2002 rewatch: XXX brought extreme fury to the spy thriller

·9 min read

Every week, Entertainment Weekly is looking back at the biggest movies of the summer of 2002. As audiences struggled to understand the new post-9/11 world order, Hollywood found itself in a moment of transition, with upcoming stars and soon-to-be-forever franchises playing alongside startling new visions and fading remnants of the old normal. Join us for a rewatch of the first true summer of Hollywood's strange new millennium. Last week: Signs of life from M. Night Shyamalan. This week: Leah Greenblatt and Darren Franich go skyboarding through XXX. Next week: Hit the North Shore in Blue Crush.

XXX Vin Diesel
XXX Vin Diesel

Everett Collection

LEAH: 2002, Darren, what a time to be alive! What an X-treme time: We had the X-Games, a.k.a. the dirtbag Olympics for skaters and motorcross racers, and Pibb X-tra, the "bold" alternative to Coca-Cola. And of course we had XXX, which was essentially positioned as the Gen-X answer to James Bond, starring Vin Diesel as an extreme — there's that word again — sports enthusiast turned reluctant super-spy named (what else) Xander Cage.

Xander is a man's man, man: just a guy who loves "cars, boards, bikes — anything fast enough to do something stupid in." Will he steal a Senator's Corvette and BASE-jump it off a bridge? Yep yep. Free-fall from an airplane on a snowboard just to start an avalanche? If he must. Paraglide into a Czechoslovakian river in order to redirect a biochemical weapon and save the world? Spoiler! It's done, son. The Corvette business, actually, is what gets him recruited in the first place: Samuel L. Jackson's face-scarred NSA agent Augustus Gibbons clocks Xander's carjacking, bridge-sailing skills and decides that the American government could use someone like him to take on a rogue band of Eastern European terrorists called Anarchy 99. Or as Gibbons puts it to a nonplussed room of bureaucrats, "Do we want to drop another mouse in the snake pit? Or do we want to send our own snake and let him crawl in?"

And so Xander is packed off to Prague to embed himself in the underworld of 99's ex-Russian soldier ringleader Yorgi (Marton Csokas) and his surly girlfriend-slash-co-conspirator Yelena (Asia Argento). Insanity, unsurprisingly, ensues. XXX was designed, I believe, as a vehicle for Diesel following the surprise success of the original 2001 The Fast and the Furious; the studio famously put up a giant billboard for the project in L.A. before they even had a script. The film reunited Diesel with his Fast director Rob Cohen, and pretty much let screenwriter Rich Wilkes (Airheads, the Jerky Boys movie) put whatever bonkers set piece he could think of on screen. The result, to me at least, is a perfect encapsulation of the era: a two-hour Mountain Dew commercial set to a choogling rap-metal soundtrack, with video phones (ooh!), absinthe, and an extravagant fun-fur collar for every jacket. And this movie truly does have everythingEvea Rammstein cameosunburst nipple tattoos.

But you tell me, Darren, as our staff's resident Fast and Furious connoisseur — where does XXX fall in the Diesel canon for you?

DARREN: I prefer the term "Diesel Mythology," Leah. The world's hugest Dungeons & Dragons player grew up to be the star-producer of three cinematic sagas, not to mention side-hustling as a movie history's favorite talking tree. So I approach the man with religious awe even in movies I don't love — and before this viewing, I would've put XXX pretty low.

The actor defies easy parody in the Fast and Riddick series, where he represents Grim Paternal Rebellion and Moody Messianic Rage. Whereas Xander Cage is more obviously jerky boy of his moment. That Corvette heist is fodder for a Jackass-y outlaw stunt show: "Welcome to the Xander Zone!" I was never an Xtreme guy (don't forget the XFL!), so the Tony Hawk cameo does nothing for me. I was a video-game kid, but I the movie's nudges to gamer culture sound very Oldster Speaking Youngster. "Stop thinking Prague police, start thinking PlayStation!" says Xander at one point. It's tragic he didn't say "Xbox" for maximum X-ification.

However! XXX kinda won me over this time. I'm a sucker for anyone who starts an avalanche with grenades and then boards down the destructive snow wave. Residual Fast fumes help. We meet Xander stealing a car; the climax features one of those vehicle-to-vehicle harpoon-launch rope-climbs that kicked off the first Fast movie. (Actually, the later Fasts sorta became XXX movies, with Kurt Russell as a Gibbons-y boss hiring criminals for explosive espionage.)

The frantic trendiness of the first half hour works as a hypodermic needle of off-the-chain 2002 nostalgia. I'm so bummed Eve's only around for one scene; I badly want more of her and her "underground website." As a Grand Theft Auto boy, I appreciate how everything in Xander's path becomes a jump-ramp for his motorcycle. The stunts are frequently great, even when you spot the CGI slipping in. Xander rail-sliding on a dinner tray is precisely as ridiculous/wonderful as Legolas shield-surfing in 2002's The Two Towers.

