"A New York Treasure" --Village Voice

Million Dollar Movie

Guest Writer: Ted Berg

I might be the wrong guy for this assignment because I don’t harbor any guilt over any of the movies I enjoy. Movies are made for entertainment, and pleasure is pleasure. Sure, a thought-provoking film might hold my attention after the credits stop rolling — entertaining me over a longer period of time — but a good blockbuster full of high-speed chases and tremendous explosions can provide a thorough and enrapturing aesthetic experience like few others.

I know a lot of European cinema supposedly developed in reaction to the escapism of Hollywood, but I don’t really understand the beef with escapism. I’ve seen a bunch of Italian Neorealist films, and nearly all of them bored me to sleep and not one featured a giant ape wrestling dinosaurs. Sure, Peter Jackson’s King Kong was a bit heavy-handed and hardly provoked introspection, but it held me in a vice grip throughout because, well, apes wrestling dinosaurs. And yeah, it might have lacked the subtleties of L’Avventura, but subtlety is for suckers. Give me movies that fully exploit the medium.

xXx opens with a suave dude in a tuxedo doing some spy stuff at an obvious bad-guy party featuring a Rammstein performance. His presence is too obvious and inexplicable in a mosh pit full off tattooed and pierced fire-breathers, and the leader-guy bad guys spot him swiftly and kill him handily. Then they light some drinks on fire to celebrate.

Cut to NSA headquarters in Virginia and the film’s big reveal: This movie has Samuel L. Jackson in it. And for some reason that is never explained, his face is all scarred up. He’s some sort of NSA honcho, and he argues that the standard NSA field agent is too polished and clean-cut to infiltrate the post-Soviet Rammstein-enthusiast set that the agency is targeting. The NSA needs a talented agent who can pass for a thug, so why not just hire some thug?

As Samuel L. Jackson states eloquently: “Do we want to drop another mouse in a snakepit, or do we want to send our own snake and let him crawl in?”

Somewhere else, adrenaline junkie Vin Diesel steals the Corvette of a pathetic white guy. He attaches a video camera to the hood and explains that his theft victim is a senator who campaigned against rap music and video games as negative influences on youth. Crusader Vin Diesel demonstrates that those things have not influenced him negatively by leading cops in a high-speed pursuit then driving his stolen Corvette off a bridge. He parachutes to safety at the last moment and is picked up by a bunch of cool-guy cohorts who clearly worship Vin Diesel.

Later, at a party, we find out that Vin Diesel’s name is Xander Cage, presumably because they wanted to call the movie xXx and because it was difficult to come up with something more badass-sounding than “Vin Diesel.” We learn that his anti-authority stunt videos have made him an Internet star, but that he will not ever sell out, even to the beautiful video-game producer practically throwing herself at him.

NSA agents crash the party and tranquilize Vin Diesel. He wakes up in a diner, where he immediately thwarts a robbery. Then he explains all the reasons he knew the robbery was staged, prompting a slow clap from an impressed Samuel L. Jackson. Samuel L. Jackson admits it was a test and Vin Diesel passed with flying colors. So they tranquilize him again.

This time, Vin Diesel and two other dudes are thrown out of a helicopter into a Colombian drug war headed by Danny Trejo. He thinks it’s just another one of Samuel L. Jackson’s tests, but realizes it’s more serious when the Colombian army shows up and blows up Danny Trejo’s car. It turns out all the buildings, even the old decrepit barns and coke storage facilities, must be filled with gunpowder or tanks of gasoline or something, because they all start blowing up. It’s awesome. Vin Diesel escapes after stealing a moped, jumping over a bunch of stuff and using the wheel of the moped to nail a bad guy in the face. He also saves one of the other guys, who he’s now loyal to for some reason.

But it turns out that though the coke war was real, the whole thing was just another one of SLJ’s tests after all. Now Vin Diesel has to choose between being an NSA agent and going to jail for the Corvette thing, and he is swayed toward the former by a long SLJ monologue about caged lions that I should probably use for my next audition.

