Beat the Clock

One of the many reasons that spy films have remained so popular is, that in the hands of a competent director, a considerable amount of tension and excitement can be built up with an against the clock finale. It’s a fine old chestnut, that is dragged out time and time again. There have been good one’s like The Manchurian Candidate and clunky ones like The Chairman – starring Gregory Peck, who stars as an undercover agent with a time bomb in his head.

Usually the hands of a clock, or a digital display counts down the seconds to that critical moment when the hero must act. The hero can be racing against a deadline, the threat being that once the time is up, an armada of bombs – usually nuclear –  is sent on their way to destroy an unjustly accused enemy target. I think the last time it was used really well, was Phil Alden Robinson’s The Sum of All Fears. Or it can be an event, like an assassination, where at a particular time, a target, in whose hands lies the fate of the free world, is to be killed.

In Bond films, since Goldfinger, when the timer on a ‘particularly dirty’ nuclear device was stopped with 007 seconds to go, ‘beating the clock’ has been an enduring part of the Bond formula, recurring in the bulk of the movies in the series – You Only Live Twice, Diamonds Are Forever, The Spy Who Me, Moonraker, A View to a Kill, The Living Daylights, Goldeneye, Tomorrow Never Dies, The World is Not Enough (in the pipeline), Die Another Day, and Casino Royale (at the airport).

But it has been used in more than the Bond films. In the 1940’s Humphrey Bogart battled the Japanese in Across the Pacific. The ending has Bogie stopping a Japanese Fighter plane from taking off from a top secret base and dropping it’s bomb on Panama. A few more seconds and he would have been too late. Recent hit films that have had beat the clock endings with varying degrees of success are The Sum of All Fears, The Peacemaker and xXx. The Sum of All Fears had a nail biting finish as Ben Affleck tried to stop world War III, with both the Americans and Russians preparing to fire their nuclear arsenals. The Peacemaker had George Clooney and Nicole Kidman rush around New York attempting to stop a nuclear bomb detonating in a church. xXx took a more action orientated approach and had Vin Diesel riding on the top of a miniature submarine that is preparing to send a payload of chemical laden missiles off into the atmosphere.

And I have only scratched the surface of one of the spy film genre’s most common plot devices. And the clock is ticking…

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Beat the Clock

xXx 2: The Next Level (2005)


AKA: xXx 2: The State Of The Union
Directed by Lee Tamahori
Ice Cube, Samuel L. Jackson, Willem Dafoe, Scott Speedman, Peter Strauss.
Music by Marco Beltrami

After almost single handedly destroying the Bond franchise on Die Another Day, Lee Tamahori stuck his hooks into the xXx franchise.

This movie is bad. I try to be positive in my reviews, after all, ‘spy movies’ are a genre that I truly love, but this film has a B.S. quotient that has to be seen to be believed (maybe I have used the wrong words – I don’t recommend that you see it).

POOR SCRIPT or POOR DIRECTOR. Firstly, in the original xXx movie, Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson) worked for the NSA. In this film, the Division is called xXx. From the outset Gibbons states that Xander Cage, the original xXx (Vin Diesel) died in Bora Bora. Since that was where Xander was at the end of the first movie, and is dead by the start of the second, it is fair to presume that the rebranding of the NSA must have happened overnight (gee that was quick).

And we all know that xXx stood for Xander (and his love of X-treme sports) and was based on the tattoo on his neck. In an instant, that is all out the window with the rebranding of the organization, unless it is some kind of tribute (unlikely, he only saved the world once!). This is the contempt the film-makers show for continuity, and their audience and the story hasn’t even begun.

The movie starts with an assault on the xXx headquarters. Believability goes out the window, when the assailants use ACME holes, like the ones the Coyoté used in the Warner Brothers cartoons. Instantly underground, they kill everybody in the complex, except for Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson) and Kyle Steele (Scott Speedman). Since their security has obviously been breached, Gibbons decides to recruit outside the system. Someone dangerous! A new xXx. Enter Darius Stone (Ice Cube). He is one bad motherf*cker who has been locked away in prison for a crime he did not commit.

Meanwhile Gen. George Octavius Deckert (Willem Dafoe) is cleaning house in the aftermath of the xXx headquarters massacre. Look, I am not even going to bother outlining any more of the plot. This film is one of the worst sequels made.

The only sign of creative thought that went into this action movie is when Stone launches a tank down the runway of an aircraft carrier. It doesn’t take off, but sure makes a mess of an opposing tank at the other end of the runway.

The special effects, especially during the climax on a bullet train are very poor CGI (even the bullet train CGI sequences in Tom Cruise’s Mission Impossible are superior – even though it was made nine years earlier. Toward the end of the first xXx movie, Vin Diesel says ‘Start thinking Playstation 2…’ Unfortunately, the film-makers have taken xXx’s quote literally and the movie looks like a stylised video game.

And the real sad part about this whole movie experience is that the film-makers think they have gotten away with presenting this lousy piece of shit to the public. They have the audacity to hint that there will be a xXx 3, with a new xXx. If this is an example of the standard, I don’t think the queue for the next film will be very long (I’m thinking straight to video!)

xXx 2: The Next Level (2005)

xXx (2002)


Directed by Rob Cohen
Vin Diesel, Asia Argento, Marton Csokas, Samuel L Jackson, Michael Roof
Music by Randy Edelman

“If your gonna send some one to save the world – make sure they like the way it is!”

