Who says sequels are never better than their predecessors? Megabudget producers have hammered away at proving this maxim wrong, primarily through sequelizing as many crummy movies as good ones. Sure, a movie like The Matrix sets a gratifyingly high bar for its successors, but it's quite the opposite for films like XXX, Tomb Raider, and Resident Evil; hardly any effort at all is needed to surpass the original.
And hardly any effort is often what they get, which brings us to XXX: State of the Union. This follow-up to XXX, the 2002 extreme-sports-and-videogames-themed James Bond knockoff, is markedly superior. Which is to say it is slightly less tedious, slightly less blatant in its idiocy, and still miles away from working as a competent action movie.
State of the Union drops the "extreme" demo-mongering of the first film, but its dialogue still can't shake marketing speak: Samuel L. Jackson, back as triple-X guru Augustus Gibbons, actually has to say, out loud, that he needs a new agent with "more attitude." The film awards this arduous task to Ice Cube, calling upon all of his most potent scowling reserves. He plays Darius Stone, a thug turned Navy SEAL turned mutineer turned prisoner turned secret agent, recruited after a siege at the triple-X headquarters. This is part of a plot by Secretary of Defense Deckert (Willem Dafoe) to overthrow the U.S. government.
The invasion and recruitment happens so swiftly, though, that even the other characters seem confused; NSA agent Kyle Steele (Scott Speedman) spends about half the movie chasing after Gibbons and Stone, for reasons not entirely clear. (The frame job Dafoe's character wants to set up is almost unnecessary.) The remaining triple-X personnel take their adventures so far underground that they forget to come up for fresh air.
Cube is, at least, a more convincing and more likable rogue agent than Vin Diesel (the 2002 model), and the prospect of seeing him engage in a scowl-off with Jackson hangs tantalizingly in front of the audience for most of the film (the tiebreaker would be a yell-off and, of course, Jackson would win). But their relationship never connects; State of the Union is free of even the basics of human interactions. It depends instead on weirdly manufactured antagonism: Stone and Gibbons are supposed to have a vaguely contentious relationship (hence the scowling), but it's revealed early on that they've more or less always been on the same side, and it's Deckert who really earns their ire. The screenplay then goes as far as to invent another old grudge between Stone and one of Deckert's henchmen, just so we can hear Cube proclaim, out loud, that he has a "score to settle."
All of this only somewhat resembles XXX, with nods towards over-elaborate, under-used gadgets and plenty of car-porn. I am reluctant to describe any of the enjoyably outlandish action sequences, because it might be enough to convince action connoisseurs, erroneously, that the film is worth seeing; on paper, tanks fighting on a battleship or a luxury car chasing a bullet train sound like good fun. The director, Lee Tamahori, made one of the best recent Bond pictures, but here lacks the ability (or maybe simply the energy) to finesse the stunts and likable actors into inspired silliness. State of the Union's chintzy effects work and quasi-military quasi-thrills actually bring to mind a cheesy late-eighties action picture, albeit with less appalling politics. Ice Cube's scowl contains more charm than the entire careers of the Norris-Seagal-Van Damme crew, so what's he doing here?
The DVD includes two commentaries, deleted scenes, and a handful of making-of featurettes, including Ice Cube's personal retrospective.