XXX: STATE OF THE UNION - DVD review

When a 101-minute action film has you squirming in your seat wondering when it will end, something's not right.

James Plath's picture
James
Plath

A little of this and a little of that adds up to a lot of nothing in "xXx: State of the Union."

You've got the Rambo trope in play, where a highly skilled but rogue military man (Ice Cube) is seemingly pitted against the world. But who are these guys that the baddies have recruited, and why doesn't the rest of the world seem to notice they're running amok? It's also a little muddy why Cube's character, Darius Stone, ended up in prison for 20 years while his superior (Samuel L. Jackson) only got some facial scarring from the same mission.

You've got "The Dirty Dozen" and "The Rock" thing going, where Stone is sprung from prison in order to do a crucial covert job—which basically amounts to stopping the bad guys, led by a former Navy Seal and current Secretary of Defense (Willem Dafoe). Anything more than that is either hard to figure out, or hard to fathom. ("Triple X? Sounds like a porno star," Darius says, and that's about as close to an explanation of these agents as we get.).

You've got the plot by higher-ups to control the government that we've seen in countless movies—even in comedies like "Dave." But a single outfit using tanks to take out the "liberal" president (Peter Strauss) during a high-profile event like a State of the Union address? Come on!

You've got the action-film formula happening—which amounts to roughly 30 crashes, fiery explosions, bursts of gunfire, and narrow escapes per minute. But who has time to count? It's like a strobe light blipping across your consciousness, with the main problem being that none of the action is pointedly connected to logical plot developments. We're talking major disconnect! There's hardly time for us to care about the characters.

You've got the James Bond tongue-in-cheek puns and one-liners going—big surprise, since Lee Tamahori also directed the less than quintessential "Die Another Day." And speaking of Bond, though they seem more token here, there are even a few big-breasted Bond-type girls, neither of which leaves us terribly shaken or stirred.

And you've got the blaring hip-hop soundtrack mixed with an original score that makes you feel as if your whole TV room is going to start jumping and thumping on its hydraulic system, designed to make us "get" that everything this new xXx guy does is super-cool.

But I'd swap that hoppin' soundtrack in a minute for a script and direction that would give the engaging Ice Cube a little room, so that the big guy's gigantic charisma could do its thing. As it is, Cube glides through this with no time to express anything but the wooden lines that he's had to memorize. The cumulative effect of these action film clichés and stock characters is a mish-mash that's somehow as tedious as it is inane. Action should be more exciting than this, even with a plot that limps along.

From the opening attack on an underground NSA headquarters in Virginia, when we see guys in sort of alien-Ninja suits crashing through the horse ranch facade, your brain has to start dealing with synapses the size of canyons. Perhaps the biggest is the unlikely pairing of former Navy Seal commandos with a Homeboy Chopping Network. Or, as Darius says (I kid you not), "The fate of the free world is in the hands of a bunch of hustlers and thieves."). After leaping onto a waiting helicopter to break from prison, suddenly they have to go into hiding already (but isn't the good government behind them?) and Darius takes them to the old neighborhood, where they try to get help from an extensive chop shop operation. They trade in their souped-up GTO for a monster truck that looks as if it could roll over tanks . . . and spaceships, for that matter.

I found my mind wandering throughout the film, bored by even the special effects, which seemed more noticeably artificial to me than even much earlier films like "Independence Day." Put the same effects in a "Star Wars" film and everything would look fine, but we're not talking about an alternate reality here. Though Tamahori says in a "making of" feature that he likes real time for action, it still seemed as if he relied way too much on sped up or slowed down filming in order to blur the crucial moment in a stunt or FX, or to hide the seam between live-action stunts and CGI. And when we do see things more clearly—as when Darius' Cobra goes airborne and lands on railroad tracks—it looks more like a video game than a movie illusion. With not even the FX to hold my attention, I found myself not caring about the action and wondering when Ice Cube is going to land a role that showcases his talents.

In one of the extras, Cube calls "xXx" a younger and hipper, cooler Bond, and so it's clear why Tamahori was brought onboard. But the problem with Bond films has always been to get the tone right—to strike a balance between the realistic and the comic or cartoonish aspects—and when you get right down to it, Tamahori failed to get everything in synch. The actors seem to struggle with tone, never quite getting exactly how much tongue they're supposed to insert in cheek. There are also knockout lines that mirror the famous Bond puns administered as a coup de grace ("Hillbilly, you need to lighten up," Darius says, as he flicks his Bic and sets the fellow aflame) and exaggerated action stunts, but they intrude on our sense of the action and reality rather than "bond" with it to create a tongue-in-cheek universe. When, for example, Darius hits a ramp in a twin-engined inflatable boat that zooms at a height that's unbelievable times 10 onto a bridge, he crashes onto traffic and amid explosions and slo-mo people catching on fire he strides away as if walking into a Dunkin' Donuts to grab a bite. Tamahori needed to decide whether he was making a mostly action film with comic moments or a comic-book style film with moments of realistic action. As is, "xXx: State of the Union" is somewhere in the middle, and that only adds to the muddle.

Video: The video quality is eye-popping, with this disc mastered in High Definition and presented in anamorphic widescreen at a 2.40:1 aspect ratio. Colors are kaleidoscopic bright and come at you with that kind of quick-changing blur of shapes, so that the colors remain the sharpest part of the visuals.

Audio: Audio options are English Dolby Digital 5.1 or French Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround, with English and French subtitles.

Extras: It's kind of like Murphy's Law for film critics that when you run across a real disappointment, there's going to be not just one but several commentaries to make you relive the whole ho-hum experience over and over again. Suffice it to say that I listened long enough to get a feel for the level of commentary, and both the filmmakers' commentary with Tamahori and writer Simon Hindberg and the visual effects with the Visual Effects and CG supervisors are pretty average. I enjoyed the "making of" feature more, because, in addition to the head-shot interviews with cast and filmmakers, there was footage of the stunts so you could get a better feel for how they combined live-action and CG effects. The scariest thing, according to the filmmakers, was filming inside a maximum security prison. The scariest thing for me was listening to DaFoe talk about how he patterned his evil Secretary of Defense manner of speaking after Donald Rumsfeld. Though it didn't manage to convince me to start thinking a bad movie was really good, it was still plenty interesting to hear their rationale for doing things the way they did—especially those futuristic-looking commandos and their "Fly Boy" remote controlled probe disc.

There are three featurettes, including "Bullet Train Breakdown," which shows a storyboard against green screen, CGI mock-up, and final print versions of the same scene. It's a short feature which would have been more fascinating with more information. The other featurettes are decent but unspectacular: "Top Secret Military Warehouse" and "xXx: According to Ice Cube."

Rounding out the extras are three deleted scenes which you can play with or without commentary—nothing terribly illuminating or earthshaking, but still enjoyable for the curious.

Bottom Line: When a 101-minute action film has you squirming in your seat wondering when it will end, something's not right. If there were real scenes between real people talking to each other in real conversations in between all the action sequences, and if those action sequences themselves were stronger, this would have been more interesting. But what we get is macho posing, posturing and phony lines from cardboard characters. And nothing makes an action film seem less real than those two-dimensional types . . . except maybe equally phony situations and special effects that try to make the outlandish, ummm, landish.

Ratings

Video
8
Audio
8
Extras
6
Film Value
3