[29 April 2005]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Warning: Some minor spoilers for a predictable plot.
Ice Cube makes an unusual action hero, cooler and shorter than most. As the second coming of NSA not-quite-licit agent XXX (taking over for that skater boy Vin Diesel, officially pronounced dead here), Cube brings a certain weight, born in part of his hip-hop cred, but also of his movie franchising genius (the Fridays, the Barbershops, and now, you might guess, the Are We There Yet?s) and now his apparent determination to take over the action planet (Hollywood). And really, given the mess recently left by Willis, Schwarzenegger, and yes, Diesel, more power to him.
Cube’s Darius—- also called D—doesn’t even show up until late in the movie, a sign of his grand-entranced significance, maybe, but also a sign of the pace he keeps. D can’t be hurried, even when the dire threats to the free world demand his full and urgent attention. He’s more confident than that, less ready to be distracted and pushed around, than the previous XXX (who appeared at times to resent the hold the NSA had on him, but grumped and eventually speeded his way through the business of extreme-sports-world-saving). The need for D is established early, as an underground Virginia NSA base of operations is assaulted in the first scenes of XXX: State of the Union—lots of SWAT teamy men in black shooting and running, while NSA bossman, the notoriously scar-faced Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson, who gets to roar his trademark roar in the very first line he speaks: “Go secure!”)), wields two guns, leaps and pivots, and eventually escapes in a very fancy muscle car (the cars in this joint are all-around sensational).
Convinced now that he needs a special special agent—“No skater or biker, the new XXX has to be deadlier, more dangerous, with attitude!”—Gibbons busts his boy D out of prison (D’s first visible walking to the camera, Cube’s snarl all up in your face), with an improvised scheme that has D breaking out of windows, scampering over rooftops, dodging automatic weapons fire and finally, leaping off a roof—as if to freefall, in order to grab hold of a rising chopper’s ground bars. Yeah. And so what if he doesn’t skate?
D’s refreshing spin on the superspy persona is immediately visible and so very welcome. In addition to his skepticism of former associate Gibbons (apparently, these Special Forces guys served in Kosovo together, saw some corruption, and only D ended up in prison, so you can see how’s he’s mad, as in, “Why would I do anything for you?”), D’s got one thing on his mind following his escape: “I need what every man needs,” he asserts, exchanging looks with his new best friends Gibbons and nerdboy tech Toby (Michael Roof). Everyone looks like he knows what’s on the man’s mind. Cut to a diner, where he’s chowing down on a hamburger and fries.
The plot that follows is simple and ridiculous on its surface: Darius and his team—including gearhead Zeke (Xzibit), ex-girlfriend Lola (Nona Gaye), and token “white boy” Steele (Scott Speedman)—battle total bad guys who want to swarm Washington DC, take over the government, and continue to propagate current (on and off screen) policy, by which the U.S. military imposes democracy on whoever it wants. Chief spokesperson for this policy is Secretary of Defense Deckert (first name George: let’s just say this movie is not subtle). As played by Willem Dafoe, Deckert is a snidely whiplash sort of character, with a dash of Rumsfeldian clunky-speak-around gung-ho-ness. Also a former associate of Gibbons and D, he’s got a dream of dominance, now threatened by a president (Peter Strauss), threatening to make nice with the rest of the planet, that is, cut the military budget and feed folks in the Middle East and American inner cities. Old-school Deckert wants to bring democracy by killing all U.S. enemies.
In his sincere efforts to defend the seat of conventional U.S. government (odd, but there it is), Darius proceeds to engage in the standard action heroics, though again, Cube brings a certain mix of dedication, slight awkwardness (working to climb up onto that aircraft carrier!), and low-key charisma to the whole business, so that none of it is quite what it might have been. This includes dissing an insidious Congressional Aide girlie, whom D and Gibbons take turns knocking around, because she is, after all, a “bitch.” It also includes, less tediously, hijacking a tank in downtown D.C., sneaking onto that aircraft carrier (where he also drives a tank) and a speeding bullet train, he’s all smart and calculated, but also convincing.
While the outcome is never in question, D and his team’s politics are surely unusual in this genre. He fights for ostensible U.S. values and ideals, bringing a mostly black, ragtag militia to stop the official military (on orders from Deckert) from overrunning D.C. The sight of the city saved by a hip-hop crew (D quotes Tupac—“Wars come and go, but my soldiers stay eternal”—inspiring the President to do the same) is remarkable. Power to the people.