After a fifteen year wait, Vin Diesel has returned to the franchise that solidified him as a box office star. xXx: Return of Xander Cage is the third installment in a series with one success and one flop under its belt.
The series’ premise is simple, but the movies’ over-the-top action set-pieces are anything but. NSA Agent Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson) coerces criminal offenders with unique skill sets into defending their country in order to wipe away their record — think of xXx agents as one man Suicide Squads. The xXx agents combine their wits and unrivaled physical skills to take down national security threats.
The series returned to theaters this month with a third installment which serves as an evolution of the franchise. Return of Xander Cage emphasizes the series’ best elements and drops what doesn’t work. While the xXx movies’ cinematic quality has wavered, the films offer a lot to talk about. Few franchises help launch an actor’s career, lose him by the next film, and get him back a decade later.
The following list examines some of the series’ highlights, lowlights, and behind the scenes insights. So, here are 15 Things You Didn’t Know About The xXx Movies!
15. THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS HELPED LAUNCH xXx
In 2001, The Fast and the Furious opened up the door for the xXx series. The Fast and the Furious’ director, Rob Cohen, followed the film up by directing and producing xXx (which came out in 2002). Revolution Studios, the studio behind xXx, sought Cohen out with the intention of creating a new style of secret agent franchise. Cohen received the xXx script three weeks before The Fast and the Furious’ release and thought the concept was brilliant.
Cohen could only envision The Fast and the Furious actor, Vin Diesel, as the lead of the budding xXx franchise. In 2001, Diesel’s star was still on the rise but he had never carried a picture on his own. Cohen had to fight to bring him onboard. The duo maintained their great chemistry and infused xXx with The Fast and the Furious’ high-octane spirit. Both men eventually stepped away from the series, but, Diesel’s Fast and the Furious clout went a long way in helping him resurrect the series in 2017.
14. VIN DIESEL WASN’T THE FIRST CHOICE FOR XANDER CAGE
In 2017, Vin Diesel is an international star with one of the world’s largest Facebook followings. Diesel has appeared in multiple box office conquering franchises, so in hindsight, it’s hard to imagine him losing an action movie role to… Eric Bana. Back in 2001, Eric Bana was the number one choice to play Xander Cage. It’s unclear whether Diesel landed the role because Cohen argued in his favour or because Bana turned it down to star in The Nugget. Either way, the role solidified Diesel as a Hollywood A-lister.
In 2002, Cohen spoke about his fascination with casting Diesel. After working together on The Fast and the Furious, Cohen considered Diesel a friend and, “The most amazing new star on the whole planet.” Cohen stated he couldn’t have made xXx without Diesel, even though the prospect was lucrative for Cohen if Diesel didn’t join the cast. Cohen also mentioned the draw of Diesel’s “Rare cluster of talents,” ranging from his imposing physical presence, raw athletic skills, and capacity to express vulnerability.
13. THE SERIES’ OPENING SCENE IS A METAPHOR FOR THE ENTIRE FRANCHISE
Columbia Pictures and Revolution Studios intended for xXx to spinoff into a franchise. The film’s director, Rob Cohen, believed that the premise — an extreme sports star becomes the modern day James Bond — was brilliant. To push xXx as a new breed of spy film for a new generation, Cohen wanted to establish his movie universe’s tone right from the onset. Cohen used a blatant metaphor to do so.
Old meets new is a running theme throughout the movie, but particularly so during the opening moments. Cohen begins the film with a suave looking tuxedo-clad spy infiltrating a raucous club. The spy’s inability to blend with the wild crowd leads to his apprehension and costs him his life. Cohen adds a performance by German metal band, Rammstein, into the scene to juxtapose the classic spy movie archetypes against as he calls it, “An uncivilized new world of chaos.” The moment is a stark contrast to the typical Jame Bond-style spy universe and sets the stage for the younger, more extreme Xander Cage to fill the void.