I'm thinking PlayStation, Leah! But only to a point. Once the film shifts to Prague, it becomes a much more standard tax-haven spy flick, complete with a Soviet science virus and a bad-guy fortress. It's trying to be a fish-out-of-water story: Xander as the bull in Ian Fleming's china shop. It's a comedown, though. I came for the anarchy burgers! Leah, do you like Czokas and Argento as bottle-service variations of Bond Villainy and Bond Girlhood? And do you have a favorite in-your-face-dad action moment? I applauded when Xander motorbiked over an exploding (sorry, xploding) building.

XXX Vin Diesel
XXX Vin Diesel

Everett Collection

LEAH: It's funny you mention Jackass, which is such an obvious antecedent to this. But at least back then, I would have roundly rejected the very "How do you, fellow kids" energy of XXX. In a lot of ways, the movie was essentially the Stone Temple Pilots of its era: co-opting something genuinely anarchic in alt-culture, sanding off all the dangerous edges, and then repackaging it for the masses — but at the same time, let's be real, making a lot of people very happy.

So let this be Diesel's "Interstate Love Song" (Intercontinental?), and we do know how he loves to sing. There is one genuinely subversive line in the script that I paused for, when Jackson's Augustus is giving Xander a rundown of his assignment and he shoots back, "If you're gonna send someone to save the world, make sure they like it the way it is." Spoken like a true Braveheart. But I digress. You asked what I think of Czokas, who is pretty great at wearing the aforementioned furry coats and sneering like you just sneezed all over his rubles (though he is actually a nice Kiwi from New Zealand), and Argento, who to me is laughably bad in this, outfits aside. It doesn't help that she's actually Italian, not Russian, and that every time she and Diesel are required to make out, it looks like two tile fish vainly trying to suck the algae of the side of a water tank.

To be fair, her role is grossly underwritten; Putin surely would have had a double agent that transparently incompetent killed before she ever left the Red Sparrow program, or however they were running their KBG business back in ye olde 2002. She gets stuck with some of the script's worst lines, which is really saying something, though clearly we did not come here for Shakespeare. Even the outraged Senator feels like he wandered over from the casting call of a ZZ Top video. But then there's Xander again with his ace deduction skills, like that early diner set-up where he calls out all the NSA's rookie mistakes; how could they so badly misjudge the standard footwear of a "career waitress"? Xander has aunties in the industry, and he knows orthopedic support. (His pants in this scene, incidentally, are also incredible.)

Sadly, I found out in the course of writing this rewatch that Diesel's stunt double was actually killed filming the big climax, when he hit a pillar parasailing into the Palacky Bridge in Prague; that's why the movie was subsequently dedicated to him. So I won't go with that one as a favorite, though the pure Dr. Strangelove insanity of Xander riding the bomb like a recalcitrant pony belongs to cinematic history now. Instead, I think I'll co-sign your dinner-tray skating scene; who doesn't love a little grind-rail shortcut? Though of course it's no rope swing. But I can also appreciate how at the time, this movie might have felt like manna to a generation who didn't feel served at all by their dad's James Bond box sets or even some of the more sober modern spy fare of the era. And it did spur a major franchise, though the follow-ups, I must confess, all missed me personally. Did you stay tuned to the Xander Zone, Darren?

DARREN: Diesel and I both missed 2005's XXX: State of the Union, which starred Ice Cube as a different unlikely spy guy. In my memory, Diesel skipping both XXX and Fast sequels looked like strange career moves, especially when he sped right into the family antics of The Pacifier. Of course, then the entire universe curved in his direction, after his Fast return created a billion-dollar franchise. As a ripple effect, it also gave the actor-producer a chance to turn a couple bespoke franchises into trilogies. I actually did see 2017's XXX: The Return of Xander Cage, which internationalized the Xander Zone with way more tattoos. I prefer Riddick by a mile, but I do appreciate the fact that XXX 3 inspired a lawsuit with multiple legalistic references that referred to Vin Diesel as "The Diesel Entity."

Actually, I think XXX fits more snugly — and surprisingly —  into a different trilogy. In the summer of 2002, two of Hollywood's brightest young men fit themselves into franchise reboots, wearing old names for a new millennium. Ben Affleck tried to do Jack Ryan in The Sum of All Fears. Matt Damon had better luck in The Bourne Identity. Neither of those guys would ever be confused for a Tijuana resident ("Do you understand English?"), which is how we meet Xander. (The Senator also calls him "you people," an easy way to win Racist Bingo.) Credit this film for inventing something kinda new. Nobody was casting Diesel as a Tom Clancy guy, so he made a movie that nose-thumbed all those well-dressed ponces.

Ironically, thanks to the palpable lack of romantic chemistry, the most interesting relationship in the movie is between Xander and Yorgi, who share a love for the Vandals and an anarchic disregard for the System that dominates their respective countries. This was actually not a very 2002 mode — we were edging deeper into the "America, F--- Yeah!" phase of geopolitical history, when Jack Bauer would triumphantly torture anybody. Even Goldmember glories in the retro thrills it's poking fun at, bringing nostalgia to the new millennium. XXX just wanted to be the new millennium. There will be new James Bonds, Jack Ryans, Jason Bournes, and probably another Austin Powers. But only one man can be the Diesel Entity.

Read past 2002 rewatches: