Saturn Will Not Sleep - Discovery (Official Video)


Columbia Pictures

Year Released: 2002
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Director: Rob Cohen
Writer: Rich Wilkes
Cast: Vin Diesel, Asia Argento, Marton Csokas, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Roof, Richy Muller, Werner Daehn, Joe Bucaro III.

Review by Eric Beltmann

"Think PlayStation," Vin Diesel says to persuade government agents to start blowing stuff up. His directive also suggests the best way to approach Rob Cohen's XXX, an espionage cartoon that filters every James Bond formula -- from the braniac who builds the nifty gadgets, right down to the calculated sexism -- through video games, extreme sports, and a bullish desire to shatter the relevance of a certain tuxedo-clad spy. If Bond is for boomers, and Spy Kids for kiddies, then XXX is a secret agent for cynical in-betweeners -- and as long as you don't mind that its main character resembles an obnoxious sophomore macking in a high school hallway, thinking he's all that, the movie is some kind of doozy.

Had he been born in 1975 rather than 1908, Ian Fleming might have foregone Bond's suave, refined work ethic and instead concocted Xander Cage (Diesel), an insolent daredevil nicknamed Triple X (or sometimes just X) because it describes the massive tattoo on the back of his neck, a loud bumper sticker for his brashness. Xander spends his time making amateur videos of his mad tricks, such as horking a senator's Corvette, steering the red demon off a bridge, and using its trunk as a platform from which to parachute to safety. ESPN2 might be interested in buying a copy of that one.

Posted on his underground website, the videos of Xander's he-man shenanigans have earned him an international cult following, but have also caught the attention of Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson), whose face is scarred from years of service in the National Security Agency. The veteran is looking for "snakes" to send into the field, since his traditional agents can't seem to penetrate the pits of European decadence. (The movie opens, metaphorically, with a Bondesque spy getting whacked at a Rammstein concert, basically for sticking out like a sore thumb.) For Gibbons, Xander's lowlife exuberance, his ability to scale a barbed-wire fence sideways on a motorbike, is precisely what qualifies him to infiltrate Anarchy 99, a government-hating outfit planning to unleash bioterrorism on the great cities of Europe. Since today's "modern" audiences can't possibly be expected to cheer for a hero operating out of patriotism or selfless global concern -- at least in Cohen's view -- Xander only agrees to the assignment because it will keep him out of prison. In other words, while Bond is fundamentally British, the uncivilized and contemptuous Triple X has a "made in America" tag stitched to his chest, to complement the spiky tattoos that creep up his arms. This is the beefy brute that will conquer the New World frontier, or at least the next generation of meathead action movies.

What follows is the X-Games with detonations, as Diesel tries to crack Anarchy 99 while falling hard for an ice-cold terrorist named Yelena (Asia Argento). His efforts require large doses of skydiving, snowboarding, motocross racing, and skateboarding (if gliding down stair railings on a dinner tray counts, and it does in my book), all made more "extreme" by the distractions of bullets and explosions. Diesel last teamed with Cohen for The Fast and the Furious, an enjoyably trashy ode to street racing filled with male-loyalty hokum, and like that picture, XXX has a certain respect for danger; the action scenes in both films are grounded in a sense of personal risk. Cohen aims for the sky in XXX, though, devising impossible ways to catapult his star into the stratosphere (as an action player, but also as a Hollywood commodity), where Diesel shows off his preening familiarity with the Bicycle Stunt Vert and freestyle espionage. Video games inform these action blowouts too, since most of the chaos employs the same type of direct closeups and intense point-of-view shots that mark first-person shooters. Volcanic, novel, and pretty much nonstop, the stunts are quite spectacular, particularly as an extension of Diesel's up-yours attitude. At one point, Triple X provokes an avalanche in order to raze a communications tower, and as he outruns the white shower on a snowboard, I was simply thrilled -- partially because Cohen stages the scene with precision and clarity, but also because, underneath the sunglasses, there's sheer moxie glowering in Diesel's eyes.

Entertainments predicated upon adrenalin typically leave me numb, so the fun I had at XXX puzzles me, especially since I kept rolling my eyes at the movie's Neanderthal definition of contemporary "cool." Some teens might buy into Diesel's notion that "cool" means flouting authority, being rude, listening to industrial metal, and wearing pimp jackets, but I found the general tone of XXX rather obnoxious. Growling audacity aside, Diesel frequently comes off as a bully, an overgrown version of the playground blow-hard. Uncouth and antisocial, Xander Cage assumes being coarse is hip, making his sarcastic bravado more hateful than lovable. Diesel may infuse this corny thug routine with more nuances than most actors could, but Triple X's ironic sneering is still a juvenile ruse, a thuggish cover meant to conceal the character's utter lack of genuine personality or conviction. Exactly what does Xander Cage stand for? Cohen and Diesel both fantasize that being a spy rocks because it gives Xander a chance to put his PlayStation prowess to practical use -- and lotsa stuff sure gets blown up real good -- which makes him fearless but weightless at the same time, an anarchic hedonist who confuses breaking things with being cool. By the time he uses a cable and a parasail to transplant himself from a speeding GTO to a speeding boat carrying chemical weapons, I was surprised to find myself rooting for Xander to save the world, but equally surprised to realize that I half hoped the ill-mannered lug would snarl himself to death in the process.

Review published 08.20.2002.

For another opinion, read Rob Vaux's review.

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