With XXX: State of the Union
, a follow-up to the original XXX
, its producers have clearly positioned the action-thriller franchise as a film series with a twist: Its death-defying protagonist will change with every new movie, thus allowing the filmmakers to build each episode around the personality of that actor. While State of the Union
shows little interest in challenging the extreme stunts of the first Vin Diesel
movie, guest star Ice Cube
is a much more ingratiating and amusing personality, so the movie has a better balance between its implausible stunts and characters.
The movie, directed by James Bond refugee Lee Tamahori
, should draw at least some of the action fans that made the first film a $276.8 million worldwide success. Plus, Ice Cube
gives the film street cred, so it should bring in an even greater urban audience.State of the Union
is a throwback. The hero uses no martial arts; he simply slugs it out with opponents until he prevails. Vehicle mayhem and explosions are emphasized over CGI. And writer Simon Kinberg
deploys racial humor and political situations that feel a tad antique.
Indeed this alternate reality of the current state of our union, channeled from John Frankenheimer
's Seven Days in May
, imagines a popular sitting U.S. president (a stiff Peter Strauss) determined to cut military spending and a renegade Secretary of Defense (Willem Dafoe
, almost as stiff) willing to stage a coup to thwart that ambition.
A raid on the National Security Agency's top-secret Virginia headquarters results in many dead agents, but the prize, Samuel L. Jackson's agent Augustus Gibbons, returning from the first film, escapes. Suddenly, Gibbons needs a new Agent XXX -- that last one died, someone says -- to get to the bottom of this home-grown terrorism. Only his choice, ex-Special Ops soldier Darius Stone
), is in military prison.
You would think a top NSA agent could snap his fingers and his man would be released, but then you wouldn't understand the action requirements of "XXX" movies. Darius must escape his high-security lock-up through fights, chases, rooftop leaps and a helicopter rescue.
Once inside the Beltway, the world shrinks to the point where all the characters have a past with one another. The Defense Secretary is the guy responsible for having Darius imprisoned (for breaking his jaw). Augustus and Secretary Deckert have also clashed previously, creating no little animosity between them. And Darius instinctively seeks help from an old flame, Lola (the spectacular Nona Gaye), an improbably chop-shop operator who runs an equally improbable car-theft ring just down the street from the White House.
Darius and gadget expert Toby Lee Shavers (Michael Roof
), another returnee from XXX
, gradually uncover a plot against the U.S. government. Yet Deckert and his nasty toady, FBI agent Kyle Steele
), seem two or three steps ahead of the heroes, while a beautiful senatorial aide named Charlie (Sunny Mabrey
) switches sides more often than a politician in an election year. Essentially, the film comes down to Ice Cube
's line that the fate of the Free World lies in the hands of "a bunch of hustlers and thieves."
Ice Cube's burly physique -- more that of a tenacious linebacker than a quick-responding half back -- makes for a different kind of action hero. Surly stares and glowering cynicism replace the bon mots of the more suave international spies of moviedom. But Ice Cube
certainly has his own brand of cool that covers up the widest plot holes and lamest stabs at humor. Jackson gives the film an indispensable whiff of reality, but apparently Dafoe has run out of ways of making villains interesting.
Tamahori, who showed promise as an eclectic and edgy director early in his career, now seems content to guide large-scale, impersonal Hollywood productions to the screen. At least he's getting good at that game. State of the Union
is a smooth blend of visual special effects, exceptional stunts, fluid photography, sharp design and a possible best-selling soundtrack into a boxoffice package.
I'm taking bets now, though: The next Agent XXX will be a woman.
XXX: STATE OF THE UNION
Revolution Studios presents an Original Film production
Director: Lee Tamahori
Screenwriter: Simon Kinberg
Producers: Neal H. Moritz, Arne L. Schmidt
Executive producers: Todd Garner
, Rob Cohen, Derek Dauchy
Director of photography: David Tattersall
Production designer: Gavin Bocquet
Music: Marco Beltrami
Costumes: Sanja Milkovic Hays
Editors: Mark Goldblatt
, Steven Rosenbaum, Todd E. Miller
Darius Stone: Ice Cube
Agent Gibbons: Samuel L. Jackson
Gen. Deckert: Willem Dafoe
Agent Steele: Scott Speedman
President Sanford: Peter Strauss
Toby Lee Shavers: Michael Roof
Charlie: Sunny Mabrey
Lola: Nona Gaye
MPAA rating PG-13
Running time -- 100 minutes