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Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2002

Just the action hero for times like these


Rating: * * * 1/2
Director: Rob Cohen
Running time: 124 minutes
Language: English
Now showing

As a kid, I was troubled by secret-agent movies. They seemed too extravagant, too wasteful -- somehow, the shooting always began in the middle of some lavish banquet -- and being raised by a frugal grandmother, I was always agonizing over the bullets in the glazed chicken and the dead guy's head landing plop in the middle of the untouched chocolate mousse.

News photo
Vin Diesel in "XXX"

And 007 was forever changing tuxedos and courting ladies decked in diamonds or dripping furs, and they were forever being interrupted in their deluxe suites by the bad guys who tore up the place and ripped open the swans-down pillows. Such scenes left me shaking and nervous. I was certain the wrath of heaven was going to strike, or at least that's what grandma said.

But now, redemption of a different sort comes with "XXX," whose tag-line is: "A new breed of secret agent." Out go the order-made Savile Row suits and the Egyptian cigarettes. Same with the bevy of beauties, since this new secret agent is the type who sticks with one woman instead of all that expensive sleeping around.

Make way for Xander Cage (aka "X"), a street-punk felon who gets forced into offering his services to the CIA in exchange for a clean record. He has a flair for riding anything that resembles a board, and the kind of physique that attests to pumping iron since the age of 2. His fashion sense? Black cargo pants and white tank tops with sneakers -- that probably cost him a total of 3,900 yen at Uniqlo. His digs? A dank, dirty studio in a criminal neighborhood. The obligatory hairdo that never gets mussed in wind or warfare? Not an issue since X has a perfectly shaved head offset by the huge "XXX" tattooed on the back of his neck.

Indeed, the world of secret agents has undergone a big change in perks and personnel. Finally, an action hero who reflects the state of the global economy.

The director of this efficiency project is Rob Cohen, who came onto the map last summer with "The Fast and the Furious," and once again he teams up with the newly emerged action star Vin Diesel, who's already been tapped as the next Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Willis rolled into a right bicep. Based on their box-office success thus far, the pair are probably looking at an "XXX" series running for at least seven years -- or until Diesel starts to look ridiculous with a skateboard under his feet.

Anyway, the director and actor seem to be united in the firm conviction that surfing, boarding and parachuting should take the place of ho-hum shooting, punching and driving. For them, action is on par with adventure-vacation activity -- the hero will save the world, yes, but he'll have fun, and it'll be the ecologically sound and cost-effective kind.

In "XXX," the bad guys belong to an organization called Anarchy 99 (which actually sounds like a rock band from Utsunomiya). And as is so often the case nowadays, Anarchy 99 is headed by a greasy Eurotrash fellow (what is it with these guys and their refusal to shave?) sporting cheesy leather pants. The word "discount" flashes in neon every time he shows his stained teeth.

Giving the film a booster shot of class, though, is the city of Prague, currently the destination of choice for U.S. action filmmakers (see "Bad Company"). This is where Xander Cage (Diesel) is sent by CIA big-shot agent Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson) to infiltrate Anarchy 99. However, Xander is too bad-ass to follow strict orders and hooks up with the drop-dead cute Yelena (Asia Argento), girlfriend of Anarchy's leader, Yorgi (Marton Csokas).

Together, they must stop Yorgi from launching a high-powered submarine equipped with enough poison gas to destroy the whole of Prague. This involves a fully gadgetized Pontiac GTO (of course, the back seat flips open to reveal heavy artillery) and then jettisoning the artillery altogether in the red wire/green wire climax. Kewl.

And when it's all over, there's no pretentious suite for the happy couple -- just an organic vacation in an island bungalow. Wish grandma was around to see this.

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