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even my henchmen think I’m crazy | by maryann johanson

XXX and Undisputed (review)

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The Last Action Heroes… If We’re Lucky

What has happened to our action heroes? I mean, my God. In less than 20 years, we’ve gone from charming, crazy bastards who wreak havoc in the name truth, justice, and the American way to remorseless, antisocial psychotics who wreak havoc because it’s fun and they’re getting paid buckets of money to do so. Are these the role models we want to be able to blame when our children “act up” and ‘jack the neighbors’ Benz? Has Hollywood lost all track of an easily defensible lack of moral focus?

Who’da thunk that the likes of John McClane and Martin Riggs would be high-water marks in the blow-’em-up genre du film? They were insane, of course, downright certifiable, but they did what they did to further the common good: kill the terrorists, put the drug dealers in prison, and so forth, and all while pining for the decent, respectable women who would have kept them sane if only they hadn’t abandoned their men. Good Lord, even as recently as 1997, the utterly despicable Con Air offered a pretense of justification for the badness of its moronic antihero: his murder rap was (barely) a matter of unfair prosecution for self-defense of his decent, respectable wife.
The heyday of Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson, Action Stars, is over. There’s a new boy in town, and his name is Vin Diesel. And the audience is his bitch, whether we like it or not. You will bow down to his sovereignty as The Action Hero Of The 21st Century if Hollywood has to stomp you in the back with its jackboots. And don’t think Hollywood won’t do that if it has to.

Diesel had been anointed The New Golden Boy before XXX had even been released, and damn if that didn’t put asses in seats opening weekend, and damn if it hasn’t continued to do so. The fact that My Big Fat Greek Wedding made a million bucks more than XXX did over Labor Day weekend despite playing in less than half the number of theaters as XXX shows that there’s some hope; the fact that XXX continues to rack in double-digit millions a month after it opened shows there’s plenty reason to despair.

Schlock director Rob Cohen and “screenwriter” Rich Wilkes don’t even pretend to a pretense of a hint of redeemability in Xander Cage. He’s just a bad, bad boy, one who excuses his criminal activity as extreme- sports- meets- GenX- libertarian- protest — he steals the sportscar of a politician who wants to outlaw skateboarding and drives it off a bridge, parachuting from the car on the way down. But even this flimsy evasion is thrown away when Cage is “recruited” by a top-secret intelligence agency to go undercover in Prague, City of Intrigue and Cobblestones, because his is just the kind of felonious mindset the agency needs to infiltrate an anarchist underground looking to blow up the world.

Diesel showed us, with Pitch Black, that he has no problem portraying — in a cheery, tongue-in-cheek way that would make Jerry Springer blush with shame — the kind of guy who should be in shackles and doped up on lithium 24/7. As a screen presence, he is thuggish and completely without charm, which is only made worse by Cage’s amoral compass, which allows him to commit crimes while under the aegis of his agency bosses and fuck an anonymous stranger who shakes her thonged ass at him, a gift of Yorgi (Marton Csokas: The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring), the anarchist leader (if that’s not a contradiction in terms). No decent, respectable woman for Cage, nosiree. He makes a move on Run Lola Run’s evil sister (Asia Argento), Yorgi’s girl, who’s only his girl because he pays her. She’ll be Cage’s girl if he pays her more, she coos seductively.

Did I mention that XXX is rated PG-13? Please, be sure your teenaged sons get a good gander at the prostitution of women that the MPAA deems “sensuality.”

There’s so much more to disrecommend XXX. Not only does it offend on a moral level, it also manages to slight logistics — the ceaseless action sequences are relentless impossible to follow — and aesthetics — Cage and Run Lola Run’s evil sister engage in the most disgusting, tongues-ablazin’ kissing scene ever shot. It’ll put you off your feed for weeks, and that’s before you realize Cohen sets the two of them up for a sequel.

I won’t even tell you — oops — that Samuel L. Jackson (Unbreakable) descends to appear in this crap. At least in Attack of the Clones, as awful a film as it is, you can see that Jackson is having fun. He just looks in pain here. I hope that paycheck was worth it, Sam.

As if to demonstrate that Diesel’s unabashed goon isn’t an aberration, we have the evidence of Undisputed, which gives us the option of choosing to root for either a vicious, unrepentant murderer or a vicious, unrepentant rapist. Our heroes here, at Badass Federal Penitentiary, are Monroe Hutchen (Wesley Snipes: Blade, U.S. Marshals), doing hard time for a-killin’, during which he has acquired the title of prison boxing champion; and James “Iceman” Chambers (Ving Rhames: Lilo & Stitch, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within), the heavyweight boxing champ of the world *cough* Mike Tyson *cough,* just arrived for givin’ some bitch what she was askin’ for. Naturally, these champs must clash and find out who is the better man, the real champion.

Let’s be clear about one thing. This is not Dead Man Walking or The Shawshank Redemption. Undisputed is not about finding a measure of dignity in the aftermath of crime-and-punishment. This is not about coming to terms with a life of violence and pain. This is not about owning up to hurts inflicted upon others and attempting to make some sort of amends, if only by admitting to wrongdoing.

No, Undisputed is about brutal, impenitent felons being encouraged — by prison officials, no less, and mob money, bet on the fights — to indulge their most violent tendencies by beating the living shit out of each other, while the rest of the hardened felons cheer them on. For our amusement. I’m not sure what kind of point, if any, director and cowriter, with David Glier, Walter Hill (Supernova) had in mind, beyond trying to roil the audience’s bloodlust. There isn’t a single redeeming thing about Undisputed — to call it “stylish” only indicts it further. For stylish it is, which increases the glorification of animalistic savagery on display.

This is nothing short of disgusting, and everyone involved should be deeply mortified to have had anything to do with it.

XXX
viewed at a public multiplex screening
rated PG-13 for violence, non-stop action sequences, sensuality, drug content and language
official site | IMDB

Undisputed
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics
rated R for strong language
official site | IMDB


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