From there, it proceeds about as you’d expect: Amazingly. Vin Diesel goes to the Czech Republic — home of the Rammstein fans, who turn out to be anarchists hellbent on destroying large cities with biological weapons to create worldwide chaos. Oh, and at some point Vin Diesel picks up a hilarious Sherpa coat. The leader of the bad guys has a beautiful girlfriend, but it turns out she has a heart of gold, then it turns out she’s also a double-agent. She kisses Vin Diesel and doesn’t seem to mind that he slobbers all over her like a goon.

Oh, and there are x-ray binoculars, boardslides using silver serving trays, a dance club clearly designed by Tesla, and an underground scientist massacre. By the end (SPOILER ALERT!), Vin Diesel is a master military tactician even though he has only been working for the NSA for like three days. He also induces an avalanche and then races it on his snowboard.

The script pretty closely mimics the standard spy-thriller fare, only with more action-sports skills, bigger explosions and sweatier villains.

We romanticize the old Bond films and wonder why the new ones suck so much. But bad guys no longer wear bowties. The debonair, tuxedoed spy-movie hero has been floored by a drop kick to the face from Jason Statham. It’s intentional and awesome that a Bond lookalike is shot and killed in the opening scene of xXx. Out with the old, in with Vin Diesel.


1 Chyll Will   ~  Aug 6, 2010 12:51 pm

Now this I can get into, only because it knows what is is and doesn't try to be anything more than that. Plus Vin Diesel fits the part like a glove as an adrenaline-fueled action and cult hero dragged into some secret mess to clean up; virtually any movie he's made. As long as that's understood; pure popcorn shyt, you can let your guard down and enjoy it. Actually, I felt that way about Casino Royale after the first action sequence; you can't take any of this seriously, but wowzers you gotta love the way they blow up stuff...

(Ironically, I can't say the same thing about Transformers, because it does take itself seriously...)

2 Alex Belth   ~  Aug 6, 2010 1:34 pm

Man, Sam Jackson is in a lot of bad movies, isn't he?

3 lroibal   ~  Aug 6, 2010 1:35 pm

That's some deltoid Vin has there. Not sure if an artist enhanced those swirling bundles of muscle fibers but it makes an impressive poster for the genre.

You explained your point of view perfectly here, it's impossible to argue your reasoning for liking the Diesel vehicle.

4 Chyll Will   ~  Aug 6, 2010 1:38 pm

[2] He's in a lot of movies, period. The law of averages is on his side, all things considered >;)

5 Alex Belth   ~  Aug 6, 2010 1:44 pm

4) I've liked Samuel L in some movies but more often than not I think he's a ham.

6 Chyll Will   ~  Aug 6, 2010 1:46 pm

[5] Sure, but he sure is makin' bacon...

7 lroibal   ~  Aug 6, 2010 1:48 pm

{4} Agreed, but he's got to have more of a filter.
"I have had it with these motherfucking snakes on this motherfucking plane!"
Does he read this shit before he agrees to be it the movie?

8 bp1   ~  Aug 6, 2010 1:57 pm

[5] Yeah - big time ham. You never thing "subtle" and "understated" when it comes to his performances, lol. But like Ted sez, sometimes you just strap yourself in for the ride.

Remember him as the drippy eye'd guy in Kiss of Death with David Caruso? Maybe that's a guilty pleasure movie. Kinda fun with a ton of over acting and macho baloney.

Love this thread of movies.

9 Chyll Will   ~  Aug 6, 2010 2:06 pm

[7] I agree with that, but yeah he actually does read them, and in that particular case he knew he could build it up into a cult phenomenon just by being in it and doing what people expected. That one line was the whole movie in of itself, and that's what they were banking on. Cynical, but effective.

The great thing about Samuel L. is that he's one of the few Hollywood actors in general (and minority actors in particular) who can turn typecasting completely on it's head and still make bank. That movie would not have been as popular if it were Tom Cruise or Russell Crowe or Denzel or Stallone in the lead, because their identities would not have allowed people to believe in them in that role in any capacity. Samuel was obviously slumming, but you knew he was doing it for fun; seemed like people only went to the movie to hear him say that line. Who else could have delivered it that way?

