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XXX

The real title of "XXX" should be "$$$." The reteaming of "The Fast and the Furious" helmer Rob Cohen and star Vin Diesel has produced something that's less a movie than it is a commercial attraction tapping into the auds for extreme sports, spy pix, thrill rides, and anyone looking to see Diesel kick butt, blow stuff up and/or take his shirt off.

The real title of “XXX” should be “$$$,” since few film projects in recent times have been so brazenly customized and tooled for maximum B.O. power. The reteaming of “The Fast and the Furious” helmer Rob Cohen and star Vin Diesel has produced something that’s less a movie about an extreme sportsman-turned-James Bond- than it is a brawny commercial attraction strategically tapping into the auds for extreme sports, spy pix, thrill rides, popcorn actioners and anyone looking to see Diesel kick butt, blow stuff up and/or take his shirt off. This, plus ample joking and wisecracks, assure that Diesel has fulfilled his long-predicted superstar status, while Sony’s heavy marketing has created a brand label even before theatrical unfurling, which may well set a record for August opening weekend take. Global dominance isn’t far behind.

Studio, with producing company Revolution Studios, already telegraphed its extreme enthusiasm for pic by announcing plans for a sequel, along with a $20 million payday for Diesel. Such hubris proves well-judged, since the first of doubtless several editions of “XXX” is ideally tuned to young guys with short attention spans who fantasize alternately about big guns and hot babes, and look upon Europe as little more than a place to go to party, play hard and find said babes.

These guys now have a Bond of their own, one who’d prefer Husqvarna bikes or GTO muscle cars to Aston Martins, yet is health-conscious enough to criticize Euros on their smoking habits. XXX — nickname of Xander Cage (Diesel) — is so new-school that he makes Samuel L. Jackson as National Security Agency spy Augustus Gibbons — who recruits Xander based on his skills in highly illegal, high-risk, extreme-sports stunts — look old-fashioned.

Significantly, the NSA’s first spy to get killed wears a Bond-like tuxedo and finds himself outmatched by anarchist and former Russian soldier Yorgi (Marton Csokas), who has turned parts of Prague into his own Rabelaisian party palace at night, while by day he’s planning global catastrophe with chemical and biological weapons (code-named Silent Night). Apparently, as far as Rich Wilkes’ script is concerned, the CIA doesn’t exist, and it’s up to the NSA to send in a fresh, boldly fearless spy to get to the bottom of Yorgi’s plans.

Xander’s the man, since he’s first shown stealing a U.S. senator’s sports car and using it for a felonious joyride off a suspension bridge — all of it videotaped to pump up Xander’s growing profile as a star in the extreme-sports world. Arrested by some sort of SWAT team, put through silly rigors in a Googie-style coffee shop and immediately loaded onto a plane headed to Colombian poppy fields, Xander finds himself forced to improvise in an extreme-sports kind of way: In pic’s second outlandish action set piece, he eludes a Colombian army copter on a motorbike and proves his worth to Gibbons.

Like the Dirty Dozen before him, Xander’s a movie anti-hero who chooses to fight for his country rather than do time. This brand of compulsory patriotism, which Jackson puts across like the world’s greatest car salesman, lands Xander in Prague, where he uses his sports credentials to get on Yorgi’s good side. Xander’s ruse for wanting to buy a fleet of muscle cars for Yank clients is a bit obvious for such a baddie, but it’s pure subtlety compared to the sarcastic exchanges between Xander and Yorgi’s dangerous-looking concubine, Yelena (Asia Argento).

Diesel’s charisma has been proven in past actioners; what he adds here is some rough charm in his amusing ripostes, plus his desire to kick out the stops as a wildly physical action star. That sure looks like Diesel doing motorcycle jumps, skating down stair rails on a silver dinner tray, climbing up sheer rock cliffs and, in the crowning action scene, skiboarding like a madman down a mountain ahead of a raging avalanche.

