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The National Security Agency enlists a notorious extreme sports legend and sometimes-criminal for a dangerous covert mission, hoping he will succeed where conventional spies have failed.


In this urban espionage thriller, Vin Diesel plays Xander Cage, an extreme sports enthusiast who videotapes his stunts for an underground Web site run by a woman named J.J. (rapper turned actor Eve). He's a fast-talking tough guy who thinks he has escaped the long arm of the law until the National Security Agency busts him for his latest anti-establishment prank. Because Xander's a three-strikes criminal, his hands are tied when one Agent Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson) coerces him into working for the government--he either goes to jail or takes an NSA job infiltrating a covert Russian crime ring headquartered in Prague, Czech Republic, called Anarchy 99. With the help of agent Toby ( Michael Roof), a tech geek from MIT, Xander is given an array of gadgets and weaponry to protect himself and defeat his enemy. Xander's mission, however, is compromised when a mysterious Anarchy 99 member named Yelena (Asia Argento) distracts him. Branding itself as a new breed of secret agent for a new generation, XXX shamelessly borrows from spy movies that have come before it, including its own version of James Bond's Q and Mission: Impossible-type videophone messages from Gibbons outlining instructions for assignment. The only difference here is that these messages do not self-destruct in five seconds. But despite the blatant rips, XXX's storyline remains entertaining enough.


Diesel definitely is XXX. Like many of his past characters--including Richard Riddick from Pitch Black and Dominic Torreto from The Fast and the Furious--Xander Cage quickly steals the limelight from the film itself. He plays the musclebound, tattooed Xander (his first initial appears in triplicate on the back of his neck, hence the nickname) in typical Diesel fashion: arrogant, intelligent and oozing with machismo. And it works; the audience is able to buy the fact that this guy can be a suave secret agent that can also head-butt his way out of any situation. In the role of the eccentric NSA agent Gibbons, Jackson does what he can with a character that has been completely glazed over. Made mysterious by rendering him two-dimensional and slapping on a few latex scars, Jackson's Gibbons is reduced to a shallow character who hauntingly appears following action sequences--like a strange phoenix rising out of the ashes--in order to rehash the plot. The movie's femme fatale, portrayed by Argento, is the straightforward ''exotic'' type that has become somewhat of a stereotype in Hollywood: tough, mysterious and foreign. Her Italian accent passing for a Russian one, Argento is a perfect counterpart to Xander, who needs an edgy woman on his arm. Worth noting is Roof (Black Hawk Down), who delivers a surprisingly hilarious performance as the gadget man.


Following the surprise hit of last summer's The Fast and the Furious, Rob Cohen is out to prove that he isn't just a flash-in-the-pan director. Dubbed as one of Hollywood's ''baby moguls,'' he has certainly made that point with XXX. Packed with nonstop action and preposterous stunts, the film is visually dynamic, from the depiction of Prague's sinister underground club scene to its crisp, snow-capped mountain vistas. The action sequences are extremely stylized, with stunts shot from a multitude of angles, complete with debris or snow flying straight at the camera. But even with all this eye candy, XXX still manages to lose a bit of steam halfway through the film. While the first part of the film focuses on building Xander's character--including his roots and how he becomes a secret agent--the latter part basically has him either chasing or running from the bad guys. Because much of the film's allure rests on Diesel's character, it loses appeal when he's not spewing out lines like, ''Kiss my ass, Scarface.''

Bottom Line

XXX definitely fills every action film requirement and is packed with high-energy extreme-sports stunts. Unfortunately, some of the action sequences are a little too drawn out, especially after you've seen them in slow motion from seven different angles.