I remember the exact moment where I gave up on the movie. It was after an utterly forgettable chase scene when the character played by Deepika Padukone, asks generic bad guy number 217 the following: “Looking for someone?” That was it. It’s where I went against every rule of social propriety and found myself (loudly) responding thusly: “Yes. An actual actor. Seen one?” The few chuckles that elicited were pretty much the only enjoyment to be had during the 108 minute ordeal that is “The Return of Xander Cage”
Before I get into the review proper, it behooves me to explain what I’m doing here. Being a critic is easy. It’s easy to rip something creative apart, more so when one has no experience in creating anything of one’s own. It’s a thought that I keep at the back of my mind every time I review something. I’ve never directed a film or acted in one. This should make my attempts at critiquing one seem disingenuous at best. However, I do enjoy watching good movies and have seen my fair share. As such, I can comment on something as a consumer. Further more, I’d like to think that the old adage that is used to describe pornography, applies to art as well. Which is to say: “I don’t know what it is, but I know it when I see it.”
Well, I know what I saw. And it was irredeemably bad.
When the first XXX came out, it was a resounding success. It wasn’t a work of art, the plot was laughable and the characters had the emotional depth of a puddle. Despite that, it was fun. It cemented Vin Diesel’s place as THE anti hero in a time when popular entertainment couldn’t get enough anti heroes. Xander Cage was a refinement of inter space outlaw Riddick. It was a product of its time and it worked. I loved it. Point is, I wasn’t exactly expecting Oscar winning material here. It’s not that hard to entertain me. I’m the guy that enjoyed Suicide Squad despite its many, many flaws. The bar isn’t that high folks. And “The Return of Xander Cage” missed it by a mile.
Lets start with the plot. Or lack thereof. To say the plot is full of holes would be objectively incorrect. It would be more accurate to say that there is a gaping abyss where the plot should be. Occasionally, shadows of plot lines stumble drunkenly around the periphery of said abyss. It is mind numbing stuff in the worst way possible. I won’t bother describing it, it’s utterly pointless and does not work at all beyond serving as a convoluted way of getting a bunch of famous faces together.
And there are quite a few of them. The movie does boast some big draw names. Vin Diesel, Tony Jaa and Donnie Yen alone should have an action nut like me cheering from the rafters. And all of them are utterly wasted. I’m not sure who or what is to blame for this. The director, the writers, the studio or Donald Trump. I don’t care. As a consumer, hell, as a fan of many of the actors here, I was extremely disappointed. The action sequences, of which are many, fail to entertain on any level. They are all, without exception, unconvincing. And this is coming from someone who has no problems suspending his sense of disbelief in a comic book movie. Low bar, remember? One of the problems here is apparent within the first few seconds of the start. It’s trying too hard to be “stylish”. It’s like that one awkward kid on the basketball court. He has the look down, the 300 dollar Air Jordans, the Dennis Rodman hairdo, he can even twirl a ball on his pinky for hours and he’s 7 feet tall to boot. He just can’t play for shit. The tragedy here is that there is no good reason why “The Return of Xander Cage” shouldn’t work.
To reiterate, I’m not looking for “realism” at all. I’m perfectly aware of what the term “action movie” means. But there is only so much “realism” I can sacrifice for “style”. John Wick is an excellent example of action with style. Zero realism with Mr. Wick but damn if he didn’t look cool. Cool enough to not care. Suspension of disbelief. It is utterly missing here. There are moments when the movie hints at potential greatness, which ultimately, only accentuates the feeling of disappointment. The action sequences with Donnie in particular should be impressive. This is Donnie freaking Yen we are talking about. The sheer physicality of his fight sequences should be enough to satiate any hardcore action fan. Him with Vin Diesel in a free falling airplane? How can you go wrong with THAT?! But it does go wrong. So very wrong.
I could see what the director was possibly going for. Perhaps a Wachowsky siblings /John Woo love child. What you get instead is a disfigured mutant abortion.
One could easily remove roughly half the cast here and it would make absolutely no difference to the overall scheme of things. Even something nonsensical as “The Expendables” had each of the cast members do something to warrant their inclusion. “The Return of Xander Cage” wastes almost all of its talent, including Tony Jaa. How the hell do you waste Tony “Ong Bak” Jaa?!? By making him a metrosexual party animal with anger issues. That’s how. The same applies for the characters of Kris Wu, Nina Dobrev and Rory McCann. I started writing down notes literally minutes after leaving the movie hall and for the life of me couldn’t remember any of their on-screen names. They have no reason to exist in this celluloid travesty.
And the acting. Oh dear lord the acting. Again, it’s hard to pin down who is to blame for the phoned in performances. It’s no exaggeration to say the only person than impressed me here was Michael Bisping. A man who basically made a career of taking real life kicks to the head. That’s not a diss, I am a fan of his too. Dude’s a warrior among warriors and his MMA record speaks for itself. But an actor, he is not. And even he, like everything else here, is utterly wasted.
The horrendous writing doesn’t help. The characters may as well be cardboard cutouts with personalities to match. Every generic action trope you can think of is in here. Dude bro tattooed rebel? Check. Female ball-breaker boss with matching bitch face? Check. Cockney tough guy/brute. Check. Exotic femme fatale with overdone accent to emphasize exoticness? Check. Typical East Asian martial arts guy? Check. One liners a ten year old can see from a mile away? Check. Check. Check.
It is the sort of terrible “by the numbers” nonsense that isn’t just unentertaining to watch, it’s downright insulting to anyone with a brain. I’m not kidding when I say that a lot of it was just plain offensive. The forced-in scene where women all but throw themselves at Xander (with zero context). The token “That’s what she said” joke by the only lesbian cast member (because lord forbid we not acknowledge her sexual preference). The whole movie is full of moments like these.
Even the soundtrack is a disappointment. For a franchise that single-handedly introduced Indian audiences to the brilliance of Rammstein, the forgettable soundtrack here serves as a final knife twist in the back of loyal fans. Nothing here makes an impact. Not that the music is “bad”. It just did nothing to compliment anything happening on screen. Like I said, wasted.
I can’t remember the last time I actually held my head in my hands while watching a film. Yes, it’s THAT bad. It fails on every conceivable level, even as fan service. Towards the end, when Xander says his trademark line “I live for this shit” all I could think of was “Just as well dude. This thing is a flaming turd.”
“The Return of Xander Cage” was supposed to be a reboot of a beloved franchise. As it stands, audiences would be better served if it the word “return” was replaced with the more accurate “regurgitation”. If ever there was a movie that was less than the sum of its parts, this is it.
FINAL SCORE 3/10