Friday, July 22, 2005

XXX2: State of the Union

I wouldn't have thought it possible. XXX2, the sequel to Rob Cohen's limp Vin Diesel spy vehicle, may be the most politically subversive movie of the year. It's also likely to be among the worst. I don't know that I've ever genuinely admired a movie that's so relentlessly loud, stupid, predictable and obnoxious.

Okay, let's start with why the movie sucks. It's a sequel to an intensely bad action film. The action scenes are witless, poorly shot and framed, unclear and notably brief. The soundtrack is filled with generic, stale hip-hop and nu-metal. The effects were clearly rushed, and have the fuzzy, indistinct look of television work.

Also, the dialogue is atrocious. It's clearly aiming for effortless, James Bond-ian cool, but most of the time it's totally incomprehensible.

Here's a quick example. In one sequence, Operative XXX (Ice Cube) has been framed, unsuspectingly left in a house with a dead body. An NSA agent (Scott Speedman) bursts in on him.

"There's a dead body in the other room," XXX says.

"Why did you do it?" asks Speedman.

"If I did it, you wouldn't know about it until I wanted you to," XXX replies, as if this makes any sense.

Of course, Speedman only does know about the body because XXX wanted him to. He just told him about it at that very moment. It's not as if Speedman walked in on XXX with the dead body - the body is in the other room, not at all visible.

Or the part where XXX asks an old girlfriend for help.

"What do I get out of it," she asks?

He offers her his car, which she accepts. Then, for real, he asks her if she can hook him up with a car. Something dirty.

"I can do dirty," she says.

But a car was all she was getting out of it in the first place! Why ask what you get out of it when it's obvious you'll do it for nothing!

Plus, there's a scene in which a geeky hacker manages to get into the computers at the Department of Defense and retrieve a specific document within five minutes, a sequence as unlikely as anything in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

So, yeah, you get the idea. The movie is aggressively dumb.

So why even bother discussing it?

Because there is a genuine streak of anger running underneath this film. Textually, it's just another brainless big-budget actioner with a mainstream movie star. But subtextually, it's a fierce attack on the current political administration and on American militarism in general.

For starters, the entire plot is ripped off directly from Seven Days in May. Seriously. Willem Dafoe takes the Burt Lancaster role, as a power-mad military leader who commands his own troops in an attempt to overthrow the American government. Ice Cube is Kirk Douglas, formerly a colleague and confidant of the rogue general, now hoping to prevent his nefarious schemes.

Seven Days in May was an attack on both the governmental hawks that wanted to push America into a direct, military conflict with Communists, as well as the general air of secrecy and suspicion that permeated Cold War Washington. XXX2: State of the Union uses the same story to attack an administration built on lies and deciet, intent on plunging America into a horrific and endless war overseas.

Seriously. For real. The President wants to push through a new, vague Military Bill, based as he says on "compassion," "understanding" and "compromise," while the crazed, bloodthristy Secretary of Defense (Dafoe, at his most reptilian) wants to take over the government to increase our military presence around the globe.

So already, you can see that the movie wants to make a point, however awkward the attempt. When I tell you that XXX breaks in on the President's State of the Union address with a few black friends while bumping a remix of Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" in a pimped-out SUV, while the President pleads with the nation to win over our enemies with diplomacy, maybe you'll start to get an idea of what I'm getting at.

But it's not just in the mechanics of the plot that XXX tries to make a point. The evidence is all over the film. At one point, Dafoe argues with Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson), an agent who served with him in Kosovo, that American lives must be sacrificed to defend democracy.

"How come it's never your life that must be sacrificed?" Gibbons asks.

It's a question that many liberals online have been asking of governmental leaders, including current Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who is clearly an inspiration for the film.

And what about this backstory? Secretary of Defense Deckert, XXX and Gibbons all share a common history. They served as Navy Seals together in Kosovo, where Deckert ordered his troops to burn down a building with civilians inside. XXX led a group of soldiers in a revolt, which caused him to be thrown in jail for the next decade.

So, this is the hero of the movie. Not just the hero of the movie, the hero of an entire movie franchise. And he's not only an insubordinate soldier who refused to follow orders, but the orders he refused to follow instructed him to harm civilians. Does this sound familiar at all? A government official ordering a soldier to hurt a civilian during the occupation of a foreign city? Is the new Ice Cube action film really trying to take on the issue of torture at Gitmo and Abu Gharib?

Not to mention the entire notion of a soldier thinking for himself, opposing the immoral orders of a superior officer, cracking that officer in the jaw and returning to America resenting the spineless fools who sent him into battle in the first place.

To its credit, the movie never once attempts to balance the two perspectives - there's not a single scene in which Gibbons or XXX ever actually consider Dafoe's point of view. He makes the common pro-Iraq war point, that diplomacy and friendship don't work with terrorists, and that a massive show of force is the only way to communicate with forced of evil. And yet the movie brushes off this perspective as utter nonsense, insisting that common sense dictates a more peaceful, dovish approach.

One more bit of dialogue sticks out for me. When discussing Dafoe's plans for a seige on Washington D.C., XXX describes it as "the start of World War 4."

Now, of course, the cliche is "World War 3," not "4." Is the movie implying that the War on Terror is, in fact, World War 3? I would think it's just a tossed off line, but another character repeats it back to XXX a scene later. The filmmakers obviously had some reason to put it in there twice.

In truth, even though so much of the film is so unoriginal and witless, the way the film refuses to deal in specifics is actually really clever. By never mentioning the War on Terror by name, and never even implying that the "enemies" Deckert wishes to pursue are Middle-Eastern, the film gets away with a lot more controversial material than it would otherwise. It gets to appear as just another silly action movie.

So, okay, I'm not saying XXX2 is any good. As an action movie, it's sub-par, and as a piece of entertainment, it's not even passable. But as a significantly brave, interesting and daring political statement, separate from its worth as a piece of cinema, it does serve some worthwhile function. If only this kind of thinking didn't need to be buried under $80 million worth of pyrotechnic effects to reach the masses, things might actually improve in this country.

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