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Originally published April 29, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 29, 2005 at 11:52 AM

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Movie review

There's plenty of bang in audacious "XXX" sequel

"Xander Cage was killed in Bora Bora last night. " Man, that is cold. Vin Diesel, star of the 2002 action hit "XXX," opts out of the sequel...

Special to The Seattle Times

"Xander Cage was killed in Bora Bora last night."

Man, that is cold. Vin Diesel, star of the 2002 action hit "XXX," opts out of the sequel, "XXX: State of the Union," so the producers mercilessly kill off his character with a throwaway line in the new film's first 10 minutes.

Sheesh. Not only does Cage's offscreen death not ring true — I mean, audiences saw the guy ride a snowboard about 2 feet ahead of an avalanche in "XXX" — it seems pointless. National Security Agency hotshot Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson), Cage's mentor, earlier declares in "State of the Union" that he needs a new secret agent with an even worse attitude than his previous renegade, i.e., Cage. Surely that was enough to explain the Diesel-meister's absence.

On the other hand, those "XXX" producers have hit upon a brilliant way to turn the loss of their original star into an asset for the franchise. The idea now is that each new film will find Gibbons recruiting a different outlaw to defeat nefarious conspiracies. That makes "XXX" a rare movie series anchored by supporting characters and fronted by disposable leading men.

Movie review 2.5 stars

Showtimes and trailer

"XXX: State of the Union," with Ice Cube, Willem Dafoe, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Roof. Directed by Lee Tamahori, from a screenplay by Simon Kinberg. 101 minutes. Rated PG-13 for intense action and violence. Several theaters.

"State of the Union" finds the ever-likable Ice Cube doing the heroic honors, taking down an attempted coup d'état of the American government orchestrated by an evil secretary of defense, George Deckert (Willem Dafoe).

Unlike Cage, Cube's character, former Navy SEAL Darius Stone, shares an unhappy history with Gibbons. The two served in Kosovo under a maniacal Deckert, at that time an Army general. When we meet Stone, he's serving 20 years in prison for disobeying a Deckert order Stone knew would kill innocent civilians.

Gibbons and Agent Toby Shavers (Michael Roof), the geeky brainiac from the first film, spring Stone and set in motion a crisp adventure that grows increasingly audacious (the story climaxes with a huge battle waged in the Capitol) if only lightly enjoyable.

New Zealand filmmaker Lee Tamahori, who directed the most recent James Bond installment, "Die Another Day," finds a witty refrain in slow-motion shots of Cube scowling his way through fiery chaos. But he also lets Cube be Cube, charming in the rapper-actor's limited but assiduous way.

There's a lot of bang for the buck in this sequel, but what's missing are those traces of emotional risk and growth in "XXX" that made Cage increasingly interesting.

Stone is cool, but he's buried under personal history and unfinished business. It would have been nice to see him motivated a bit by something felt deeply in the here and now.

Maybe that will happen for the next "XXX" guy.

Tom Keogh:

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