xXx: Return of Xander Cage

For F*** Magazine

XXX: RETURN OF XANDER CAGE

Director : D. J. Caruso
Cast : Vin Diesel, Donnie Yen, Deepika Padukone, Ruby Rose, Kris Wu, Toni Collette, Nina Dobrev, Rory McCann, Tony Jaa, Michael Bisping, Samuel L. Jackson
Genre : Action/Thriller
Run Time : 1h 47min
Opens : 19 January 2017
Rating : PG13 (Some Violence and Coarse Language)

xxx-return-of-xander-cage-posterAny action star worth his salt has got to keep more than one franchise going, so get ready for more Diesel-powered action with this continuation of the xXx series. Extreme sportsman and elite secret agent Xander Cage (Diesel) has long been thought dead, but his services are needed again as a new threat emerges. Xiang (Yen) and his team of highly skilled adrenaline junkie operatives have gotten their hands on a device called Pandora’s Box, which can be used to crash any satellite in orbit. NSA handler Jane Marke (Collette) draws Xander back into the fray. Xander calls on his associates, including sharpshooter Adele Wolff (Rose), stunt driver Tennyson Torch (McCann) and deejay Nicks Zhou (Wu) to back him up. They are assisted by tech expert Becky Clearidge (Dobrev). They must face off against Xiang and his team, comprising Serena (Padukone), Talon (Jaa) and Hawk (Bisping), as Serena questions where her loyalties lie. xxx-return-of-xander-cage-kris-wu-ruby-rose-rory-mccann-and-vin-diesel

The first xXx film was pitched as a hipper, cooler competitor to the Bond franchise. In the same year, the Bond film Die Another Day tried to pull off some extreme sports action. It was not a good look. The premise of devil-may-care thrill-seekers recruited into a spy program is silly, but in the right hands, it can be the fun kind of silly. xXx: Return of Xander Cage is absolutely the fun kind of silly. From the first scene, director D.J. Caruso practically announces that this is a film that doesn’t take itself too seriously at all. What follows is a string of outlandish stunts and set pieces which, while smaller in scale, almost rival those showcased in the recent Fast and Furious flicks. Anything that was considered remotely cool in the 2000s is, by now, painfully awkward, so xXx: Return of Xander Cage boldly embraces the cheesiness and is all the more enjoyable for it.

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F. Scott Frazier’s screenplay bursts with quips and one-liners of varying quality, but at its core lies a generic spy thriller plot: one team of agents has the MacGuffin, and the other must get it back. There’s globe-trotting, car chases and shootouts, as well as shifting alliances and standard-issue plot twists. Then again, nobody’s going to watch this for the plot. There are enough bells and whistles and a spirited embrace of ludicrousness to lift this above the humdrum formula of many a disposable action flick. You will believe a man can ski through a rainforest and that motorcycles can transform into jetskis to ride ocean swells. The visual effects work is surprisingly competent, and the explosive climax doesn’t look conspicuously phony.

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Diesel’s Xander allows the star to indulge his ego as a coolly laconic, an anti-establishment rebel who lives life on the edge. This was never a particularly grounded character and Diesel seems aware of that. This time, he has an eclectic ensemble supporting him.

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Yen is on excellent form here, the film making good use of his skill set. He’s is charming and menacing as Xiang, but the character is not a moustache-twirling villain and surprisingly, there’s some nuance to him. Yen gets to perform more martial arts here than he did in Rogue One, and he plays off Diesel superbly. Jet Li was originally cast in the part, and it is speculated that he dropped out due to health concerns. We think Yen is a better fit for Xiang than Li might’ve been.

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Bollywood starlet Padukone is counting on this film to help her break into the American market. She’s a serviceable femme fatale, but is far from the most memorable actress to play the archetype.

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It’s Rose who steals the show as the smart-alecky sniper Adele. The epitome of cool, Rose seems right in her element whether she’s handling a rifle or hitting on every woman in sight. McCann, best known as Sandor “The Hound” Clegane on Game of Thrones, puts in an amusing turn as the slightly-unhinged Tennyson. Dobrev plays up the ‘adorkable’ shtick for all it’s worth, but borders on grating as the resident tech geek. Out of Xander’s sidekicks, it’s Wu who makes the least impact as Nicks, who serves no apparent purpose on the team. Each character is introduced with a title card listing their special skills, akin to the ones seen in Suicide Squad. Nicks’ just says he’s “fun to be around”.

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As the no-nonsense boss lady, Collette delivers her many dramatic declarations with gusto, and appears to be having fun being a part of a big, silly action movie, since she doesn’t do those too often. Jaa has his hair dyed blonde and styled into a faux-hawk, and his role is largely comedic. If there’s any big missed opportunity here, it’s that Jaa isn’t given more to do, and that he doesn’t have a fight scene in which he either teams up with or faces off against fellow martial arts expert Yen. Jackson’s reprisal of the Augustus Gibbons role amounts to little more than a cameo, but there are a couple more cameos sure to elicit a reaction from the audience.

