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Welcome to the world of xXx, an elite secret agent service designed to protect the United States of America from its enemies. Like any self-respecting secret agent, discretion is of the utmost importance. A secret agent must also be intelligent, sophisticated and carry enough brawn to deal with any thugs that might stand in their way. Sound familiar? Of course it does, if we were speaking of 007 that is.

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Movie
All of the things that make the James Bond franchise bustling with flavour and wit are completely non-existent in xXx. There’s no sense of discretion at all – these characters have fun blowing stuff up at random and causing mass street-wide pandemonium. Just so long as the job gets done, who cares about the civilians, right? This is exactly the attitude of the brand new xXx agent Darius Stone, who replaces Vin Diesel’s Xander Cage character in this sequel. Xander Cage might have been a bit of a foolhardy trooper, but at least he had a smear of dignity and concern for his fellow citizens. He was also semi-believable as a secret agent. Ice Cube, however, is so out of place and so detached from reality in this movie that he appears more like a cartoon character rather than a serious patriot.

So what went wrong with this mammoth box office flop of a movie? The answer to that can be put in one simple word – everything! Nothing in this film works; nothing whatsoever is matched or aligned properly, and the result is a movie strung together with weakness in every one of its many departments. Director Lee Tamahori, for example, seems to be terrible at money management. Even his one-hundred-and-forty-million-dollar blockbuster Die Another Day seemed like it was driven on a much smaller budget. He had about forty-million less for this project, and the result is a frail and dreary looking movie that has about as much life at its heart as a zombie. Everything looks bland and inorganic – it is not a pleasant effect.

Casting is another area that is just downright abysmal in xXx 2: The Next Level. Which producer actually thought that Ice Cube would be right for this role? He comes across like he is some arrogant fool who couldn’t care less about anyone but himself. He spits near-constant opprobrious attitude at almost everyone who passes him, and his thinking he is better than everyone else gets pretty boring after the first thirty-seconds of screen time. If that wasn’t enough to vex the senses, then the fact that every frame he appears in seems engineered to make him look cool and hip should do the trick. xXx 2: The Next Level seems to be an ego trip for this guy.

The ordinarily brilliant Samuel L. Jackson even looks world-weary in this film, almost as if he was internally screaming that he signed his name on the dotted line. Willem Dafoe isn’t put to good use either, and feels oddly misplaced along with everybody else. Then of course we have the appearance of Xzibit – whose character, if at all possible, is even more obnoxious and vain than Mr. Cube’s. A scene towards the end of the film, when Darius Stone and Zeke flatten several expensive looking cars with a tank, seals the arrogance of these characters when they proclaim they are having enormous fun. I cannot quite remember the exact line of dialogue, but Zeke says something like, “I could get used to this,” as his face creases into a wide smile. We’ve seen this level of unnecessary destruction in films before, but here it seems to have a very malicious essence that is a big turnoff. I love action and carnage as much as the next guy; I just like it a little more tactful than what is on offer in this sequel.

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There are so many more problems with this film that it would literally take me a lifetime to go though them all, but as you have probably guessed by now, the story is a major part of the film’s failure. It deals with a disgruntled politician who basically tries to oust the President of the United States. There’s obviously more to it than that, such as the usual hunt the bad guy routine, but that’s more or less the entire outline of the plot. There are some mushy romance scenes dotted throughout, along with some soap opera like tedium, but that’s your lot as far as the story goes. The rest of the film is crammed full of pointless excursions and yawn inducing dialogue which might well be seen as the cure for insomnia.

The scene I mentioned above with the tanks plays out as one of the major action set-pieces towards the end, and is utterly ridiculous, though laughably integral to the story. There are dozens of heavily armed tanks patrolling Washington, DC (if you can believe that); one even blasts a gaping hole in one of the buildings. This then leads to one of the most ludicrously awful action sequences I have ever witnessed, involving a train, a car, and several helicopters and yes, you guessed it, more explosions that you can count. By the time the end credits roll, you will feel as if your head has been flushed down a very dirty toilet. Considering you can have this same act provided for free by high-school bullies, it’s better to save your money and spend it elsewhere instead.

xXx wants to be 007. It tries desperately to emulate it, and to perhaps be the Americanized alternative. Even the music is similar in this film, with it often echoing the infamous Bond twang whenever the xXx character does something of importance. The sad fact for this franchise is, Bond has lasted for more forty-years now, and this blatant rip-off was a huge critical and box office disaster the likes of which would sink most smaller production houses. xXx lasted for a mere three years and is now dead and buried. And I am not sorry to say it fully deserved it. Bond might not be perfect, but at least it offers plenty of entertainment, thrills and charm, and something the two xXx movies never had – pure and uncut cinematic magic.

A scene towards the end of this film when Samuel L. Jackson’s character touts the next xXx persona can now be laughed at mercilessly. He speaks of the next character in a way that clearly suggests the film’s producers were expecting a higher powered sequel – though I think it safe to say there will never be another xXx; that coffin has now been nailed firmly shut. Good riddance to bad rubbish.