A new breed of secret agent! xXx is presented as a James Bond movie for ‘Generation Next’ who are into Xtreme sports and loud punk music. But it is a great deal of fun. Sure, some of the special effects, particularly during the avalanche sequence are a bit lame. But thankfully most of the stunts appear to be done in front of the camera, rather than relying on technical wizardry.

The film opens in Prague, in the Czech Republic. A suave tuxedoed secret agent retrieves a microchip from an enemy operative. But within seconds, other enemy agents are upon him. To escape he darts into a nightclub. Inside the band Ramstein are performing. They play the kind of music I would call industrial-goth, but I suppose today’s youth would probably call it EMO. Amongst the black-clad gothic patrons, the agent stands out like a sore thumb. For his trouble, the agent is killed and his lifeless body is tossed about above the audience, like a crowd-surfer.

The death of this agent is symbolic. In his tux, he represented the James Bond’s of this world. He was the stiff, old-fashioned type of spy, who has hopped around the globe, staying in posh hotels and luxurious casinos. A spy whose methods were old fashioned, and were known by the enemy. He is a spy who has reached his ‘use-by’ date.

Meanwhile at the N.S.A headquarters in the United States, they are analyzing the small amount of information, that the nameless agent in Prague transmitted before he was killed. From the data they have identified a dangerous chemical weapon called ‘Silent Night’. And they have ascertained that the group behind the agent’s death and the custodians of this chemical weapon are a group called ‘Anarchy 99’.

Called in to oversee the continuation of this operation is Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson). He believes the N.S.A should look outside the system for a new operative to continue this mission. He says, “Do we want to drop another mouse into the snake pit – or should we send our own snake!”

Next we cut to California. Senator Richard Hodgkins arrives at a fancy country club driving his sleek red Corvette convertible. Politically Hodgkins is outspoken about the youth of today. He has tried to ban ‘Rock’ music and video games. Unfortunately for Hodgkins, he hands his car keys over to Xander Cage (Vin Diesel) who is impersonating a car-parking attendant. In reality Xander is an extreme sports junkie who makes underground movies, videotaping his performance, whenever he performs a dangerous stunt. On this day his stunt involves stealing the Senator’s car and driving it off the edge of a bridge over a wide canyon. As the car plummets towards the valley floor below, Xander pulls a ripcord on a parachute and drifts down gently. The car, on the other hand, explodes in one of those giant orange fireballs that Hollywood do so well.

After the success of Xander’s cheeky stunt, he is hosting a party to celebrate. Only it is interrupted when the lights unexpectedly go out, and a SWAT team burst through the windows. Xander is shot with a tranquilizer dart and passes out.

When Xander awakes, he is in a diner. He immediately finds himself involved in a hold-up situation. Quickly taking stock of the events as they are unfolding, he quickly disarms the two perpetrators only to find out that the hold-up was not for real. It was a test arranged by Augustus Gibbons. He is looking for new recruits and Xander has just passed the first test in Gibbons recruitment drive.

There are more tests, but of course, Xander passes them too, using his extreme sports skills to get him out of tricky situations. The second half of the film concentrates on Xander’s mission which takes place in Prague.

Fleshing out the cast are Marton Csokas as Yorgi, the villainous head of Anarchy 99; Asia Argento as Yelena, Yorgi’s girlfriend; and Michael Roof as Agent Toby Lee Shavers, the gadget guy.

If you are going to enjoy this film, the first thing you have to get over is Vin Diesel as the hero. Diesel with his clean-shaven skull and lack of chin, would hardly pop into your mind as your classic, suave spy type. But that is the point, he is not your usual spy type. In fact the film-makers have, on the surface, tried to distance themselves as far from the usual Bondian spy film as possible. But this is all an act, and it is very cleverly done. The youth market may think that the film is ‘now’, but there are only a few short burst of rock music and even the stunts are the kind that you see is most big-budget spy extravaganzas. Most of the soundtrack by Randy Edelman is in the old school Bond tradition, and even though Xander never quite makes it to Vienna (is Prague close enough?), we are still treated to shots of cobble stone streets while the Harry Lime theme is played on a zither. It’s all a bit of an act. It pretends to be a new progressive spy film, but at the same time it is happy to revisit the past and play upon it’s spy film heritage.

One problem with making a film seem ‘now’, is that it has the potential to date very quickly. Although only five years old, xXx is already showing it’s age. Dialogue like “Word!” (yes, I agree with what you are saying) and “The cars are dope!” (The cars are very good) already sound dated.

The movie has a cheeky sort of charm. Ultimately it knows it is another Bond ripoff, but takes delight in pointing out how it is different. It’s difference is that it is youthful and hip and doesn’t really care about the ‘supposed’ finer things in life. But it is still a fairly effective addition to the genre. It wont be everyone’s cup of tea (or Cranberry Club Soda – I mean what kind of agent orders Cranberry Club Soda at a bar?), but it does provide big budget mayhem with plenty of explosions, chases, guns and girls. What more could you ask?

EXTENDED EDITION

When xXx 2: The Next Level was released at the cinemas, the producers took the opportunity to re-release xXx in an extended edition on DVD.

The added scenes do little to improve the film and in fact were on the original DVD as deleted scenes.

Also as an added bonus, they have included the short film, The Death of Xander Cage, which explains why Vin Diesel’s character didn’t return in the sequel.

The politest thing I can say is that this is a complete waste of time. It has no style whatsoever. It looks like a student movie, and the ending is terrible.

Adding insult to injury, it doesn’t fit in with the second xXx movie, which states at the beginning that Xander Cage died in Bora Bora.

The whole extended package was an insult to the fans of the movie, and hints at the direction the series was to head in the second movie.

xXx (2002)