Eric D. Snider

XXX: State of the Union

Samuel L. Jackson declares in "XXX: State of the Union" that "'Triple-X' is the designation we give to special agents with skills in blah blah blah," and he goes on for a minute and I didn't get it all down. But he's lying, though, or it's been a while since he watched the first "XXX." In that movie, XXX was the nickname of Xander Cage, the criminal recruited by the National Security Agency to prevent European anarchists from terrorizing the world. Evidently, he was so good at it that now the NSA has named the position of rogue-military-guy-recruited-to-do-top-secret-things after him, the way universities will name certain professorships after past scholars.

XXX himself, we are told in passing, was killed in Bora Bora. This is movie code for "Vin Diesel wanted too much money for the sequel." So we have Ice Cube instead, playing Darius Stone, a Navy SEAL currently in prison for an incident in Kosovo where he defied the orders of his general, George Deckert (Willem Dafoe), who is now Secretary of Defense. Stone was morally right, of course, and Deckert is a bad guy, of course. You can tell Deckert is a villain as soon as you see him, even before you know what happened in Kosovo, because he is played by Willem Dafoe.

Anyway, at the film's outset, a top-secret NSA facility is taken over by people who apparently are bad guys but who apparently are also in the NSA. They have an endgame in mind that includes (but is not limited to) assassinating the president, and Jackson, reprising his role as NSA chief Augustus Gibbons, knows just the man for the job of stopping them: Stone. It's all hush-hush, so he has to break Stone out of prison, during which approximately 25 guards have an opportunity to shoot Stone yet don't even try. Apparently, if you attempt a break from a maximum-security prison, they will engage you in as many fistfights as is necessary to subdue you, but under no circumstances will they draw their guns and shoot you. (What are the minimum-security prisons like? Are they only allowed to yell at you?)

I freely confess to being a fan of the original "XXX." I liked Vin Diesel's absurdly cocky screen persona, and the film's steady stream of over-the-top action sequences and outrageous stunts amused me to no end. It struck me as a movie that, rather than seeking to explain away its 007-style sexism and physics-defying feats, sought to embrace them instead.

The sequel, rather than being big and dumb, is just dumb. It was written by Simon Kinberg, whose previous credits are as "script doctor" for "Elektra" and "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle." But both of those movies were terrible. What did the "script doctor" do, come in and make the scripts worse?

The dialogue in this film, directed by Lee Tamahori ("Die Another Day") is as generic and faux-cool as the worst Jean-Claude Van Damme straight-to-video action flicks, and its several small action scenes are far from being a constant parade (like its predecessor had), nor are any of them particularly adrenaline-pumping. Even the ridiculously over-blown climax -- involving the President of the United States' bullet train that emerges from under the Capitol, which I'm guessing you didn't know he had -- is, boiled down to its essential elements, very basic: two guys fighting on a train, and one of them is Willem Dafoe. Where's the thrill in that?

Furthermore, where Xander Cage was an "extreme sports" expert who skied, snowboarded and parachuted, all Darius Stone can do is drive cars really fast. The NSA has recruited a man whose major talent is being a leftover from "The Fast and the Furious."

This is to say nothing of Ice Cube's screen persona, which confuses coolness with dullness. Gibbons said they wanted to find someone "deadlier, more dangerous, (with) more attitude" than the first XXX, but what they found is a surly grimacer with no charisma. Who will be the third XXX? Ice-T? Mr. T? Someone with no T in his name at all? Hopefully we won't have to find out.

Grade: D+

Rated PG-13, scattered profanity, one F-word, a lot of action violence

1 hr., 41 min.

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