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XXX

Director: Rob Cohen
Cast: Vin Diesel, Samuel L. Jackson, Asia Argento, Marton Csokas

(Columbia Pictures; US theatrical: 9 Aug 2002; 2002)

Same Old New Guy?

Watch out for a new kind of hero, warn the ads and promotional materials for Vin Diesel’s latest, XXX. Xander Cage (Diesel) is a fearless, clever, sexy, and irreverent extreme sports hero begrudgingly turned NSA spy, so he can break all the rules. Hmmm. A hero who breaks all the rules…. is that really new? Of course not. The unconventional hero is a convention (think anyone from James Bond to Martin Riggs, or even Austin Powers) and XXX minds it well.


XXX opens with the first of countless action thrills, one of Cage’s extreme stunts-turned-internet-movie: he drives an uptight politician’s Corvette off a 700-foot bridge, escaping by parachute. After he is arrested, Cage receives an offer he can’t refuse from NSA Agent Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson). As an alternative to solitary confinement, apparently a fate worse than death for wild man Cage, he can become a spy, infiltrate Czech terrorist group Anarchy 99, and find out what they are up to—which, we soon find out, is no less than the destruction of the world.


Why does Gibbons think the leather-clad, tattooed Cage is the man for the job? Because, in the film’s opening scene, another NSA agent, a James Bond type, turns out to be a walking bulls-eye after he swipes a microchip from Anarchy 99 then tries to blend in with a crowd moshing to the flame-throwing performance of Rammstein, a German industrial metal group. He’s definitely too old school for this shit and is wiped out quicker than you can say “007.” This scene makes one point clear right off: the bad guys are a lot scarier than they used to be and the good guy has to be a lot less polite.


Xander in all his coolness has no problem fitting in with Anarchy 99’s ringleader, Yorgi (Marton Csokas). As good luck would have it, Yorgi’s henchmen are big fans of Xander’s stunts, which they’ve seen on the Internet. Xander gains instant credibility. Thanks to this little plot expediter, in no time at all Xander discovers that Yorgi plans to wipe out all of Prague by launching AHAB, a solar-powered sub that will release the bio-weapon “Silent Night.”


But while other hero-types may be happy to be in the business of saving the world, Xander tries hard to convince us he’s not. Coerced into this situation, he says a lot to the effect that he’s not the heroic type: “Do I look like a fan of law enforcement?” he quips when Gibbons first recruits him. Later, he suggests, “If you’re going to send someone to save the world, make sure they like it the way it is!” Though Xander holds out as long as he can, we really can’t have a hero who doesn’t care about his mission—or us, those people living on the world he’s got to save. At any rate, we never fall for Xander’s “I don’t give a shit” attitude, since he does all his complaining while picking off the bad guys.


And so, he’s soon begging Gibbons to keep him on the increasingly dangerous case, revealing, “I’ve risked my life for a lot of stupid reasons. This is the first one that makes sense to me.” Ah, epiphany and redemption: Xander is a bad ass with a heart of gold.


All this makes Cage a pretty familiar type. On the other hand, Vin Diesel fits that description quite well. In fact, everyone is talking about Diesel as the “new” multicultural hero, a confident and savvy self-promoter who refuses to discuss his ethnicity and in fact, sells himself based on his ethnic ambiguity. For the last week or so, Diesel’s been the cover story for several magazines, all referencing this as a brilliant marketing angle and how it’s turning the industry on its ear. Benjamin Svetkey, in this week’s Entertainment Weekly, sums up Diesel’s agenda: “By stripping away all identifying marks, presenting himself as a blank slate—particularly when it comes to his racial background—he’s found a way to market himself to the broadest possible audience… a movie star virtually every demographic can claim as its own.”


But the implications of such a tactic are complicated. On the one hand, by marketing himself as race-less he’s saying that every audience member, regardless of their race can identify with him. Diesel and, by extension, his films, are saying, “Race doesn’t matter” (he named his production company “One Race”). On the other hand, the hype surrounding that claim only serves to remind of us what he says he makes us forget. Diesel’s silence on the issue of race (his own, anyway) rings loudly: everyone is talking about what Vin Diesel won’t talk about.


Given all the buzz, it’s unfortunate that the crafting of the star’s cross-demographic appeal is being read—by critics, industry insiders, and judging by the magazine interviews, by Diesel himself—more as a financial opportunity than a social one. XXX has already been deemed a franchise (as has 2000’s Pitch Black, the quirky science fiction film that brought Diesel to Hollywood’s attention) and is expected to be such huge hit that Diesel’s salary has been doubled for the next installment. Not too shabby considering this movie hasn’t even opened yet!


I love a great action movie as much as the next person, and XXX is definitely that. Still, I can’t help but wish that Diesel, given the unique position he has so carefully created for himself, would choose characters and stories that challenge us a little more and emerge as a really new new guy—and not just the next $20 million man.

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