Budget Bond on steroids

xXx: Return of Xander Cage
Directed by DJ Caruso
Written by F. Scott Frazier, based on characters created by Rich Wilkes
107 minutes, rated M
3 stars

You have to hand it to Vin Diesel. He has become a major star by limiting what he does to a narrow range, so that he can do it well. It may not be Hamlet, but a man with three franchises (Fast and Furious x 7, Chronicles of Riddick x 3, and two of the three xXx movies) has got something working – and it’s true that most of the other musclemen are less interesting to watch.

Diesel brings a sense of humour to the biff. His characters may be ridiculous, with their lonely swagger and their cereal box emotions, but they fit the dreams of a certain section of the young male audience, none more so than Xander Cage, the man with the xXx tattoo on his nape and the dead sheep around his neck (or is that just a coat?).

Cage is Bond on steroids for Yankees – a reluctant extreme sportsman pressed into service for the NSA by the burn-scarred puppetmaster Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L Jackson). Cage is an outlaw with a love of speed, just like the guy Diesel plays in the F&F franchise. That’s why the opening here sees him hurtling down a mountain in the Dominican Republic on skis (in jungle?), then a skateboard, as the colourful peasants cheer him on.

Cage is friend of the poor, the downtrodden, people of colour everywhere, hence the rainbow casting of this film, which is noticeably more Asian. Jet Li dropped out and Donnie Yen makes an acceptable replacement bag guy called Xiang. He and Cage go after the same mysterious black box that can make satellites drop out of the sky. Xiang’s gang includes Indian actress Deepika Padukone and martial arts sidekicks played by Chris Wu and Tony Jaa. Australian actress Ruby Rose joins Diesel on the side of virtue as a sharpshooter, and Toni Collette plays a humourless NSA stooge with very severe make-up. She pulls Cage back into service after the apparent death of Gibbons – but as any fan of the series knows, Gibbons is hard to kill.

DJ Caruso is a better director than this material requires, but then Diesel is a better actor than he lets on too. Together, they concentrate on lots of bang, stunts that are purposely unbelievable (far sillier than anything Bond would do) and sexy interludes with barely clad ladies who latch onto Cage like limpets, one for every muscle on those impossibly beefy tattooed arms. It’s hilarious and harmless fun – unless you’re a bad guy. Go Vinny!