It surely suggests something about the state of the culture when two of the biggest hits of the summer, accompanied by enormous quantities of the usual hoopla and hype, playing practically around the clock in a theater near everyone, descend in some twisted way from the James Bond novels and films.
If Austin Powers of Goldmember is the giggling, snickering grandson of James Bond (the blood runs pretty thin in those upper-class English families), then Xander Cage of the new movie XXX must be Austin's illegitimate brother: a dark, sinister version of the contemporary secret agent.
Perhaps the latest Bond imitation (as if we needed another one) results from one of the rather more unsavory of 007's innumerable sexual encounters --- his movie certainly demonstrates an abnormal degree of degeneration from what now seems like some quaint, innocent original.
The title character, usually called simply X --- he drops the middle and last initials, but if you forget them, they're tattooed on the back of his neck --- played by Vin Diesel (now that is a great name, too bad it's not his own) apparently embodies a powerful appeal to younger filmgoers.
He practices some wildly unorthodox versions of the so-called extreme sports that the title implies, especially skateboarding and snowboarding, and films himself in the process, turning his exploits into something like a video game. The movie opens with such an event, employing the usual Bond-style initial stunt, in this instance with Xander leading a long chase sequence in a stolen Corvette, which he then drives off a bridge, rides down for a space, then bails out of, parachuting the rest of the way and laughing at the cops all the while.
Xander frequently expresses his hostility to authority and in fact announces that he stole and destroyed that Corvette in order to punish its owner, a senator pushing for censorship of the music, video games, and CDs aimed at kids. The movie thus so obviously and strenuously targets a juvenile audience that it should come with a warning that much of its material may be unsuitable for adults. Certainly the appearance of the title character, the single note of his words and deeds, the shallowness of its conception, and its general level of maturity hint more at the comic book or the video game than more traditional kinds of narrative.
Because of his daredevil stunts and anti-authoritarian nature, the National Security Agency, represented by Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson, yes, that Samuel L. Jackson), recruits Xander for a dangerous mission: the infiltration of a group called Anarchy 99, headquartered in Prague.
Since the gang and its leader Yorgi (Martin Csokas) practice a particularly ruthless kind of terrorism and dress like a bunch of Eurofreaks, Xander fits right in. He possesses all the physical skills and certainly looks as weird as the next punk --- in fact, he spends most of the movie in one of those sleeveless shirts known as a wifebeater, showing off his biceps and the geometric abstractions of his tattoos, now and then topped with a hideously shaggy, curly overcoat that apparently cost the lives of several French poodles.
The most refreshing note in the movie may involve the particular methods and intentions of Yorgi, the criminal mastermind. He finances a remote controlled submarine called Ahab --- nothing like a movie terrorist for the literary touch --- equipped with some sort of poison gas missiles, which will provoke a global conflict; instead of the same old ho-hum stuff of world domination, riches beyond the dreams of avarice, good seats at the Super Bowl, etc., he simply dreams of total anarchy. After he has loosed the blood-dimmed tide, he believes, all the nations of the world will wage war on one another; a pure nihilist, perhaps a unique phenomenon in cinema, he desires nothing less than the absolute destruction of the planet.
Whatever the beauty and originality of his vision, Yorgi or course proves no match for the resourceful X, who attacks him and his cohorts with a terrific variety of weaponry. Xander drives a big old GTO fitted with machine guns, flame throwers, missiles, and so forth (he probably considers James Bond's elegant sports cars nothing but sissy wagons), and after some parachuting, snowboarding, and shooting and bombing of Yorgi's castle, like some low-rent Moby Dick, he chases down and sinks Ahab, winning the approval of Samuel Jackson and the love of a Russian secret agent (yes, there's one of those, too), played by Asia Argento.
Aside from the slickness and beauty of the filming and the locations in the Czech Republic, very little if anything seems at all worthwhile in XXX ; it really amounts to nothing more than an increasingly dull and familiar series of the usual chases, explosions, shootouts, and stunts.
The New York Times and other organs of the press have suggested that Vin Diesel will replace the mighty Arnold, the lesser Bruce, and the fading Sylvester as the next great action hero. Aside from the fact that with his shaved bullet head he seems the most purely phallic actor since Telly Savalas (remember Kojak?), Diesel lacks the required size, charisma, and, well, sincerity --- he cannot act, of course, nor even speak his lines clearly. His blunt, flattened, essentially comical features hardly challenge the chiseled good looks or casual virility of, say, Pierce Brosnan, Roger Moore, or Sean Connery, or even the slablike ponderousness of Schwarzenegger.
I guess we get the supermen we deserve, and for now, like it or not, we've got Diesel.
XXX, starring Vin Diesel, Asia Argento, Marton Csokas, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Roof, Richy Miller, Werner Daehn, Petr Jakl, Jan Filipensky, Tom Everett, Danny Trejo, Thomas Ian Griffin; written by Rich Wilkes; directed by Rob Cohen. Cinemark Tinseltown; Hoyts Greece Ridge; Loews Webster; Pittsford Plaza Cinema; Regal Culver Ridge; Regal Eastview; Regal Henrietta.
You can hear George and his movie reviews on WXXI-FM 91.5, Fridays at 7:15 a.m., rerun Saturdays at 11:15 a.m.