That said, yeah he needs to be more selective; there's a point where you've made your money and distinguished yourself, so now you go look for new challenges; Leonardo, Johnny Depp and Clint Eastwood come to mind for some reason.

10 Chyll Will   ~  Aug 6, 2010 2:10 pm

[8] Any movie with David Caruso, post-NYPD Blue, is a guilty pleasure (if the word "pleasure" is to be invoked >;)

11 Alex Belth   ~  Aug 6, 2010 2:17 pm

I think it's a tricky thing to judge an actor by his choices; so many of them (actors) make horrible choices. Shoot, look at Brando, a true Legend--the man made a ton of lousy movies.

The other thing is, I think there is something to be said about working actors. Some dudes just like to work, that's what they do, and the quality of the script or the project is secondary to the work opportunity and the money.

I think Jackson is effective but I also don't find him especially interesting or surprising. I hated him in PULP FICTION; then again, I disliked just about everything about that movie. He was probably good in it, played the role well as it was written, it's just I didn't enjoy any of that movie and it's self-admiring schtick.

12 Chyll Will   ~  Aug 6, 2010 2:31 pm

[11] I dunno, I think Pulp Fiction came at the right time and surprised people; it really was as titled and all the stylizations were interesting. I just can't see anyone else doing the roles they did, especially Samuel L.; they elevated the script (well everyone except Quentin; I could have done without his scene completely and it wouldn't have effected the movie either way).

One thing I learned is that nowadays, most big Hollywood movies are driven by superstar economics; the bigger the name, the bigger the potential return and the bigger the need for big name to cover the top-heavy costs of producing and marketing a film. I suppose it's a necessary evil in that it allows those studios to "sponsor" a smaller-budget film with stronger ideas and such; if they weren't part of the distribution process, how many people would see a 'Little Miss Sunshine" or the like?

I'm with you on the working for work's sake; it's not like accepting scale on a small budget film that could benefit from that actor's presence is gonna put them back in the poorhouse. If I could work for union scale on all the projects I had this year, I'd be able to get season tickets in the field seats at the new stadium. So maybe they just love working; a commendable attitude in itself considering so many other ways to make a living.

13 Alex Belth   ~  Aug 6, 2010 2:39 pm

12) Look at Shatner. The guy doesn't need the dough. But he's always been a working actor. Still is. No retirement for him. And it took forever for Hackman to stop working (though he didn't do TV and commercials, it's true).

14 Chyll Will   ~  Aug 6, 2010 2:54 pm

[13] Oh, I'm not saying they love work because they love money; I like actors who love what they do. That's not to say they don't deserve some criticism for what they choose at times. It's a risk all around; Shatner didn't need to do T.J. Hooker anymore than he needed to do Boston Legal, though I do question his Priceline commercials; but hey, he enjoys it, so what can I say?

15 Chyll Will   ~  Aug 6, 2010 3:08 pm

[14] Along that line, who didn't love In Search Of... with Leonard Nimoy or Ripley's Believe It Or Not with Jack Palance?

16 Alex Belth   ~  Aug 6, 2010 3:11 pm

I don't know about that, though. He was a cult icon on Star Trek but didn't make beaucoup bucks on it til they made the movies. And he didn't get the Boston Legal gig until he did those Priceline commericals. Go figure that. But I think you are right--he just loves to work. He doesn't need the dough. He's just not the retiring type. Neither is Woody Allen or Elmore Leonard or my pal Pat Jordan. They are just workers.

17 Shaun P.   ~  Aug 6, 2010 4:02 pm

[7] et al - I thoroughly enjoyed reading this discussion on Samuel L, and then on ole' Bill "Get a Life" Shatner. He's come a long way from the guy who Spielberg's "Animaniacs!" cartoon skewered so perfectly back in the early 90s.

I must say, though, I'm now disappointed that "Snakes on a Plane" was not anyone's guilty pleasure. I can only imagine what one of you movie buffs could do writing it up. Maybe next time?

18 festus   ~  Aug 6, 2010 4:51 pm

Can't lie. Saw this twice in the theaters and thought it ruled in its awesome stupidity. Only other movies I've seen twice in the theaters in the last 15 years: Con Air, Return of the King, and the Matrix.

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