12. DIESEL’S Pre-xXx TRAINING REGIMENT IS SUPER INTENSE
Authenticity is a word that came up a lot during xXx’s pre-production phase. The nature of the series demanded real extreme sports stars and real stunts. When xXx went into production, Diesel considered himself a bonafide thrill-seeker and was game for taking on many of the film’s crazy stunts. To do so, Diesel still required three months of intense preparation before jumping into Xander Cage’s bad-ass shoes.
Before taking on the role, Diesel had never been on a motocross bike before. He practiced with motocross experts and felt comfortable doing advanced tricks (like jumps) by the end of his first day of training. When it came time to film the drug lab shootout, Diesel was ready to do some of the set-piece’s intense stunts himself. When the viewer sees a low-flying chopper chase Cage as he races between a flurry of bullets, it’s actually Diesel riding the motorbike.
Diesel’s training wasn’t limited to motorbikes. He underwent weapons training with Navy Seals and pushed his body to the limit with two weeks of rock-climbing training. In the end, Diesel built his body up enough to take beatings from stunts that less fit actors couldn’t handle.
11. THE SERIES CAST REAL EXTREME SPORTS STARS TO GAIN CREDIBILITY
The studio’s goal for xXx was to introduce a new breed of secret agent to a new generation of moviegoers. The film’s producers aimed to create an authentic world through the character’s lifestyle, clothes, and music. To further establish the film’s credibility, xXx cast real life extreme-sports stars in minor roles.
Tony Hawk (professional skateboarder), Rick Thorne (BMX), Carey Hart (motocross), Matt Hoffman (BMX), and Eve (rapper) each show up early on in the film. Although these appearances amount to cameos, they flesh out Cage’s “extreme” world.
Return of Xander Cage continues the tradition by casting modern-day athletic icons such as Micheal Bisping (UFC middleweight champion), Tony Jaa (martial arts sensation), and Neymar (soccer superstar). None of these performances will bring home an Oscar anytime soon, but in a movie like xXx, subtle performances are beside the point. The series is about having fun and performing wild stunts. What these performers lack in acting chops, they more than makeup for with athletic ability.
10. xXx RAISED THE BAR FOR PRACTICAL STUNT WORK
Despite the film’s large budget and the quality of CGI in 2002, Cohen opted for practical stunts. Cohen believed CGI took the thrill out of movies and whenever possible, chose skilled stuntmen over green screen fakery. The result was two stand out set pieces, which at the time, had never been attempted.
Cage’s iconic base-jump occurred on Sacramento’s Foresthill Bridge (America’s fourth highest bridge). For the stunt, Cage jumps off of a car, falling off of a bridge. Cohen utilized an experienced base jumper/stuntman (Tim Rigby) in a Vin Diesel mask. In order to capture every second of the 700-foot drop, Cohen recorded the sequence on 18 cameras (comprised of 16mm, 8mm video, and 35mm Panavision cameras).
The film most’s technically demanding stunt, Cage’s leap over the exploding drug barn, pushed the stunt team to the limit. Like the base-jump off a car, it also had never been attempted before. The perilous sequence sent a stuntman racing off a ramp which sent him soaring over an exploding building. The crew utilized 13 cameras, 5 choppers, and 8 explosions, and captured it all in one successful take.
9. XANDER CAGE’S TATTOOS ARE ALL FAKE
Xander Cage is the ultimate renegade. Everything from his disdain for authority to his fashion sense conveys his intractable nature. Always the rebel, Cage wears his defiance all over his body in the form of tattoos. However, Vin Diesel, the actor playing Cage, doesn’t have any tattoos.
Cage’s tattoos were all designed by a series of “skin artists” that the crew worked with. Diesel’s makeup artists placed each tattoo on his body using a new application technique. At the time, most fake tattoos were put on actors using a decal-style placement system. Instead, Diesel’s tattoos were applied using an airbrushing process. The result was a blended and textured style which made for a more realistic looking tattoo.
Cage’s tattoos weren’t just crafted to look cool either. Each carefully placed tattoo was a window into Cage’s backstory. If you knew what to look for, Cage’s ink revealed his history. There was an exception. One of Cage’s tattoos is the name of Diesel’s favorite Dungeons & Dragons character.