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Video
The xXx 2: The Next Level DVD looks reasonably good, for a turkey. Though the imagery of the film isn’t exactly spectacular to look at – with its sub par production values and such – the detail level of the DVD transfer is still amicable. Black levels are pretty strong on the whole, and onscreen grain and artefacts are minimal at best. The bad CGI effects do look very obvious in this film, and the DVD is perhaps partly to blame. With the image being as crisp and clear as it is, all those horrid CGI effects come under the harsh scrutiny of the spotlight, and they look rancid.

The only one beautiful scene in xXx 2: The Next Level is the opening farmland shot. When you see that tranquil and luscious green field, lined with white fences and grazing horses, you can be forgiven for thinking you are in for a visual feast from Mr. Tamahori and his team. The shot lasts for no more than ten seconds and, after a scene where some poor gets stabbed, all promise of a beautifully shot film withers away. What follows are endlessly drab sets, dull uses of light and shadow and, perhaps worst of all, those diabolical visual effects that look like they were drawn up by a toddler, much less a serious VFX house. Still, at least the DVD team were a little more competent than the filmmakers; the image, for what it is worth, does look quite good.

Audio
The provided Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack on offer here is surprisingly bland for a film such as this. When the action and overly loud songs kick in, I found the bass to be lacking any real punch. Don’t get me wrong, the bass is certainly present and even quite strong in some of the major action sequences, but it just doesn’t have the same focus and precision as you’d probably expect. The dialogue is quite sharp and clear though. So too are the surround sound effects. I guess the main problem with the sound is that xXx 2: The Next Level never really pushes the envelope for interesting audio, and its action scenes are so lousy and tedious that half the time you are reaching for a vomit bucket than listening to the Dolby track.

Moreover, the film is just lifeless to the bone. Everything about it is hollow, including the array of sounds they have used. At the very least, action films usually serve up a feast of audio and visual goodies, but strangely enough xXx 2: The Next Level doesn’t even get that right. But as empty and extinct of life as it may be, at least Dolby provided a more or less consistent soundtrack; it is just a shame the range of sounds wasn’t more pleasing.

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Extras
Upon inserting the disc into the DVD player, the cheesiest interactive menu yet seen will greet you. The less said about it the better, but alas, my job here is to tell you about such things. The menu is basically a sphere in the middle of the screen playing clips from the film, but all are accompanied by laughably bad sound and visual effects. I suppose you could think of this menu as a prelude to the actual experience of the film that follows it.

There are two audio commentaries on this disc: a filmmaker’s commentary and a visual effects commentary. Neither was particularly interesting or even fun. I usually love listening to commentaries – even when the film in question was crap – but these two were just boring and monotonous.

Next up we have a highly generic making of feature that is split in two halves. You can either use the ‘play all’ function here or watch them separately. The two parts are called: ‘Part I: Boot Camp’ and ‘Part II: Special Ops’. Both of these features run for twenty and twenty-five minutes respectively and cover various parts of the production process. They are basically the usual promotional fluff that gets thrown on DVDs when the production team can’t think of anything creative to do with the cast and crew. Still, they do cover quite a lot of ground in the forty-five minutes of runtime.

Next we have the featurettes. There are three featurettes to select from: ‘Bullet Train Breakdown’, ‘Top Secret Military Warehouse’ and ‘xXx: According to Ice Cube’. Once again, the ‘play all’ function is available here should you wish to watch them all together. All three are quite short and none are able to hold your attention. The first two focuses on action scenes from the movie and their development, while the last has the cast and crew praising Ice Cube so much you’d think he was one of cinemas finest talents.

In the deleted scenes menu, there are just three scenes to select from with or without director’s commentary. Again, the ‘play all’ function is present if you wish to use it. Finally, there is a small collection of trailers on the disc for: Bewitched, something called D.E.B.S. and Man of the House, which was reviewed by myself a few weeks ago and can be accessed from our database.

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Overall
After forty years the 007 franchise is still going strong, but this mere imitation known as xXx is dead after just three. The first film may have been an undeserving box office hit back in 2002, but the end of the road has been reached for this franchise – especially after the disaster of this sequel, which is even worse. Film audiences just don’t want to sit though piffle such as this, and why should they have to? If going to the cinema has to be this boring and dumb, then I’d rather stay in and watch a film I know to be good. It’s always sad to see a studio fork out over $100m and the film sink faster than the Titanic, but if they keep producing the same high-budget crap over and over, then frankly they deserve it. If xXx 2: The Next Level isn’t a wakeup call for film production companies setting out for summer success, then I don’t know what is.

The xXx 2: The Next Level DVD isn’t exactly a prime example of the format. Its technical merits might be superior to the actual film, but the disc is lacking quality nonetheless. Dolby’s 5.1 track, while partly commendable, lacks the punchy bass it needed. It also sounds quite dull, due entirely to the soulless film it provides for. The image, on the other hand, has similar pros and cons. While sharp and reasonably detailed, ultimately has a very jaded look due to the boring sets and cinematography. With the special features, the disc really had the chance to shine, but alas, the two tiresome commentaries and the generic making of features affirm that this DVD is not one you should waste your hard-earned money on. Avoid it like the plague.


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