(Netflix Streaming, August 2018) Sometimes, you don’t fully appreciate what you’ve got until it goes away, and that’s a bit how I feel about xXx: Return of Xander Cage considering that it’s a blatant throwback to the kind of silly overblown action movie that they were making in the early 2000s with the original xXx and xXx: State of the Union. Those movies kind of went away while we weren’t looking, replaced by grittier, meaner, shakier but not necessarily better Bourne knockoffs. And now here are Vin Diesel and xXx: Return of Xander Cage, unapologetically renewing with the style and content of the first two films. Our xXx hero, as it turns out, never died despite misinformed reports to the contrary: He just travelled around the world and stands ready to be reluctantly recruited once more when hacky-wacky mumbo-jumbo stuff needs fixing once again. However, this time he gets to team up with slightly-less grandiose archetypes in order to fight for freedom and all that good stuff. So it is that we don’t just get Vin Diesel, but the always-watchable Ruby Rose as a sharpshooter, action sensation Tony Jaa, Nina Dobrev in a very cute nerdy-girl role, Toni Colette and Samuel L. Jackson walking on and off the screen to make sure the plot mechanics are set up properly, and none other than Ice Cube back in a return engagement through an absolutely classic introduction featuring his own music. If you’ve read this far without realizing that xXx: Return of Xander Cage is not a great movie, I question your attentiveness. It is, however, an increasingly enjoyable film especially if you saw its predecessors. Diesel and Cube both try to out-surly each other, while the supporting cast knows that they’re not going for subtlety. The action sequences are just fine thanks to director D. J. Caruso’s competency with the form. (It had been a while since he helmed good genre movies; it’s good to have him back.) Of course, the conscious decision to ape the original film’s methods means that xXx: Return of Xander Cage does feel like a throwback to 10–15 years ago. But there’s no school like the old school, and as a fan of that particular era of action filmmaking, I truly had unexpected fun watching it all happen again. I’m not necessarily demanding another sequel, but I’d be good with it.
(On Cable TV, April 2018) I’m really not going to suggest that 1990’s Flatliners was a terrific movie, but a recent look at it suggested that it remained watchable thanks to slick cinematography and the presence of a group of actors who have since gone on to successful careers. While it’s far too early to say if Diego Luna, Nina Dobrev, James Norton or Kiersey Clemons will break out (Ellen Page is already a known quantity, although not quite as indispensable as she was in 2010), I have a feeling that the 2017 remake will not age well. For one thing, it’s almost terrifyingly dull to viewers of the first movie—it keeps the inherent silliness of the original premise, but doesn’t really do anything interesting with the rest of its potential. The cinematography is flat (although some of the CGI-enhanced out-of-body sequences have flair), the themes are underdeveloped, the characters are dull and not much of the film makes sense if you approach it without the original—by the time the lead character unveils state of the art resurrection equipment in a basement, it’s clear that the film doesn’t make sense, and can’t bring any style to the proceedings. Including the original film’s Keifer Sutherland for a two-scene cameo actually undercuts the remake’s effectiveness by reminding us of the original while doing nothing to improve upon it—ah, let’s dream of an alternate take where Sutherland’s character, twenty-five years later, would seek to warn a new generation about the dangers of their experiment! The original idea was a great concept brought down with plotting silliness yet raised by execution quality. Alas, this remake is just dull. Among the actors, I have reasonable hopes that Diego Luna and Kiersey Clemons will go on to better things … but somehow, I doubt that future audiences will see 2017 Flatliners’ casting as a reason to see it.