8. A STUNTMAN DIED ON SET WHILE FILMING xXx
The xXx series defined itself with breath-taking daredevil stunts. Sadly, not all the stunt team made it through the shoot unharmed. Arial stunt coordinator and stuntman, Harry O’Connor, died while shooting a scene for the film’s climax. Ironically, director Rob Cohen described the tragic stunt as one of the simplest stunts in the picture.
The stunt in question occurred during the film’s climactic Ahab/paraglider chase sequence in Prague, Czech Republic. O’Connor was tethered to a speeding boat and paragliding behind it when he collided with a bridge. O’Connor broke his neck on impact and died shortly after.
The 45-year-old O’Connor was a retired Navy Seal who was enjoying a second career in the entertainment industry. At the time of his death, O’Connor had tallied an extensive amount of experience working in television and film. The stunt sequence (where he is doubling for Vin Diesel) can be seen in the film’s final cut.
7. THE AHAB HYDROFOIL WASN’T AN ACTUAL SPEEDBOAT
The high-powered hydrofoil (Cohen christened it The Ahab) at the center of the first film’s climactic chase sequence was a total fraud. While the ship looks like a sleek speedboat, it was little more than a glorified prop. Even the docking station which launched the ship was a fabrication built on a sound stage.
For the interior launch sequence, the crew used “a complex wire system” (so there was no wake) to tow The Ahab across the set. Since there was no actual door that leads to the outside world, they pulled the Ahab towards a green screen backing. Later on, the visual effects team composited an exterior river to make it appear as though The Ahab was leaving the facility.
Shooting the climactic hydrofoil sequence provided more challenges. The Ahab looked cool but couldn’t reach the 60-80 mph speeds required for the final chase sequence. The film’s marine coordinator suggested inserting a cigarette boat underneath The Ahab that would power it like a sled. The smaller boat piggybacked the Ahab, helping it reach the speeds necessary for the final chase sequence. The cigarette boat was then digitally removed by the miracle of visual effects.
6. DIESEL WAS CLOSE TO RETURNING FOR THE FIRST SEQUEL
Although it’s well known that O’Shea Jackson (better known as Ice Cube) replaced Diesel in State of the Union, most people are unaware of how close Diesel was to returning for the sequel. Both Diesel and Cohen were still set to return for a sequel two months before xXx’s August 2002 opening. Returning for the sequel made financial sense. Diesel would have earned a whopping $20 million against 10% of the film’s gross to reprise his role as Xander Cage. That’s a lot of money for any actor to walk away from.
A poor script, not wanting to become typecast, and a desire to pursue other projects contributed to Diesel stepping away from xXx 2. Diesel went on to star in a couple of poorly received films (A Man Apart, The Chronicles of Riddick) while Cohen stayed onboard as an executive producer. Despite being open to coming back to the series, State of the Union made no qualms about closing the door on Diesel/Xander Cage’s return.
5. XANDER CAGE DIED IN STATE OF THE UNION
When Xander Cage shows up in Return of Xander Cage, he’s going to have some explaining to do. After Diesel opted not to reprise his role in xXx 2, he could have been written out of the script, leaving the door open for Cage to show up down the road. Instead, the producers annihilated the character from existence. According to the State of the Union DVD, Xander Cage’s death is part of the series’ canon.
On the xXx: State of the Union DVD extras, there is a 4-minute scene which depicts Xander Cage’s death. In order to compensate for Diesel’s absence, the sequence is shot in a way that never reveals the character’s face. To make sure the audience understands it’s Cage, he’s clad in his signature fur-lined coat and the camera lingers on the iconic xXx tattoo on the back of his neck. Cage then runs into a building and meets his gruesome demise. The building explodes, sending the back of his scalp flying down to the street. The piece of scalp is picked up and examined, revealing Cage’s xXx tattoo.