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xXx: Return of Xander Cage isn’t particularly original or, god forbid, smart, but it’s good at what it does. Erring on the right side of self-aware without plunging into obnoxious self-parody, this threequel announces “this is silly, and that’s perfectly okay”. If this gang is staying together, bring on xXx IV.

Summary: The rip-roaring third entry in the xXx series put a smile on this reviewer’s face. A big, dumb smile.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

The Disappointments Room

For F*** Magazine

THE DISAPPOINTMENTS ROOM 

Director : D.J. Caruso
Cast : Kate Beckinsale, Mel Raido, Lucas Till, Duncan Joiner, Gerald McRaney, Ella Jones
Genre : Horror/Thriller
Run Time : 1h 32min
Opens : 13 October 2016
Rating : NC16 (Violence and Some Coarse Language)

the-disappointments-room-posterA film with the title ‘The Disappointments Room’ is more or less asking for it. There’s that joke out of the way. The name makes it sound like this is a comedy-drama about a class of underachieving students who are galvanised by an inspirational teacher. Instead, it’s a supernatural/psychological horror movie.

Architect Dana (Beckinsale), her husband David (Raido) and their young son Lucas (Joiner) are looking to start over in the wake of a family tragedy. They move from the city to a sprawling, dilapidated country home, which Dana is intent on refurbishing. Unexplainable happenings in the house spook Dana, and she discovers a hidden chamber in the attic which was not in the blueprints. Dana learns that this is a ‘disappointments room’, in which wealthy families would lock away children who had birth defects and who would embarrass their parents. Dana sees visions of the cruel Judge Blacker (McRaney), the former owner of the house, and his deformed daughter Laura (Jones). Local handyman Ben (Till) arrives to help Dana with the repairs, but Dana finds herself losing her grip on her sanity as the estate’s dark past consumes her.

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The Disappointments Room feels like the result of director D.J. Caruso picking up an instant ‘haunted house movie’ mix from the store and then missing a step or two during preparation. The film is co-written by Caruso and Wentworth Miller, marking the actor’s second produced screenplay following Stoker. While that Hitchcock-influenced Gothic family saga was unsettling and benefitted from Park Chan-Wook’s sumptuous direction, The Disappointments Room is a lot more rote. Creaky doors, a leaky ceiling, creepy paintings and a violent secret history are all present and accounted for. To be fair, it does look like an actual movie and doesn’t feel as cheap or schlocky as it well could’ve, but there’s just not a lot of personality to the house. The Adamsleigh Estate outside Greensboro, North Carolina, serves as the primary location. There’s nothing really that sets it apart from every other rickety, foreboding horror movie mansion.

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It’s very loosely based on a true story: Rhode Island residents Laurie and Jeffrey Dumas did discover a secret room in their house. A young girl named Ruth, who was born in 1895 and died five years later, was barricaded in said room. The couple did not report any paranormal activity. Sadly, the practice of segregating individuals with special needs from society out of fear and ignorance still continues to this day, and The Disappointments Room could have been a thought-provoking examination of societal attitudes towards the disabled. Instead, we get “they’re scary because they’re deformed”.

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Beckinsale doesn’t seem to be phoning it in, but the way in which Dana is characterised does leave a lot to be desired. Instead of being tragic and moving, the back-story in which Dana’s infant daughter dies, leaving her wracked with guilt, comes off as convenient. The maternal hysteria that supposedly serves as the movie’s emotional core feels like reductive shorthand, a case of ‘blame it on the unstable woman’. Dana is depicted as capable and handy around the house, but because this motivation feels so familiar, nothing compelling comes of it.

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Raido is pretty bland as David. We see the effort that David puts into raising Lucas, but the character ends up as little more than the slightly schlubby dad who’s trying to cope with his wife’s meltdowns. This being a horror movie, the kid is incorporated into some scares, but we don’t get to understand the extent to which losing his baby sister and having his life completely uprooted has affected young Lucas. Till works his boyish charm for all it’s worth and the scenes in which Ben playfully flirts with Dana do provide a little levity, but the character would have worked better with some sinister undertones. As the main ghost, McRaney does a lot of standing around and staring ominously into the camera.

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Film music is often guilty of spelling out what viewers should feel, and this is most evident in the horror genre. Brian Tyler, whose work in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Fast & Furious movies has raised his profile as a composer, turns in a score that borders on self-parody. Frenzied strings and loud ‘scare chords’ result in a complete lack of subtlety, and music that constantly lunges at the audience generates more annoyance than it does fear.

The Disappointments Room looks the way we expect a horror movie to look and sounds the way we expect one to sound. There aren’t really any surprises to be found, and it feels like the disappointments room itself should be a clue to a larger mystery, instead of being what the entire plot hinges on. It’s more a case of nobody trying really hard than this being a laughable display of ineptitude. When directors like James Wan are out there proving it’s still possible to make genuinely frightening haunted house movies that work, there’s not much excuse for The Disappointments Room.

Summary: If you’re tired of the same hold haunted house movie clichés, keep out of The Disappointments Room.

RATING: 2 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong