So whoever attacked us is loaded for war. And they knew exactly where to hit us.
— Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson), XXX: State of the Union
In moments of trauma, you realize just how much you feel for somebody else.
— Scott Hindberg, commentary, XXX: State of the Union: Special Edition
There aren’t that many manly men in Hollywood, and Cube seemed to be the perfect fit.
— Neal H. Moritz, “XXX: According To Ice Cube”
“We wanted the film to be more of a political thriller,” says screenwriter Scott Hindberg. “Less of a straight-up action-adventure movie. And that was part of the challenge of making the sequel, was to give it all the bells and whistles and all the action that people expect of the franchise, but also make it a little more like the ’70s thrillers that we both love, like The Parallax View and All the President’s Men, Three Days of the Condor… I think we balanced well wit the louder, bigger elements of the film as well.”
The “we” of this both includes director Lee Tamahori, as the two offer commentary (on two separate recordings, spliced together, and this along with a personable tech commentary by CG supervisor Lindy DeQuattro and ILM visual effects supervisor Scott Farrar), for the DVD release of their film XXX: State of the Union. Don’t laugh. While it is definitely an action-adventure movie, it also includes these other “elements.” They’re just a little hard to hear amid the din of the bells and whistles.
The action begins with the replacement of Vin Diesel by Ice Cube’s Darius (also called D). The need for D is established early, as an underground Virginia NSA base of operations is assaulted, launching NSA bossman Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson) into his own flurry of actionation. He wields two guns, leaps and pivots, and eventually escapes in a very fancy muscle car (the cars in this joint are all-around sensational). Mad at being surprised, he plots payback. “We gotta go off the grid now,” he tells his nerdly sidekick as they speed away from the demolition, “Not another skater, snowboarder or biker: the new XXX has to be more dangerous. Deadlier, more attitude.”
To that end, Gibbons busts his boy D out of prison, or rather, leaving it to D to improvise his way out 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. D is something of a skeptic, owing to his hard time, and manifestly distrusts Gibbons (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 also has his own priorities. Immediately on his escape, he makes his demands. “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.
Such comedy accommodates Cube, of course, but also grounds D as a non-standard action hero. Hindberg notes that his experience with Tamahori was “anomalous” for the movie business, in that the director not only respected his “opinions,” but also worked with him closely throughout the shoot. That process, Hindberg observes, led to the film’s inclusion of several scenes where characters actually talk — stars Ice Cube (as XXX replacement Darius) and Sam Jackson (reprising his role as Gibbons) get to run dialogue, and multi-character meetings (a.k.a. “crutch scenes”) deliver “information” (a.k.a. exposition), “texture, a little bit more backstory” about Darius (a.k.a. D), as to his “warring impulses” to do good and bad.
Repeatedly, Hindberg returns to the contexts for his characters and their outrageous situations. “To me,” he insists, “the most challenging and ultimately, I think, most rewarding scenes to write in these kinds of movies are character scenes. I tend to be somebody who approaches action movies from a character perspective.” With that in mind, Hindberg quite appreciates writing for sharp actors, like Willem Dafoe, here playing the villain, Secretary of Defense George Deckert (Dafoe claims he’s been inspired by Rumsfeld, though Tamahori names Alexander Haig). “You give him lines that are a little bit of a mouthful,” says Hindberg, and he knows how to throw them away. The best actors know how to throw away big lines so you don’t feel they’re movie lines.”
Amen to that: Dafoe manages to be at once subtle and strange. A former associate of Gibbons and D, Deckert cultivates a dream of U.S. world dominance, now threatened by a president (Peter Strauss), threatening to make nice with the rest of the planet. Rather than allow his boss to 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, perceived and otherwise.
Tamahori focuses on stunts, performances, and occasional rationales — or not. “There seem to be traitorous blonds that keep emerging into all these movies I’m making, and don’t ask me why, but I keep killing ’em.” Ha ha. The blond here is Charlie (Sunny Mabrey), who tries seducing D before she tries killing him, neither endeavor successful. They agree to meet at a swanky party: she comes slinky and begowned, as she’s a Congressional aide and some important person’s niece; he’s in a waiter’s uniform (“I’m trying to blend,” he emphasizes when white girl suggests he’s slumming).
Here Tamahori notes the storyline’s sociopolitical background, namely, “Everywhere I went I would see a lot of Hispanic and a lot of black waiters, which is obviously the working engine of a lot of America, is very much a kind of minorities working tirelessly behind the scenes for the enrichment of everyone else’s lives… I wanted to do a bit of Blake Edwards here, when they’re running around saying, ‘Black guy, white coat, where did he go?’ You run out into a room and there are like 400 of them.”
In fact, State of the Union is pretty upfront about condemning U.S. racism, not a big step to make, given Cube’s formidable presence (“Brother I was born looking guilty,” he explains to nice guy ally, Steele [Scott Speedman]). In “XXX: According To Ice Cube,” one of three short featurettes included in the SE DVD (the others, “Top Secret Military Warehouse” and “Bullet Train Breakdown,” are focused on effects, and a fourth extra, “From Convict To Hero: The Making of XXX: State Of The Union,” does the usual cast-and–crew interview rounds), Tamahori, producers,, Speedman, Jackson, and Xzibit, who plays D’s gearhead buddy Zeke, stress the “difference” Cube brings to the part (Xzibit also admires his career enterprise: “He’s a franchise, walking”).
The Cube-fitted plot sets Darius and his team — including ex-girlfriend and chop shop owner Lola (Nona Gaye) — battle Deckert and his military goons, who want to swarm Washington D.C., take over the government, and continue current policy, by which the U.S. imposes democracy on whoever it wants, including the U.S., by means of assault. (Tamahori says, “The [Department of Defense] wouldn’t give us any help on this because the Secretary of Defense was the villain, and he’s their boss. That was never gonna happen. We sent them scripts, because we wanted some help, but it was never forthcoming.”) While the conclusion is foregone, the politics are unusual. D quotes Tupac — “Wars come and go, but my soldiers stay eternal” — and hip-hop saves the nation.