'XXX' Threat: Goodbye, Mister Bond; in Vin Diesel, Hollywood Invents a Spy Hero Who Can Save the World without Knowing How to Mix a Martini

By Horn, John | Newsweek, August 5, 2002 | Go to article overview
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'XXX' Threat: Goodbye, Mister Bond; in Vin Diesel, Hollywood Invents a Spy Hero Who Can Save the World without Knowing How to Mix a Martini


Horn, John, Newsweek


Byline: John Horn

Sony pictures has long tried to launch its own James Bond movie, once even wooing an elderly "Thunderball" producer, only to be sued by 007 studio MGM. So rather than steal the veteran secret agent, Sony partner Revolution Studios has come up with another approach: offing him. The new "XXX" opens with a spy in formalwear trying to blend in at a heavy-metal concert. He's immediately picked out and picked off. In his place strides chiseled troublemaker Xander Cage (Vin Diesel), with quite an assignment: to save the world and reinvent a Hollywood icon.

There's no hiding the fact that these days Bond seems about as lively as Queen Elizabeth. The series celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, and star Pierce Brosnan is about to turn 50. Everything about "XXX" (pronounced "triple-X") is pitched in the opposite direction, at Hollywood's most important audience: teenage boys. There's a cool car, but it's a he-man GTO, not an Aston Martin. There's a beautiful girl, but she has tattoos from here to Bora Bora. There's a ton of music, but in place of Monty Norman's famous Bond theme, there's pulsing techno from Orbital. The result is a transparently calculated diversion that owes more to ESPN's "X Games" than to anything that ever came out of Hollywood, except 007 himself.

The man orchestrating this rowdy affair, director Rob Cohen, at 53 is older than Bond. Yet thanks to "XXX" and last year's "The Fast and the Furious," which also starred Diesel, Cohen has become Hollywood's chief conduit to high-schoolers. Where many directors don't know what a skateboard "rail slide" is, Cohen even knows what it sounds like. When Cage dashes from a restaurant to escape a sharpshooter, he jumps on a purloined serving platter, sliding the makeshift skateboard down a staircase railing. The original effect sounded bogus, so Cohen's sound team scraped a skillet across pavement and recorded the stunningly low-tech screech. "This scene just completely identifies Vin's character, and it has to sound exactly right," Cohen says later, smiling as the new effect is mixed in. "Every teenager knows what a real rail slide sounds like, so you can't cheat that at all."

Cohen is proof you can cheat your age, though. The director grew up watching Bond movies like "Dr. No," but for most of his career made serious, often sentimental, fare like "thirtysomething." Then he shaved his head and pierced his ear, and his career took off. "I just embraced the kid in me who loved the movies, instead of trying to be an intellectual guy from Harvard who was going to get the respect of the critics," says Cohen, who partied like a wild kid on his set and struck up an affair with 26-year-old "XXX" costar Asia Argento.

Originally pitched as an animated In-ternet short, "XXX" has turned into an $84 million test of franchise filmmaking, those easily repeatable movie concepts that spin off endless sequels and profits. Unlike this summer's other blockbusters, "XXX" (opening Aug. 9) doesn't derive from a preexisting movie, a comic book or a Saturday-morning cartoon. But it undeniably follows familiar conventions at every step, leading to this question: can you mimic a genre and still reinvent it? "This is a character who would rather have anarchy than government," says screenwriter Rich Wilkes of Diesel's reluctant spy.

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