- The Washington Times - Friday, August 9, 2002

My reluctance to humor Clint Eastwood as an aging crime fighter in "Blood Work" seems churlish when confronted with "XXX," a stupefying espionage spectacle starring Vin Diesel.

The title, which may or may not redeem porn shorthand, alludes to a self-promoting tattoo engraved on the back of Mr. Diesel's bullish neck as he impersonates yet another pretender to the James Bond crown: "extreme sports" rabble-rouser Xander Cage, recruited for troubleshooting duty in mercenary-infested Prague by the National Security Agency.

Xander seems to have made himself conspicuous by staging daredevil stunts videotaped on the spot for admiring Web site fans. We get a sample at the outset: Posing as a parking attendant at a luxury hotel, he absconds with a red Corvette belonging to an obnoxious politician and joyrides it over the edge of a bridge, remaining on board until it seems prudent to pull the cord on his custom-made parachute.

Xander's stunts tend to be illegal in numerous respects, so the fearless perp is vulnerable to exploitation by NSA graybeard Augustus Gibbons, freakishly envisioned as Samuel L. Jackson in a ridiculous hairpiece and a "gnarly" makeup job that scars the left side of his face.

Additional preliminary horseplay expands on Xander's prowess and resourcefulness by inserting him in hot spots monitored by the NSA, notably a Colombian narcotics plantation that triggers a reprise of the explosions and chases orchestrated around Arnold Schwarzenegger last year in "Collateral Damage."

The scenic collateral of "XXX" is lavished on similar picturesque and pointless wreckage. Not for a second does it seem imperative to test this particular bogus recruit on this particular bogus field of conflict. Director Rob Cohen is simply underlining his determination to gorge on thrill-crazed cliches.

Once Xander gets his mission deceptive in Eastern Europe, the movie begins to resemble a demented hybrid of "The Dirty Dozen" and "Vertical Limit." Not that Xander has to recruit his own batch of mercenaries from the ranks of NSA renegades or the Prague underworld, but the villains are holed up at a castle that bears a curious resemblance to the ultimate target in "Dirty Dozen."

The castle's basement shelters a Spectre-type lab where a newish criminal cartel called Anarchy 99 is financing a doomsday submarine armed with biochemical weapons.

It becomes one of Xander's obviously impossible assignments to chase this speeding sub along a river and gator-rassle it to submission near a bridge in unsuspecting downtown Prague. A trifle earlier, he is put to lethal tests infiltrating the mountain hideaway, since it amuses the filmmakers to insist that he take the long way around.

This detour places the movie in "Vertical Limit" cuckooland, simulating Alpine locomotion that can be realized only by digital animation. Unable to kill their hero by dropping him from the air to reach the slopes with maximum turbulence, the filmmakers insist that he try to outrace an avalanche that seems to bury the entire Tirol. Incredibly, to put it mildly, Xander keeps on trucking.

The filmmakers act so smug about having an exploitable franchise in their slippery mitts that one tends to root for their failure.

Amid the congestion of "Austin Powers," "Men in Black II," "Spy Kids," Spider-Man, Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, there's not exactly an urgent need for another espionage stud this summer.

Despite his gruff voice and brawny physique, Mr. Diesel is a dubious choice for mindless spectacle, because he betrays telltale looks of sensitivity and sanity around the eyes.

He may not be the best candidate for being pimped up in the style that the Xander apparatus seems to fancy. Unless I miss my guess, Xander's line of specialization would be better suited to Eddie Griffin as Undercover Brother.



RATING: PG-13 (systematic gratuitous violence, in the context of a farfetched adventure spectacle; sustained vulgarity and occasional sexual allusions)

CREDITS: Directed by Rob Cohen

RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes


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