Extreme excrement
By Rachel Deahl

Is that a shoulder-mounted RPG, or are you happy to see me?

Positioned as a crude, unstylized 007 for an upcoming generation of ADD kids weaned on Playstation and MTV, Vin Diesel's guileless super-spy will, hopefully, send audiences away laughing. The alternative, that XXX strikes moviegoers as the beginning of a 21st century James Bond series instead of an unintentional Austin Powers one, will not only confirm director Rob Cohen's offensive assumption that young people really do have the attention span of a gnat; it will also ensure the dismal reality of multiple sequels and endless copycat productions.

Hot off the success of his flashy and speedy car extravaganza, The Fast and the Furious, Cohen sets out to infuse XXX with far less plot than his last feature and a lot more stunts and explosions. Right from the start, it's clear that XXX has not been constructed as a traditional film so much as an excuse to shoot a series of elaborate stunts. Initially I was impressed with Cohen's seemingly brazen abandonment of narrative form, thinking that he might be attempting to make the first big budget action film with no plot structure. But, after the second on-screen explosion (which happens roughly 10 minutes into the film), it was clear that the lack of a formal story was not the product of a daring cinematic experiment, but rather, an unnecessary element in a film that is, itself, about nothing more than excess.

From the opening scene, in which a tuxedoed stranger meets his untimely death after slipping into a pulsing Eastern European nightclub where a mass of pierced fans head-bang to a heavy metal band, XXX makes it crudely apparent that tradition and formality are the enemy. A spy who couldn't make the grade, the real reason for this assassination is as much a product of what the victim was wearing than what he was doing. Things like tuxedos and martinis have no place in Cohen's world and, like a man preaching to the choir, the director trashes these old standards for the express delight of his audience. In their place Cohen delivers an onslaught of loud music, extreme sports nods, bad stunts, and a meat-headed hero who makes Arnold Schwarzenegger sound cultured.

The tenuous story behind XXX revolves around the titular daredevil cum international spy, Xander Cage (Vin Diesel), so nicknamed for the triumvirate of letters tattooed across his neck. A celebrated underground figure in the world of extreme sports, Xander's made a name for himself by videotaping insane stunts he performs and then selling the product on the black market. A thrill-seeker addicted to adrenaline like a junkie hooked on heroin, Xander is selected by the NSA to go undercover and infiltrate a group of Russian anarchists who've set up camp in Prague. Why does the government need a man like Xander? Because he's the perfect secret weapon: he's expendable, insane, and hip. As such, Xander is exactly the kind of guy who can earn the respect of the young thugs running Anarchy 99.

And, when in Prague, Xander infiltrates the group with ease, immediately earning the trust of their leader, Yorgi (Marton Csokas). Throw in Yorgi's hot girlfriend Yelena (Asia Argento), a slew of expensive cars, a collection of tricky spy gear, and a clunky-looking nuclear warhead, and Diesel's international man of little mystery has plenty of toys to keep him busy.

Devoid of the panache and bravura that made The Fast and the Furious fun, XXX falls flat in its first frame. Instead of seeing Vin Diesel's stunt double clear the better part of Columbia on a dirt bike and escape an avalanche on a snowboard (both of which really do happen in the film), audiences would be much better served by renting an extreme sports video at Blockbuster. Attempting to wow viewers by topping each stunt with a more elaborate follow-up, Cohen's special effects inspire more laughter than awe. And, when your hero starts saying things like, "stop thinking Prague police and start thinking Playstation," you know things can't get much worse.

If this is truly the stuff that blockbusters are made of, we have many dark summer movies on the horizon.


Blood Work
Clint vs. Father Time...Again
By Patrick Reed

What is this? Dumb, Dumber, & Dirty Harry?

At age 72, and with seemingly nothing left to prove, Clint Eastwood and his new film Blood Work face off this weekend against XXX, the "new breed of action hero" movie starring Hollywood's latest maniacally-hyped sensation, Vin Diesel. It's an interesting bit of counter-programming by Clint's Malpaso Productions and the Warner Bros. distributors-they recognize the generational divide, and aim to exploit it. One can easily envision the following scenario this Friday: rows of hip-hop and extreme-sport-addicted teens scramble in to check out Diesel's tattoos while, in the very next theater, lines of balding, well-fed TNT-watchers file in to see what their own cherished icon of masculinity has to offer. On the surface, it doesn't look like much of a contest at the box office...but before counting the septuagenarian down for the count, consider the mindset of his legion of followers, some of whom have followed Clint since the JFK era and TV's Rawhide.

