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XXX: State of the Union

(2005) ** Pg-13
101 min. Columbia Pictures. Director: Lee Tamahori. Cast: Ice Cube, Samuel L. Jackson, Willem Dafoe, Scott Speedman, Michael Roof.

XXX: State of the Union sums itself up when an NSA tech, as he regards Ice Cube blowing off a covert mission with a rocket-launched fireball, sarcastically responds, "Subtle. Very subtle." This sequel to Rob Cohen's atrocious Vin Diesel actioner XXX makes a baby-steps improvement: it's so full of self-aware speechifying, howlingly bad verbal pissing contests, and audacious bullshit plotting that it almost flies as a parody of itself. Almost.

XXX was originally conceived as an "extreme sports" version of James Bond for the tween-teen skater set. For the sequel, producer Cohen hooks up with an equally brilliant producer, Ice Cube, to realign XXX as a ghetto superstar, 2005-blaxploitation style. Reprising his role as NSA mastermind Augustus Gibbons, Samuel L. Jackson spews, "We've got to go off the grid now. The new Triple-X has got to be badder, got to have more attitude." How could this be possible? Cut to Ice Cube in a maximum-security prison cell.

Okay, so screenwriter Simon Kinberg (Mr. And Mrs. Smith) apologizes for that one by making Cube wrongly imprisoned, but only after the faux-Bond credits blend the usual phallic gun barrels with imagistic bait of black hands gripping prison bars. Because it's a Rob Cohen movie, this Triple-X (born Darius Stone) goes to a chop-shop in "the 'hood" when he needs "off the grid" help. There he finds his ex-honey Lola (Nona Gaye), to whom Darius keeps making empty threats about taking her for a ride in a back seat, if you know what I mean. Much fast driving and push-up-bra slinking ensues.

Lee Tamahori (Die Another Day) brings his James Bond experience to bear on what would be an otherwise unwatchable movie, but the ultra-slick energy of the first act becomes poundingly familiar as we move into the XXX version of political import. "I'm not feeling too patriotic these days," Stone growls, and who could with Willem Dafoe's evil Secretary of Defense plotting to kill everyone between him and the presidency, currently held by ex-miniseries star Peter Strauss (hold on, Peter, you have some scenery on your lip)? After a sluggish midsection, Kinberg and uncredited scribe Rich Wilkes muster some comic value by blowing holes in the U.S. Capitol building and then chasing the secret Presidential bullet train across D.C. for an Air Force One meets Mission: Impossible climax.

Everyone involved is under strict orders to overact, which proves to be a very good idea to keep the sheep-counting at bay. XXX: State of the Union is all stereotypes all of the time, the most annoying of which is Michael Roof, as the tech who saves the screenwriter's ass whenever he doesn't know how else to insert Tab A into Slot B. Nicknamed "College Boy," the tech wears V-neck sweaters and bow ties to contrast with Ice Cube's ghetto fabulousness. Subtle. Very subtle.

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Aspect ratios: 2.40:1 Anamorphic Widescreen

Number of discs: 1

Audio: Dolby True HD 5.1

Street date: 8/12/2008

Distributor: Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Sony delivers another impressive Blu-Ray Disc in XXX: State of the Union. For some reason, I wasn't expecting much from this transfer, but XXX: State of the Union looks spectacular. Aside from a bit of edge enhancement and perhaps slightly oversaturated color, the sharp, glossy image features plenty of detail and depth. If anything, the Dolby TrueHD surround track may be trying a bit hard, favoring music and effects over dialogue, but it certainly packs a wallop.

A strong and complete package of extras has been carried over from the standard-def DVD, beginning with two feature-length commentaries. The Director's Commentary is actually shared by Lee Tamahori with screenwriter Simon Kinberg. The pair, apparently recorded separately, cover all the bases of the movie's development and production, with Tamahori noting every concept, choice and frustration as the film unspools. The Visual Effects Commentary features visual effects supervisor Scott Farrar and CG supervisor Lindy De Quattro, who cheerily admit they're watching the fully assembled film for the first time. Since this type of commentary is relatively rare, those interested in the technical aspects of filmmaking and computer-generated effects will find the track most useful.

The main extra is the two-part making-of documentary "From Convict To Hero: The Making Of XXX: State Of The Union" (48:46 with "Play All" option), made up of "Part I: Boot Camp" (21:20) and "Part II: Special Ops" (27:26). It's standard EPK-style fare, but Part I enlightens us on Kinberg's research, the actor's shooting school, and how Willem Dafoe boned up on his Donald Rumsfeld speeches to play the villain. Part II delves more into military authenticity, stunts, music, sound effects, and visual effects. We also get a look at some fight rehearsal footage, production artwork and unfinished CGI test footage. Part I participants include Tamahori, Kinberg, Dafoe, producer Arne L. Schmidt, Ice Cube, Sunny Mabrey, Scott Speedman, Samuel L. Jackson, Nona Gaye, production designer Gavin Bocquet, costume designer Sanja Milkovic Hayes, with Part II adding comments from technical advisors Dave Kennedy and Harry Humphries, assistant stunt coordinator Mike Gunther, fight coordinator Marcus Young, 2nd unit stunt coordinator Freddie Hice, Xzibit, score mixer Dennis Sands, composer Marco Beltrami, sound designer/re-recording mixer Christopher Boyes, Farrar, De Qattro, visual effects animation supervisor James Tooley, and visual effects associate supervisor Samir Hoon.

The Featurettes (19:39 with "Play All" option) kick off with "Bullet Train Breakdown" (5:40), in which Tamahori introduces a sort of multi-angle look (one that doesn't actually use the "Angle" button) at the action sequence, with storyboards, pre-vis animatics, green-screen footage, and finished shots. "Top Secret Military Warehouse" (8:33) focuses on the design elements, with comments from Tamahori, Schmidt, Kinberg, Hays, Bocquet, Kennedy, and special effects supervisor John Frazier. "XXX: State of the Union According To Ice Cube" (5:25) isn't so much an interview with Cube as another EPK short about Cube and his character, with Cube, Tamahori, Schmidt, producer Neal H. Moritz, Gaye, John G. Connelly, Jackson, Xzibit, and Speedman all giving their two cents within about five minutes.

The Deleted Scenes (2:25 with "Play All" option) and optional director's commentary don't amount to much, but they are "Bama Shoots Wounded Agent" (:32), "President Gives Speech at Lincoln Memorial" (1:37), and "Steele's Team Operates the Robot" (:15). Rounding out the disc are Previews for Redbelt, Starship Troopers 3: Marauder, and Resident Evil: Degeneration.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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