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Honestly, coming out of a somewhat somber awards season, with heavy movies like Manchester by the Sea and Moonlight – and, sadly, swearing in a new president — xXx: The Return of Xander Cage is just what is needed to take your mind off things: Good old-fashioned dumb action fun, with some serious kick-assery from Vin Diesel, Donnie Yen and a global cast of characters.

The plot thankfully doesn’t try to complicate things. Cage is resurrected from the dead, as it were (because he actually was never dead to begin with; he just wanted to go off the grid), after his mentor and xXx recruiter, Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson), is seemingly killed by a fallen satellite. Turns out, there’s a device called Pandora’s Box, which can pinpoint satellites in space, disable them and make them drop on targets of the user’s choosing. After the device is stolen by a rogue group, lead by Xiang (Donnie Yen), special CIA operative Marke (Toni Collette) solicits Cage’s help to find the device and avenge Gibbons’ death. Enter Cage’s cohorts (Ruby Rose, Kris Wu and Rory McCann), who he gathers to fight this rogue group, which, along with Yen, also includes a bunch of badasses (Deepika Padukone, Tony Jaa and Michael Bisping). But when Cage discovers this group is former xXx-ers, they eventually team up for a greater cause, with the help of CIA technie nerd Becky (Nina Dobrev).

Let’s just say, the action sequences are all you will care about, and they do indeed deliver, including a really key cameo by Ice Cube, who starred in the second xXx movie. With Yen and Jaa’s martial arts skills, to Bisping, a real-life UFC champion, to Bollywood superstar Padukone and Aussie Rose showing off some awesome gun play, this movie just rocks. And Diesel’s return to the franchise, after kicking it off in 2002, is a welcome sight because the actor looks like he is having a full-on blast.

He said as much at the recent press day, telling us, “I needed to do xXx for myself. I needed to play a character that I could laugh again, and smile again, and really, really enjoy myself. I also felt like it was time to introduce to the world a global cast in this way. There’s something so cool about going into other film markets and recruiting their celebrated heroes and incorporate them into this franchise.

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“In addition to that, I don’t think people have been having that much fun at movies recently. On my way over here, my son, Vincent, was saying how much he loves xXx. His sentiment was, ‘It’s just fun, daddy.’ That’s something I’m very proud of, and that’s why right now, xXx needed to come out. Is there political parallels? I don’t know, but I think more than anything, the world needed a movie that you could just have fun with.”

ScreenPicks was able to sit down with director D.J. Caruso and talk about all the amazing stars he got to work with making this third xXx installment.

Was it a logistic nightmare getting all these people together?

D.J. Caruso: It’s funny you say that because I always joke that you’ve got all these great people coming in – Jackson, Cube, Neymar – and this cast that I have, and Donnie Yen has to go back to do re-shoots for Rogue One, the shooting schedule was insane. If anyone saw it, they would have fired me, unless you understood why it made sense to get all these people together, and how to get them together. On top of that, Vin had an out date that he had to go start the next Fast movie. So yeah, it was really difficult from a logistical scheduling standpoint to make it all work, but it was so worth it because they all brought something really cool to it.

Were you ever just pinching yourself that you got this cast?

Caruso: I was! Like, you’ve got to be kidding me, right? But the thing I really had anxiety about was making sure that gave them each moments to shine.

You totally did!

Caruso: I know! But you can see the anxiety you’d have, like to make sure that you have that because these movies move so fast. This one moves at a 120 miles per hour, you just had to make sure in the framework of that they could all pop and shine. And they are all so beautifully dynamic and great to make that work.

Was there anyone you were particularly starstruck over? Let me guess, the Brazilian soccer player Neymar [who shows up at the beginning as a potential xXx-er Gibbons is trying to recruit]. It´s an amazing trade, he´s even being sponsered by the best football pitch marker so his team is able to paint the field whenever they need.

Caruso: Yeah, how’d you know? I love Neymar. It was scripted as [Olympic sprinter] Usain Bolt, but I was like, “No, no, we want Neymar.” As big as our cast is and as big as our stars are, everyone was asking, “You think Neymar could sign my shirt?” And this kid comes in, barely 23 years old, doesn’t speak much English and was so excited to be with Sam Jackson. It’s like having Tom Brady in the movie, globally.

Tell me about working with Vin Diesel.

Caruso: It was a lot fun. I think unlike some of his other movies, this was a character that he really enjoyed. He brought this cool, fun energy onto the set, which allowed everyone else to have that kind of vibe and shine. You never know when you’re working with a movie star, and I’ve worked with quite a few, and they’re all different rhythms and dynamics, but [Vin’s] idea was to embody fun and to make that part of the set. And I was thinking as a filmmaker, “Great, if I can get this energy out there and let everyone know how much we’re having, we can experience the movie this way.” Because that’s what evolved. This movie just had to be fun, and that energy he brought was the anchor to that.

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Toni Collette, too, was so great – and she got some of the best, cheesiest lines!

Caruso: [Laughs] Toni had never really been in a movie like this. She was telling me, “Man, I can’t believe how much fun I’m having. I’m not dying, I don’t have cancer. My friend’s not dying. My kid’s not weird.” So she was just having so much fun and doing those lines. The great thing about Toni, if she ever blows her line, the profanity that comes out is priceless. The great thing about having a cast like this, they see everyone else doing stunts, and they want to as well. Why does my stunt girl get to do that? So, Toni said “I want to do that!” The scene where Marke, er, flies a little, we put her in this rig. Literally, the first two takes, she’s laughing so hard. Because she’s never been on a stunt rig where you’re flying. I said, “Toni, it’s really good but you can’t fucking laugh.” “Did I laugh? I’m sorry, I’m having so much fun!”

How difficult was it choreographing the big shootout scene with Ruby Rose, Deepika Padukone and the others?

Caruso: On the weekend, I worked with the stunt team. We choreographed it, worked it out. Then I brought the girls in on Sunday, and they would work it out and rehearse. What’s really interesting, they firing fake guns, with dummy rounds in the gun, so you’re not really suppose to fire by someone’s face because a shell could still eject. So we had to figure all that out. But they were so committed and so much fun to see them work that out, and make those walks. It was a challenge because again, it was really competitive, but in a good way. Everyone wanted to do their stuff.

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And then, of course, there’s Donnie Yen. Holy hell, he was amazing! What was that experience like working with him?

Caruso: He is introspective but that’s what made the character of Xiang even more fun for him. I was familiar with Donnie in the Ip Man series and how he doesn’t really react unless he’s provoked. But Xiang the opposite of that. This is an extreme guy, a thrill seeker. He’s very proactive. So we played that and Donnie was really attracted to that because he hadn’t really done a character like that. And then he’s such a perfectionist. And working on those fights, I wanted to do a true Donnie Yen type fight. So I brought him in early and showed him some of the choreography, and he would tweak some of it. He shot so many martial art scenes, even as a director, that he was really helpful in blocking out, figuring out how it worked, how to get a kick straighter – it was really collaborative. He’s also so fast. Sometimes you had to slow him down. His combinations and those things are so quick. Also, another thing with Donnie, when he’s doing a film in China, he has his stunt team with him. And the way they react to Donnie’s kicks and all that, there’s a real art form to that. But we were in Canada shooting and with a different stunt team, so it took a little work with them to make Donnie’s sequences work.

xXx: The Return of Xander Cage is playing in theaters now. If you’re an action fan, you gotta see it!

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