Film

Film reviews: XXX: Return of Xander Cage, Split

Photo credit: George Kraychyk

Photo credit: George Kraychyk

XXX: RETURN OF XANDER CAGE

You can’t keep a good Vin Diesel franchise down, any more than you can keep a Vin Diesel character dead for longer than one movie. Reprising his role of Xander Cage from the 2002 film XXX, Diesel rises from the grave (okay, he says he just went into exile) to work for the government one more time. If you recall, Cage was an extreme sports dude recruited by Agent Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson) to fight crime in ways the U.S. government wasn’t suited to, but it turns out Cage didn’t like the idea of working for The Man, so he went into hiding—sitting out the sequel, XXX: State of the Union, starring Ice Cube)—while his XXX nickname became something of a designation for any anti-establishment warrior secretly working for the government.

Now back with XXX: Return of Xander Cage, XXX is brought out of retirement when Gibbons is killed by a satellite that was literally plucked out of orbit and sent hurtling to the earth as a weapon using a lethal device known as Pandora’s Box. Gibbons’ replacement, Jane Marke (Toni Collette), locates Cage and convinces him to lead a team to find the skilled group of agents that stole the device. Rather than use military types, Cage puts together his own team of miscreants to seek out the box and presumably mess up the group that has it. All given XXX status, Cage team includes Ruby Rose (“Orange Is the New Black”), Chinese star Kris Wu, and Rory McCann (The Hound from “Game of Thrones”), with tech support suppled by Nina Dobrev (“The Vampire Diaries”). But the team they are facing is formidable, with the likes of Hong Kong action legend Donnie Yen (Rogue One), Thai martial arts wizard Tony Jaa (Ong-bak), and Indian actress Deepika Padukone.

The ins and outs of the plot don’t really matter because Return of Xander Cage isn’t about story at all, unless is involves shooting, explosions, martial arts, one-liners, catchphrases and uncomfortably aggressive flirting. Seriously, there are few things on screen that disturb me more than watching Vin Diesel clunk his way through sexy talk with women who seem placed on the screen for the sole purpose of him invading their personal space. The only thing more upsetting is watching the actresses pretend to enjoy it.

Director D.J. Caruso (Eagle Eye, Disturbia, I Am Number Four) keeps things moving at a breakneck speed, and I guess that’s a good thing because if I’d been given more than five seconds to think about how stupid what I was seeing was, I might have punched the screen.

The mission of the film (and it’s even stated at the end of the movie) is for these characters to look as cool as possible committing as many acts of violence as possible in a PG-13 movie, and if that—punctuated by dumb jokes—is all you care about, then you’ll be a happy idiot. I have nothing against violent movies; quite the contrary. But after a while, your eyes blur, you mind numbs and your ears ring, and you begin to tune out for a little relief. Even the Fast & Furious films found a way to meet us in the middle by making us care about its characters. I didn’t care who lived or died in Return of Xander Cage., and that makes a big difference when considering giving your brain over to a brainless movie.

This may branch into spoiler territory, but since he’s featured in the latest TV commercials for the film, I’m going to talk about it. Ice Cube’s Darius Stone (from the second XXX film) does make an appearance here, and with the exception of one shared moment with Diesel, it’s entirely possible that he shot his scenes separately from the rest of the cast, even though he’s supposed to be saving their collective asses. It’s so noticeable, it feels like including him was an afterthought. But Diesel doesn’t like loose ends in his movies, so there’s Darius, armed with a grenade launcher, a theme song and a mean face.

I have a feeling you already know if you want to see this or not, and if you do, don’t let me dissuade you. The action sequences are sometimes breathtaking; other times they are confusing, blurry and sloppy in their staging. I know most people put aside the usual things you look for in a quality film and just go with it, but it’s the films that don’t ask us to do that and still manage to entertain fully that I love the most. XXX: Return of Xander Cage is not such a film.

SPLIT

I may not always love his films, but I do love that writer-director M. Night Shyamalan continues making movies that people either embrace or reject with such fervor that you almost wonder how many puppies he actually did kill (the answer, I’m guessing, is None; calm down, people). Perhaps audience and critical reaction is so strong because Shyamalan came right out of the gate being compared to some of the modern greats, like Spielberg. That’s not exactly his fault, but when did that ever stop anyone. Which is not to say that the director of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, and most recently The Visit hasn’t made his share of horrible movies (no need to list those…The Happening, The Last Airbender, oh, I’ve said too much!).

His latest is a fun, crazy psychological horror work called Split, concerning a man named Kevin (James McAvoy), who suffers from Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), which results in his having 24 distinct personalities that surface at various intervals. One of them, Dennis, kidnaps three teen girls and takes them to an underground lair where he says he’s preparing them for something called “The Beast,” which they assume means that their demise is imminent, and they look for any way to get out or get help.

If nothing else, Shyamalan is a master of patience and pacing. He slowly pulls his story back to reveal different areas of this subterranean prison, so we have a clearer picture of what the girls are up against. But he also pulls back on Kevin’s world to show us a few of his personalities. We really only spend significant time with about four or five of them, including the nine-year-old Hedwig, the schoolmarm-ish Patricia, and Dennis, who seems to be the closest to an actual creep. We also see Kevin visit his therapist, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley), who isn’t convinced things are okay with her most fascinating patient.

Through Dr. Fletcher, we find out that she believes that DID patients can not only change their voices and demeanor, but that they can also alter their body chemistry and physiology in the most extreme cases. Her theory is that many phenomena that some believe are supernatural are actually just these altered brain changing somethings in their host’s body. And the more explanation we get, the more convinced I was that Shyamalan was up to something, which is only partially correct. Split is the filmmaker’s treatise on mental illness, not only in Kevin, but in one of his captives, Casey (The Witch’s Anya Taylor-Joy), who flashes back to a time in her childhood when she had to deal with a different type of monster. She’s an outcast at her school, but in this situation, she’s the most resourceful thanks to years of her father training her survival and hunting skills.

The other two girls (Haley Lu Richardson of Edge of Seventeen, and Jessica Sula) aren’t exactly useless, but eventually the three are separated and each must figure out how to manipulate Kevin’s many inhabitants. That’s about as deep as I’m willing to go into the story, one that doesn’t have the usual Shyamalan twist, but it still has a doozy of an ending. I was largely impressed with how Split unfolds and how completely McAvoy hurls himself into the abyss of these characters. Equal praise goes to Taylor-Joy who is positively mesmerizing as the young woman who pays close attention to each personality’s words and behavior to determine how best to manipulative them (not always successfully).

I do wonder how Shyamalan would fare directing scripts by other writers. He’s clearly a talent when it comes to the act of filmmaking, but so often there is something fundamentally askew with his screenplays that another set of eyes or a different writer altogether might solve the problem. That being said, with The Visit and Split, he seems to be returning to basics (movie basics, not his basics, which are quite detailed and complex), and it suits him to a point. Split has a lot of issues, but they are manageable and are easily outweighed by a pair of sublime performances. I have mixed feelings about the work, but I’m leaning toward recommending it.

Categories: Film, Review, Screens

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