It’s unusual that a movie so dedicated to appealing to 12-year-olds with attention deficit can be accused of underestimating its audience’s intelligence, but “xXx: Return of Xander Cage” accomplishes this embarrassing feat. No one’s walking into an extreme-sports spy movie for the plot or characterization — neither of which this film pretends to care about for very long — but not even the grotesquely over-edited action sequences bother to hold up their end of the bargain.
In other words, if you were willing to endure listening to Vin Diesel speak in order to watch Donnie Yen and Tony Jaa perform electrifying feats of martial arts, dial down your expectations. Director D.J. Caruso (“The Disappointments Room”) shreds up the action to a degree that Betty White probably could have played the Jaa role, given that almost no single shot lasts long enough to see a performer commit one complete move.
“Return of Xander Cage” also throws in a parade of elbow-nudging references to superhero movies, reminding us that it’s never a good idea to make audiences think of something they’d rather be watching. Granted, the first “xXx” put Samuel L. Jackson in the hero-recruiting business seven years before “The Avengers,” but there’s no need to gloat.
After sitting out the second installment, Vin Diesel returns as Xander Cage, all-around freelance extreme-sports badass. (And if “extreme sports” seems like a somewhat dated phrase, this movie does nothing to breathe new life into it.) He’s been laying low in the Dominican Republic since the first film, presumed dead and loving it. But when a MacGuffin doohickey gets stolen from the CIA — after being used to kill Jackson’s Agent Gibbons in the film’s opening minutes — Agent Marke (Toni Collette) puts Cage back on the board to find the super-thieves.
Cage assembles his own team — sharpshooter Adele (Ruby Rose, “Orange Is the New Black”), reckless driver Tennyson (Rory McCann, “Game of Thrones”) and, uh, DJ Nicks (Chinese star Kris Wu) — to track down the doohickey thieves. But once they find the ostensible bad guys — Xiang (Yen), Talon (Jaa), Serena (Bollywood star Deepika Padukone) and Hawk (UFC fighter Michael Bisping) — it becomes unclear which are the good guys and which are the bad guys.
Successful spy movies have certainly been built on less, but “xXx: Return of Xander Cage” has one clear agenda, and that’s to make Vin Diesel a star in a movie that has neither “Fast” nor “Furious” in the title. As such, the film goes out of his way to make this non-character beloved by everyone. The opening scene has him going to great lengths just to nick a satellite transmission of a soccer game for a fishing village (kids adore him!) and a few scenes later he’s satisfying a bevy of beautiful ladies in London (he’s a sex machine to all the chicks!); it’s an exhausting bit of demographic four-quadrant-ing. And while 007 can have a girlfriend in one scene and attend an orgy in the next, it just makes Cage look like a bit of a louse.
The film doesn’t just misuse the talents of Yen (with the exception of one third-act airborne battle) and Jaa; the indisputably gifted Collette is reduced to glowering and spitting out every line like she’s mad at her agent. And who can blame her?
For his part, Diesel falls back on his usual gravelly monotone, smirking his way through awful dialogue as though he could make it clever by sheer dint of will. (He is Groot.) Padukone has chemistry with pretty much every other actor besides Diesel, but this is his show, so we’re supposed to be invested in the romantic sparks that he fails to generate.
People jump out of planes and drive motorcycles into the surf, but “xXx: Return of Xander Cage” remains resolutely lacking in adrenaline. If anyone takes another crack at this thin material, she or he would do well to let the action breathe and to allow the supporting players to elbow their way toward the front.