Review: xXx: State of the Union

by malducin

xXx: State of the Union, directed by Lee Tamahori, is the sequel to the Vin Diesel 2002 vehicle. This time around Ice Cube is the new outlaw secret agent trying to thwart a coup d'état in the US. Scott Farrar served as the VFX supervisor with work provided by ILM, POV, Pacific Title, Hydraulx and Tweak Films.

The Movie

Ice Cube takes over Vin Diesel as the new super-agent Darius Stone, now dubbed xXx. Sam Jackson returns as agent Augustus Gibbons, Willem Dafoe is Defense Secretary General Deckert, Scott Speedman as NSA agent Kyle Steele, Peter Strauss as the US President, Michael Roof as gadget man Toby Shavers, Sunny Mabrey as Gibbons' mysterious contact Charlie, Nona Gaye as Darius old girlfriend Lola and rapper Xzibit as Darius old pal Zeke.

In this installment the Defense Secretary plans a coup d'état because of all things the President plans to introduce a bill that would diminish military spending (like closing bases) and increase foreign aid. If you think that's the most ridiculous plot point, you would be wrong. It makes me appreciate even more Rob Cohen's direction. Back then I was ready to hate both Cohen's The Fast and the Furious and the original xXx, but in the end, while not exactly great movies I thought they were lots of (popcorn) fun. Unfortunately Tamahori and neophyte screenwriter Simon Kinberg failed to create much of anything resembling a coherent plot. Maybe Kinberg can be excused but Tamahori, which handled character plots and thrillers like The Edge and Mulholland Falls, fails by trying too hard to top the previous one.

The film quickly falls into cliché. How to explain the absence of Vin Diesel's character? Of course say he is dead and keep mentioning it a couple of times. It certainly shows the lack of effort of coming up with explanations and plot points nowadays. Even something like Miss Congeniality 2 used that excuse. It's not too much too ask for a bit better imagination and equally plausible explanations when that much money is spent on a movie. Also anyone watching a bit of the news will have his head spin around at some other plot points. Not only now does the NSA have black ops work, but they have forensics teams that are even sent to investigate normal murders. You have military equipment, including tanks being transported and transferred via an aircraft carrier and worst of all for a Speech of the Union address you need to secure Washington DC with 3 regiments.

Direction is generally sloppy as well, the movie doesn't even make much sense with itself. For example agent Steele at one point tracks down Darius but when asked how he did it he just mentions he has means or something to that effect. Would it have been to hard to say he was tracked via Lola? The bad guys plan is to kill the top members of the Government during the speech because they are all in proximity, so what do the bad guys do when their plans start unraveling? Separate the different members like the President and Vice President. How do you enter the Capitol near ground level? Well blow a hole in the dome. The movie had a great deal of unintentional comedy. During the attack in the Capitol there are two gun battles with lots of crossfire, the first only the President survives, but especially in the second after a few shots all the good guys except Gibbons and darius are killed. For a moment I thought I was watching something straight out of Top Secret or Hot Shots.

Character work is abysmal. At one point Darius has a quiet moment with exgirlfriend Lola, but nothing is said about their past relationship, except she's pissed, and their rekindling romance is handled like a teenagers first inept attempts. In fact much much of the characters interactions are handled that way. Most of the male leads like Speedman and Dafoe are the equivalent of big man on campus bullies, Roof's agent Shavers is your sensitive geek genius of TV sitcoms, and at one point the President says an F-U. Dialogue is atrocious as well, when some of the "best phrases" are taken from Tupac you know the rest can't be good.

At least the action goes from decent (more of it in the VFX discussion) to good but like the original xXx finale it sometimes suffers of being so over the top that it walks a fine line between comedy and great action. The film will certainly entertain the inner grunt thirst for adrenaline, but despite the presence of Jackson and Ice Cube it does come a bit empty in the end.

The VFX

The VFX work was mainly provided by ILM under the supervision of Scott Farrar and Samir Hoon, with animation supervised by James Tooley. Additional VFX work was done by Persistence of Vision under the supervision of David Dozoretz, Pacific Title under the supervision of Mark Freund, Hydraulx under the supervision of Greg and Colin Strause and Tweak Films.

As with the previous film most of the work involves elaborate death defying action sequences and environments. The highlight of the film is the climax of the film which involves chasing a bullet train on the outskirts of Washington DC, very much in the same vein as ILM's work on Mission: Impossible. Also much like that sequence some of the shots are unbelievable on their realism and complexity while others fall into the over the top realm. The best part are the extremely realistic and complex environments the train travels through, subtly lighted and rendered it does look like nighttime helicopter footage. The initial chase helicopter shots are realistically animated. It's just the middle part of the sequence that suffers from the too much approach, with the helicopters zooming and flying near ground level despite house, telephone poles and trees, and a Cobra (the car not the attack helicopter) bouncing on the tracks.

The final part of the sequence is impressive as well and consists of a helicopter missile striking the train would some major pyro work on it, probably of a huge size to make it scale well. At this point Darius jumps off (the train was over a bridge over a river) and in contrast with other shots in the film he is so perfectly composited it almost looks like skydiving footage. Darius then dives in and has to swim to avoid the wreckage in a similar impressive way like Sly Stallone's dry for wet work in Daylight.

Of the environments the most impressive example is the Capitol building. The first shot, in daylight, is not very effective because the whole tone is of pastel colors. Subsequent on of the Capitol at night are extremely effective, though in one shot the dome has a different lighting than the live action parts of the lower stairs. After that the work is pretty much seamless, done with miniatures, and a tank blowing up the dome is eerily realistic with fire and smoke pouring out. The only environment that was really not very effective was the first shot of Darius entering a huge chop shop, it's readily apparent that the whole interior was shot elsewhere and added in. Even adding a bright light to hide this doesn't prevent noticing the difference in color palette when the action moves totally in.

Other VFX work included a robotic camera, very realistically done although a couple of backgrounds seemed a tad more noisy. Other work included the addition of missiles and of course compositing backgrounds when the characters are driving around or in one instance Ice Cube driving a boat on a river (presumably the Potomac), some digital stunt doubles like when Darius escapes prison and ramming of a Bradley type vehicle into a tank on top of an aircraft carrier. Some of the daylight car shots suffer from an all too common trick nowadays of simulating bloom, but at times it so pronounced as to call too much attention to itself (The Interpreter has a particular extreme case of it) because it contrasts with adjacent shots done for real. In the boat chase escape sequence there is one instance when the background looks very flat. Actually there are several shots like that as if pickups were shot on HD video so it's difficult to say because of the quick cuts if it HD shots that needed better treatment of composites that needed a bit more work.

The Final Verdict

While on the surface xXx: State of the Union is almost in the same vain as the original it's a shame that Lee Tamahori couldn't infuse not only the same sense of fun as Rob cohen's original but even take enough care to make this one make some sort of sense, with his careless direction. It still boggles the mind he is now being chosen for action vehicles when it's becoming apparent it's not his forte. Action and VFX fans will have plenty to be interested and cheer about in this film but it does feel the effort was quite a bit wasted on something that could have been (maybe) easily corrected.