but regardless of how he may or may not conduct himself as a person and as a producer, it’s hard to stay mad at Vin Diesel the star, the celebrity, the enigma. The guy who dresses his character up in jean shorts and a fur coat, lampshades the decision, but revels in it anyway because it’s something he feels like doing.

He’s the lowest-common-denominator Kanye West (I say this with nothing but love for both West and Diesel), and xXx: Return of Xander Cage is his Life of Pablo. A snapshot of manic creativity (both works are occasionally sloppy and disorienting) and unhinged id channeled through cult of personality. Only where Kanye uses Gospel samples to augment his chosen mainstream genre, Diesel augments the American mainstream with the mainstreams of other nations, incorporating their stars and genre elements and turning bikes into jet skis mid-chase like something out of a Bollywood film… Oh, and for what it’s worth, Diesel incorporates Gospel too. The movie’s final scene is set in a black church, but it’s populated by people from a wide cross-section of ethnicities and national origins. 

Like I said, it’s an American action movie that feels downright un-American most of the time, and that’s nothing but a good thing. It’s all about Vin Diesel and his friends punching and shooting and stabbing the powers that be while breaking down barriers, and it’s one hell of a good time despite being a big ol’ mess. If it makes a killing at the global box office, and I have a feeling it will, it’ll be interesting to see what decisions Hollywood makes in response. These films have always been for more than just American audiences, and xXx: Return of Xander Cage felt like it understood this more than any major studio production since Pacific Rim.

*On a personal note, it’s also really, really cool to see an Indian accent be a perfectly natural part of a major American blockbuster. That’s the kind of thing I’m talking about when I say this movie feels like it’s for the rest of us.

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