In the early 2000s, James Bond was on the ropes. The British secret agent had had a successful revival in 1995’s GoldenEye, which dealt with the fallout of the Soviet Union, but the end of the Cold War ultimately left 007 adrift. Bond was so closely tied to the conflict that it now felt stodgy, and lackluster entries like Die Another Day didn’t help.
The air was ripe for a challenger. Somebody who was like James Bond, but more extreme. How extreme? Imagine they spelled it “eXXXtreme.” That’s more or less the plot of Rob Cohen’s 2002 movie XXX, which isn’t a perfect movie but is far more enjoyable than a 2002 action flick about being extreme would seem.
XXX is streaming on HBO Max until the end of the month. Here’s what it’s worth checking out — while you still can.
The first ten minutes of XXX are incredible. The movie opens with a Rammstein concert being held in an old church full of pyrotechnics. A James Bond-type in a tuxedo struggles to get through the crowd, clearly out of place amongst The Youth. He ends up getting shot in the back, his corpse mistaken for a crowd surfer.
After high-ranking NSA agent Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson) complains about all their lame agents dying, the movie cuts to racist and even lamer California State Senator Dick Hotchkiss (Tom Everett). Hotchkiss is anti-skateboarding, anti-rock music, and anti-video games. Mistaking Xander Cage (Vin Diesel) for a valet, he hands off his car keys to an extreme sports legend, famous for his videos where he pulls off stunts in what he calls “The Xander Zone.”
After successfully blowing up the State Senator’s car in the name of rock and roll and first-person-shooters, Xander returns to his loft apartment where a party hosted by his girlfriend J.J. (Eve) is already underway. Seductive models from video game companies tell Xander he should have his own game, but J.J. forcefully declares that he’ll never sell out. It feels like mainlining pure-late-90s-early-’00s culture.
None of this has much to do with the rest of the movie, sadly. But an extreme sports outlaw who dates a rapper with an “underground website” and worries about being a sell-out is an incredible idea, like if Reality Bites had lots of explosions.
XXX offers several intriguing twists on the James Bond concept, like making him a working-class guy whose experience in restaurants allows him to spot a trap laid by Gibbons. But as it moves into more traditional action sequences, that surprisingly smart premise falls away to reveal a pretty basic action movie.
Agent Triple X heads to Prague to infiltrate a group known as Anarchy 99. Run by the ex-Soviet Yorgi (Michael Csokas), Anarchy 99’s actions mainly consist of raves in giant castles and partying with beautiful women, most of them sex workers. Xander blends in well, impressing Yorgi with his knowledge of classic cars — although his girlfriend Yelena (Asia Argento) seems less charmed.
Cohen and Diesel had worked together the year before on The Fast and The Furious. XXX is in many ways a companion film to that one, in that it is extremely similar. Both movies are inspired by the fine line between being a really cool criminal and a cop that originated in Point Break. Both lavishly feature classic cars. Both feature romantic leads who aren’t just arm candy. But while one of these movies was able to spawn a seemingly endless franchise, the other was not.
The genius of The Fast and The Furious lies in its flipping the ending of Point Break on its head when Dominic Torretto lets Brian go free. Sadly, XXX isn’t able to do the same with James Bond. The movie references Bond several times, including the famed ski chase in The Spy Who Loved Me when Xander opens up a giant American-flag-themed parachute, but it never subverts the franchise. XXX gives Xander a fairly straightforward plot: Yorgi wants to launch a biochemical weapon to destroy ten of the world’s cities via an underwater drone for some reason. To destroy all the nations of the world? Where would he party then?
XXX may not have been able to subvert James Bond by making him badass, but Daniel Craig was able to do that just fine in Casino Royale a few years later. Was the Bond reboot’s opening parkour scene inspired by the extreme sports of XXX? Probably not. But it’s a fascinating — and at times quite clever — relic of its time.
XXX is streaming on HBO Max through November 30.