To them, certainly, this upstart Vin Diesel has less than zero on Clint. The Fast and the Furious? Get real. Clint has run that Gauntlet many times before, he's pushed pedals and cracked safes as Thunderbolt with Lightfoot, hell, he's traveled Every Which Way But Loose across the backroads with a freakin' orangutan riding shotgun! Diesel as a doomed D-Day grunt in Saving Private Ryan? Mmm hmm, let's see...Clint ascended to Where Eagles Dare and robbed the Nazis, turned boot camp slackers into men along a Heartbreak Ridge, and even managed to subdue two crazy Donalds-Sutherland and Rickles-while Kelly's Heroes robbed the Nazis yet again! And consider the following: first, most of the aforementioned movies were merely average Clint star vehicles, not classics-and second, we haven't even invoked the man's two favorite genres, detective and Western (i.e., Dirty Harry and The Man With No Name). Therefore, the typical Clint fan, getting up in years but still defiant, would no doubt tell the ambitious Diesel to make Sly Stallone his role model-because, aside from John Wayne of course, no one can hold a candle to Eastwood as an American celluloid hero.

That bit of boasting aside, most of Eastwood's films since 1993's Unforgiven have been similar in tone, dealing to one degree or another with the relationship between the aging process and job performance. In The Line Of Fire (Secret Service), Absolute Power (thief), True Crime (journalist), and Space Cowboys (astronaut) all held Eastwood up as a seasoned professional facing the end of the line, with one last crisis to overcome. Based on the 1998 book by mystery writer Michael Connelly, and with a screenplay by Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential), Blood Work is yet another examination of this dilemma. Unfortunately, for fans of Eastwood's adult concerns as well as those craving a well-told mystery, Blood Work lacks crispness, and its various themes work against one another to the detriment of the movie as a whole.

Eastwood plays acclaimed FBI profiler Terry McCaleb, who as the film opens is matched against his rival, a sadistic Southern California serial killer who taunts McCaleb with messages written in victims' blood. McCaleb chases, and just misses catching the killer before suffering a heart attack (cynical audience members will no doubt enjoy playing "spot-the-stuntman" as Eastwood dashes down dark alleys). Burdened with a rare blood type, two years pass until McCaleb finally receives a needed heart transplant. Soon afterward, easing into recovery on his houseboat, McCaleb is visited by Graciela Rivers (Wanda De Jesus), who implores that he use his expertise to find the convenience-store bandit who killed her sister. McCaleb resists, but there's a catch of course: it's Graciela's sister's heart that now beats underneath McCaleb's sewn-up chest.

It's a good set-up for a crime story, but Eastwood also aspires to flesh out the McCaleb character in order to explore issues relating to aging yet again. For a moment or two, McCaleb's romantic side surfaces (shades of Eastwood's 1995 adaptation of The Bridges of Madison County) but despite three striking, mature actresses on hand (De Jesus, Tina Lifford as a detective/old flame, and Anjelica Huston as McCaleb's cardiologist), this interesting angle is under-played. The sister's murder predictably spirals into a resumed battle of wits between McCaleb and his old serial-killer nemesis, but the main storyline loses suspense as it becomes more disjointed (plot holes and loose ends abound). Still, Blood Work wears on, with long, quiet scenes of dialogue, very little music, several attempts at crude humor (from both Jeff Daniels as McCaleb's boat-dock buddy and stand-up Paul Rodriguez, overacting as an L.A. cop), an unconvincing villain, and a Dirty Harry-esque ending that may make veteran Eastwood fans wince. Perhaps Eastwood needs to ignore his iconic status next time, lose all of the action-suspense trappings and let Vin Diesel and his testosterone horde flex their muscles while he focuses on directing and starring in a subdued character study. Blood Work, despite a few hints in this new direction, ultimately succumbs to too much recycled Clint Eastwood formula; it's an admirable effort, but an unsatisfying movie.