A stunning tonal shift mars "xXx: State of the Union." It probably would have worked on a first outing, but for fans of the original "xXx", the sequel feels like a cheap straight-to-video knock off.
xXx: State of the Union (2005, Blu-ray)
Directors: Lee Tamahori
Producers: Neal H. Moritz
Writers: Simon Kinberg (script) and Rich Wilkes (characters)
Features: * Commentaries * Featurettes * Documentary * Deleted Scenes * BD-Live
Ice Cube ... Darius Stone / XXX
Samuel L. Jackson ... Agent Augustus Gibbons
Willem Dafoe ... General George Deckert
Scott Speedman ... Agent Kyle Steele
Peter Strauss ... President James Sanford
Xzibit ... Zeke
Michael Roof ... Agent Toby Lee Shavers
Sunny Mabrey ... Charlie Mayweather
Nona Gaye ... Lola Jackson
xXx: State of the Union Blu-ray Review
"xXx: State of the Union" may go down as one of Hollywood’s biggest blunders. The first film, which focuses heavily on the "extreme sports" craze, resulted in a somewhat decent hit for the studio as well as director Rob Cohen and actor Vin Diesel. Then, the ubiquitous director and star vanished without a trace. Cohen lumbered incoherently on a few projects and Diesel sunk into the dreary world of children’s films.
So, the studio made the best, most logical choice--they recast the lead for the film’s inevitable sequel. Since the formula set up in the first "xXx" outing allowed for newer, better agents, it didn’t seem like a bad choice, either. Rather, the bad choices came in both the final casting choice the studio made and the total reworking of the series’ tone.
Opting to cast within the rap circles, Sony brought in Ice Cube as the lead. While Mr. Cube may be known for his hard hitting past within the rap community, he had just come off a mainstream kiddie hit, "Are We There Yet?" Up until that, Mr. Cube had been in a slew of low brow comedies without a major mainstream action picture since 1999’s "Three Kings."
To most of the movie going public, the bad boy image of Ice Cube had melted. Making matter worse, the title star wasn’t exactly in top condition. Sporting a tubby face, a beer belly and flabby arms, Ice Cube was an awful choice to replace the hard-hitting, toned juicer that is Vin Diesel. And no matter how awesome some of the stuntwork and action surrounding his character is in the film, it’s hard to shake his physic and comedic background. It begged the curious question, who would Sony cast in their next "xXx" feature, Tim Allen?
Making things worse were the horrendous tonal shifts the studio made to the picture. Instead of marketing and scripting the story to fit the same "extreme sports" market, the film drastically shifted gears, pandering to the urban crowd. A rap soundtrack was added, as well as several notable rap stars and black comedians. This shift probably would have worked on a first outing, but for fans of the original, this felt like a cheap straight-to-video knock off.
The final result of all this horrendous tampering was an $85 million dollar picture that grossed a scant $26 million in the U.S. While not the biggest failure of all time, just a few tweaks to tone and cast, and Sony would have, once again, had a fairly good hit on their hands and a potential franchise.
For what it’s worth though, "xXx: State of the Union" is actually a better film than the first. The first "xXx" claimed to be the James Bond of the modern era, but ended up playing more like the James Bond of the James Bond era. Nothing new was added. There were hot girls, fast cars, kitschy gagets, a Q-type character and a diabolical villain. The only real difference is that the James Bond character was now played by an obnoxious, barbaric meathead. Hardly refreshing.
With "State of the Union," screenwriter Simon Kinberg actually manages to craft a somewhat fun, if highly illogical, but relevant action story. This time around, our new xXx must thwart the Secretary of State’s plan to take over the U.S. government and seize control of the United States military.
Because the xXx program has been ambushed killing the previous xXx, Xander Cage, Darius Stone (Ice Cube) is brought in to help out NSA leader, Augustus Gibbons (Sam Jackson). The pair engages in a cat-and-mouse mystery to discover who is behind this potentially fatal attack on the American way of life.