4. PAUL WALKER INFLUENCED DIESEL’S RETURN TO THE SERIES
Many actors flock to Hollywood with dreams of landing their own movie franchise. As Diesel was coming into his own as an action movie star, he walked away from two franchises. Diesel didn’t return to The Fast and the Furious series until 2009 (2006’s Tokyo Drift appearance was a cameo). Diesel’s The Fast and the Furious castmate, Paul Walker, dropped a bit of insight on him that changed his mind about returning to xXx.
After Walker had passed up on doing Fast and the Furious 3, his fans were upset and they let him know it. Walker told Diesel that he would be walking down the street and people would say, “What, are you too good for us?” According to Diesel, “There was a turning point where I realized there are people that have adopted the character.” Walker asked Diesel who he was to not be that character for them.
After Walker’s death in 2013, Diesel needed to slip back into a role that let him relax and have fun. “I needed to play Xander now more than ever in my life,” Diesel said. “It was something truly therapeutic and something I really needed to do.”
3. DONNIE YEN REPLACED JET LI IN RETURN OF XANDER CAGE
Back in January 2016, it was announced that legendary Hong Kong martial-arts star, Jet Li, had been cast in the upcoming xXx sequel. At the time, the casting of Li seemed like a perfect fit. Li is exactly the type of talented action movie star that would be right at home in Diesel’s xXx series relaunch. Li has the name recognition, almost superhuman skill set, and industry credibility that would help sell the series in the international market. Li’s involvement with the film didn’t last long. A month later, Li left the project for undisclosed reasons.
Return of Xander Cage’s production never faltered. Somehow, the film managed to snag another Hong Kong action movie legend with international recognition, and an otherworldly skill set. Casting either man is a can’t lose prospect, but in hindsight, featuring Donnie Yen looks like the better move. Between starring in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny, brawling with Mike Tyson in Ip Man 3, and stealing scenes in Rogue One, Yen is having a “pop culture moment.”
2. THE FRANCHISE LEARNED FROM THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS SERIES’ EXAMPLE
The Fast and the Furious franchise was already a successful, long running series before its popularity exploded. The series evolved from more “grounded” stories about street racers to outlandish special effect extravaganzas. As Diesel circles back to Xander Cage, the role that solidified him as a star, he’s bringing The Fast and the Furious movies’ recipe for success along with him.
Return of Xander Cage raises the bar for the series’ already insane action style. The film relies on over the top CGI sequences that look like they’re ripped from the pages of a comic book. In one sequence, Diesel and Yen race through the jungle on motorbikes only to have their vehicles transform into jet skis and skim across a river. So much for Cohen’s “Let’s keep CGI to a minimum,” policy.
Return of Xander Cage also follows in The Fast and the Furious’ footsteps when it comes to diverse casting. With the aim of international box office appeal, the American production’s cast hails from Australia, Canada, China, Cyprus, India, and Thailand. A week ahead of its US release, the film opened in India (where it will run in English, Hindi, Tamil and Telegu) where Diesel and Deepika Padukone attended the red carpet premiere.
1.RETURN OF XANDER CAGE’S TRAILLER ATTRACTED 100 MILLION YOUTUBE VIEWS IN 2 DAYS
After State of the Union’s release in 2005, the series didn’t flounder, it crashed and burned. It’s a testament to Diesel’s star power that he can carry a dead series back to respectability in the audience’s eyes. If the Return of Xander Cage trailer’s response on YouTube is any sign, the series is back on the upswing.
In its first two days, xXx: Return of Xander Cage’s trailer pulled in 100 million views across numerous platforms. To put that into perspective, Star Wars: The Force Awakens pulled in 112 million views in 24 hours. Part of the trailer’s success is due to Diesel’s strong social media presence (he has over 100 million Facebook likes). Diesel hosted the trailer launch on Facebook Live with the film’s cast also making appearances in the live stream. As part of the film’s promotional rollout, the rest of the cast also shared the film’s trailer via their own social media platforms.
xXx: Return of Xander Cage is in theaters now.