xXx: Return of Xander Cage serves up all the expected over-the-top action, but it won't win the series any new fans due to various shortcomings.
When a satellite crashes to Earth and causes the deaths of many people, the CIA learns that the incident was a strategic attack perpetrated by terrorists who have acquired a device called Pandora's Box. The item has the ability to control military satellites, and the fear is that more strikes will happen across the country if Pandora's Box is not found. When the CIA headquarters in New York is infiltrated by a group led by Xiang (Donnie Yen), government suit Jane Marke (Toni Collette) recruits the famous Xander Cage (Vin Diesel) out of retirement - so he can be a patriot again and save the United States.
Xander rounds together a team of cohorts, including Adele Wolff (Ruby Rose), Tennyson (Rory McCann), and Harvard "Nicks" Zhou (Kris Wu). Their mission is to track down Pandora's Box and return it to the NSA before Xiang finds it. However, things may not be entirely what they seem, and Xander and his friends quickly find themselves caught deep in a conspiracy that might run all the way to the top.
xXx: Return of Xander Cage is the third installment in the xXx action franchise, arriving 12 years after xXx: State of the Union (following an extended development period). The hope going into it was that Return of Xander Cage could be an entertaining vehicle for Diesel while acting as a guilty pleasure ride in the vein of its predecessors. On that front, the film is partially successful. xXx: Return of Xander Cage serves up all the expected over-the-top action, but it won't win the series any new fans due to various shortcomings.
Director D.J. Caruso (Disturbia, I Am Number Four) calls the shots, and his handling of the material is a mixed bag. Some of the action set pieces (in particular, the ones involving Donnie Yen) are well-constructed and deliver big screen spectacle, but others rely too heavily on quick cuts and certain sequences wander dangerously close to incomprehensible territory (and of course, viewers must suspend their disbelief in order to fully buy in). Return of Xander Cage is also extremely derivative of Suicide Squad, giving each group member their own pop song-infused introduction complete with a title graphic containing "fun" factoids about the characters. This plays into the movie's core problem: it doesn't really bring anything new to the table and can't shake the feeling of being a stale rehash. It lacks its own unique style and plays as just a run-of-the-mill sequel that exists mainly so Diesel can play Xander Cage again.
The script, credited to F. Scott Frazier, certainly doesn't help matters. Frazier's primary concern seems to be reminding audiences how awesome and cool Xander Cage is as opposed to crafting a semi-compelling narrative. The heavy amounts of hero worship (especially early on) threaten to derail the film completely with its ridiculousness, and even die-hard fans may think it takes things a bit too far. The screenplay is also designed to be more of a soft reboot than a one-off throwback to a different era, trying to set the stage for more followups by expanding the xXx mythos and giving Xander his own version of The Avengers. Unfortunately, this approach doesn't always work, and it detracts from the story at hand. Instead of simply being an action cheese fest, Return of Xander Cage tries to strive for more, which isn't always the best thing.
Nobody goes into these movies expecting fantastic acting performances, but none of the turns here are exactly standout. Diesel is fine as Xander Cage; however, this is far from his greatest role. He tries a little too hard to channel the spirit of the old school James Bond films with witty one-liners and retorts, but his skill set isn't exactly built to be that kind of hero. For many, Yen will probably be the most memorable part, as he unsurprisingly displays strong adeptness in his many action sequences. There frankly isn't much to his character overall, but at the very least Yen delivers on a superficial level by giving people the necessary genre thrills via his fight scenes. He's having fun in his role and audiences should enjoy his contributions to the series.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the supporting cast. The likes of Rose, McCann, and Wu are all serviceable, but they're just simply there to round out the team and don't have a whole lot to do outside of action scenes. The ensemble is arguably way overstuffed, as Deepika Padukone (who is essentially the female lead), Tony Jaa, and former NFL star Tony Gonzalez all have similarly thin parts that do not amount to anything. Frazier tries to give Padukone's Serena Unger a flirtatious romantic relationship with Xander Cage, but these beats fall flat and the payoff is unearned. By far, the weakest link in the movie is Nina Dorbev, who plays the xXx program's tech assistant Becky. It's difficult to tell if it's more a fault of the writing or the performance, but Becky comes across as highly annoying and is largely one-note (read: overwhelmed/out of her element). Frazier and Caruso may have benefitted from trimming some characters out in order to tighten things up and dedicate more time to the better actors and develop a select few as a cohesive unit.
In the end, xXx: Return of Xander Cage is exactly what most moviegoers expected when they heard this film was finally reaching theaters. It's suitably over-the-top, but the weak characterizations, poor story, and sloppy direction prevent it from truly achieving its ultimate destiny as a brainless romp of action fun. Those who have been following the series (and love it) from the beginning will be inclined to check it out, but the uninitiated can wait until The Fate of the Furious comes out in order to get their fix of Vin Diesel and company.
xXx: Return of Xander Cage is now playing in U.S. theaters. It runs 107 minutes and is rated PG-13 for extended sequences of gunplay and violent action, and for sexual material and language.