This time around, "xXx: State of the Union" actually manages to provide the refreshing thrills and chills the previous "xXx" didn’t. The film even bucks some of the typical James Bond clichés that the first entry heavily borrowed, and even relied on. Instead of forcing dozens of hot girls into the story, Darius meets up with only two. The first is an ex-girlfriend, the other is a prominent political figure who turns against him. The conclusion to both subplots is quite surprising given where these plot threads usually go. Also, the plot itself feels significantly fresher. Instead of a megalomaniacal billionaire calling the shots, it’s a morally crusted ex-general (played by Willem Dafoe) with plans of resetting the system. Smart it isn’t, but action-packed and fun, it is.
Even with a few positive marks at its side, "xXx: State of the Union" is not a good film. At least in the scripting phase of production, I believe the story was actually pretty good. This is a film completely dominated, and ultimately ruined, by heavy studio tampering and blatant pandering. Perhaps the next, "xXx" outing will fair better, but somehow I don’t think we’ll be seeing a third entry any time soon, that is, unless it’s in its rightful place, on the cold, dark shelves of video rental stores as a straight-to-video release.
Film Report Card:
Entertainment Value: B
Film Value: C-
Sony presents the film in 2.35:1 widescreen at 1080p/AVC video stretched across a BD50 disc. Kudos for Sony for spending time on this failure of a film. The transfer looks stunning, crisp, clean, detailed and bright. Colors are a bit overblown, with a colorful palette of reds, greens and blues. Some scenes are a little oversaturated at times. Other times, the print looks too green.
I noted no dust specks or film grain. I did, however, note some interlacing issues that seem to come from the original source. My guess is that a few sequences of the film were shot using handheld HD-cameras. Overall, this is a pretty solid presentation for a dud of a film.
Sony delivers a commanding Dolby TrueHD 5.1 track for fans to enjoy. Surround usage is finely tuned, strong and aggressive. Dynamics are excellent, creating a truly three dimensional environment. Dialogue is clean and clear without any distortion from the front or rear surrounds. The film’s score, from composer Marco Beltrami, is also evenly mixed, never overpowering the effects or the dialogue. My only gripe is that rear effects felt a tad too loud at times, inconsistent with the rest of the mix. That said, "xXx: State of the Union" has never sounded so good.
Again, kudos to Sony for presenting fans with a decent special edition of this shocking box office failure. Sadly, the ‘infamous’ Xander Cage death sequence, found on the DVD, is nowhere to be found here. Goodies include:
• Commentaries -- The first features director Lee Tamahori and screenwriter Simon Kinberg. The second track features several visual effects artists. The second track isn’t really worth checking out unless you love visual effects commentary tracks. Tamahori’s track doesn’t fair much better. I expected Tamahori and Kinberg to discuss the differences between the known "xXx" screenplays and the troubles of making the series work with the previous film. Sadly, the two discuss the making of the film with trivia tidbits throughout. It’s fine, but a little bit boring and tedious at times.
• Deleted Material -- A few scenes that add some plot details and flesh out characters. Nothing too big, though. Optional commentary is available.
• Documentary: ‘From Convict to Hero’ -- An excellent, nearly hour long documentary detailing the film’s production from start to finish. Here’s a perfect example of a documentary that actually makes the film better.
• Featurettes: ‘Top Secret Military Warehouse,’ ‘xXx: According to Ice Cube’ and ‘Bullet Train Breakdown’ -- These final three featurettes are fun, but light and hardly as engaging as the commentary tracks or the documentary.
BD-Live (profile 2.0 players only) -- Yay!
The disc comes in an "Elite" blue case. Design is simple and in fitting with most Sony’s newer titles.
"xXx: State of the Union" is a terrible film, but it still manages to be better than the first "xXx", if only because it’s not a carbon copy of the James Bond franchise. Ice Cube is terrible in the film, but the action and plot are fun enough to make up for it. The Blu-ray special edition is strong, with a great A/V presentation and decent special features. Now, all we need is for Sony to get around to releasing a better version of the first film on Blu-ray.
Blu-ray Report Card:
HD Content: N/A
Recommendation: Worth a rental.
On Blu-ray Disc: August 12, 2008.
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----R. L. Shaffer