Pic, like Bond epics, is punctuated by these action mini-movies, but the downhill racing number is so amazing that it’s hard to see how “XXX” can top it before the finish. It doesn’t, in fact, but getting there involves Xander not only escaping Yorgi’s castle(which he’s turned into a heavy-metal version of Hef’s Playboy pad), but getting back inside to blow up the hydrofoil sub (nicknamed, strangely, Ahab) designed to carry the Silent Night weapon. He’s helped along the way by Yelena and an NSA techno-geek named Toby (an overenthusiastic Michael Roof), who tips pic into the cheeky realm of “Alias,” TV’s own Gen-X spy thriller-fantasy.

As Franke Potente did opposite Matt Damon in the much more satisfying “The Bourne Identity,” Argento takes everything she has learned working in a wide range of European films to craft a reasonably credible and engaging female counterpart to Diesel. Kiwi thesp Csokas (“The Lord of the Rings”) joins the ranks of other Anglo-tongued actors who have fashioned evil Euro/Slavic figures: His Yorgi may be an anarchist, but like Alan Bates’ fascist in “The Sum of All Fears,” he also wants to create so much global havoc that nation-states will collapse.

Project is stuffed with oddities that may or may not be intentional. One is a closing credit sequence that exists as its own kind of cyber-animation short film rather than (and unlike Maurice Binder’s opening-title sequences for Bond pics) having anything to do with the movie. Another is the grab-bag music selections, ranging from Randy Edelman’s cheesy score that quotes without much fun from ’70s TV action series themes, to on-screen appearances by German metal band Rammstein, techno unit Orbital, zither player Michal Muller playing the theme from “The Third Man” and opera singers Martin Barta and Martina Bauerova rehearsing “Don Giovanni.”

Jackson’s game perf is harmed by another curiosity — Gibbons’ facial scar, which looks like badly applied cake icing. Other than needlessly hyperkinetic editing, tech package is exceptional, as Cohen’s productions increasingly are becoming, highlighted by lenser Dean Semler and designer Gavin Bocquet turning Prague into one of pic’s major attractions. Product placement runs amok, including gear such as Motorola video cell phones.

XXX

  • Production: A Sony Pictures Entertainment release of a Revolution Studios presentation of a Neal H. Moritz production. Produced by Neal H. Moritz. Executive producers, Arne L. Schmidt, Todd Garner, Vin Diesel, George Zakk. Co-producers, Creighton Bellinger, Derek Dauchy. Directed by Rob Cohen. Screenplay, Rich Wilkes.
  • Crew: Camera (Deluxe color, Panavision widescreen), Dean Semler; editors, Chris Lebenzon, Paul Rubell, Joel Negron; music, Randy Edelman; music supervisor, Kathy Nelson; production designer, Gavin Bocquet; supervising art director, Jonathan Lee; art directors, Philip D. Harvey, Jindrich Koci; set decorator, Hilton Rosemarin; costume designer, Sanja Milkovic Hays; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), William B. Kaplan; sound designer- supervising sound editor, Bruce Stambler; visual effects supervisor, Joel Hynek; special visual effects and digital animation, Digital Domain; additional special visual effects, Syd Dutton, Bill Taylor, Gray Matter FX; special effects supervisor, John Frazier; makeup, Hallie D'Amore; stunt coordinators, Lance Gilbert, James Arnett, Pavel Cajzl; weapons coordinator, Michael Papac; associate producers, David Minkowski, Matthew Stillman, Michelle Glass; assistant director, Brian Bettwy; second unit camera, Alexander Witt, Arnett, Larry Blanford; casting, Ronna Kress, Kate Dowd, Nancy Bishop. Reviewed at the Avco Cinema, L.A., July 26, 2002. MPAA rating: PG-13. Running time: 124 MIN.
  • With: Xander Cage - Vin Diesel Yelena - Asia Argento Yorgi - Marton Csokas Agent Augustus Gibbons - Samuel L. Jackson El Jefe - Danny Trejo Toby Lee Shavers - Michael Roof Sen. Dick Hotchkiss - Tom Everett Milan Sova - Richy Muller Kirill - Werner Daehn <b>With:</b> Eve, Leila Arcieri, William Hope, Tony Hawk, Mat Hoffman, Brian Deegan, Mike Vallely, Rob Wells, Rick Thorne, Cary Hart, Colin McKay, Jason Ellis, Martin Barta, Martina Bauerova, Rammstein, Orbital, Michal Muller.
  • Music By: