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Hitchhikers a mixed effort

By Lady Liberty
web posted May 2, 2005

xXx: State of the Union

* 1/2 out of ****

xXx: State of the Union I loved the original xXx. In fact, I bought the DVD the day it was released. Sure, the story was implausible. But it was a whole lot of fun to watch! And the action was well done by a population of actors who fit their roles like a glove. Vin Diesel purportedly priced himself out of a reprise of his role as Xander Cage, the title character of the first film. I wasn't entirely sure that Ice Cube was the best choice to take over as the headliner, but I was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt to see the franchise itself continue. Unfortunately, it was a terrible script rather than any actor that has put the future of xXx in doubt as well as jeopardizing the success of the current film.

Agent Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson) remains the man in charge of a top secret government team that roots out threats to freedom around the world and eliminates them in clandestine operations. Needless to say, it's something of a shock when his hidden headquarters is itself the subject of a vicious raid by unknown — but very well armed and trained — assailants. After he and weapons wizard Agent Toby Lee Shavers (Michael Roof) barely escape with their lives, Gibbons determines he needs a man with attitude to go with his high level skills to deal with the dangerous circumstances. Fortunately, such a man exists not too very far away in the person of Darius Stone (Ice Cube) who is serving a twenty-year sentence in a military prison.

Gibbons visits Stone, but his invitation isn't too well received. Then Stone learns that a part of his compensation might include some payback for the man who landed him behind bars. General George Deckert (Willem Dafoe) is now the Secretary of Defense. But some years earlier, he was a military commander who gave an order so heinous that Navy SEAL Stone and some members of his team not only refused to follow it but actively worked to foil the plan. Since then, Stone has undergone a court martial, and many of his cohorts have disappeared. Needless to say, the opportunity to be both free and in a position to do something about Deckert is irresistible.

Meanwhile, President James Stanford (Peter Strauss) is working on his State of the Union address during which he intends to announce military cutbacks and peace overtures to some of the country's traditional enemies. Needless to say, Deckert isn't pleased to hear about the President's plans, and he does his best to talk him out of taking the planned actions. As Deckert considers his options and puts together some plans of his own, Agent Kyle Steele (Scott Speedman) is investigating the attack on Gibbons' NSA offices. The more he learns, the more Steele begins to fear that there's far more to the attack than originally believed, and that the powers behind it aren't those he might have originally suspected.

Ice Cube is okay as Darius Stone. Frankly, Vin Diesel is no great shakes as an actor, either, but he has an undeniable charisma onscreen which Ice Cube lacks. Samuel L. Jackson, who is a fine actor, seems to be going through the motions here. Scott Speedman and Michael Roof appear to have some enthusiasm for their roles, and they both do just fine. Willem Dafoe is very good; Peter Strauss is only okay, but that's less his fault than it is a substandard script. Nona Gaye (who plays a beautiful former car thief) is gorgeous, but her looks can't overcome her need for more acting classes. Sunny Mabrey, however, acquits herself well as Charlie, a woman who may or may not be willing to help XXX succeed in his mission. In short, the acting is uneven. But the direction and the script are both consistent. Unfortunately, they're consistently bad.

The original xXx was implausible, but a lot of fun; the storyline in the sequel goes well beyond implausible and into the impossible. Tanks on the streets of Washington DC as security measures for the State of the Union address? Please! A bullet train underneath the Capitol that can travel at speeds upward of 250 miles per hour? Oh, sure. Agents guarding a top secret facility all run to the scene of an explosion leaving valuable equipment and information completely unguarded? Yeah, right. And to add insult to injury, the script offers up far more than its fair share of triteness to boot.

The firefights and explosions are very cool (though the special effects crew blows it on a scene involving the aforementioned bullet train that clearly shows model work). And those who are into some seriously souped up cars will find some scenes of great interest. But none of that can make up for the terrible script, poor direction, and largely lackadaisical performances. It's too bad the moviemakers, in an apparent fit of pique, chose to mention (several times) that "Xander Cage was killed in Bora Bora last night." A return to the original star might have helped a little; and new scriptwriters might help even more. As it is, xXx: State of the Union may have blown its chances for the franchise product the first film was intended to start, and given the interesting premise and its many possibilities, that's a real shame.

POLITICAL NOTES: It's patently obvious that the writers support the idea of a president who would largely disarm the US and try to turn its enemies into allies by talking. It's just as clear that the writers have no real idea that there's just no talking with some people, and that America (like most countries) will always have its enemies. To encourage drastic military reductions, especially in a time when we are at war, is certainly irresponsible at best. There's also a real slap at the military mind set between the lines.

FAMILY SUITABILITY: xXx: State of the Union is rated PG-13 for "sequences of intense action violence and some language." People do die with disturbing regularity in the movie, but none of the deaths involve any detail or much blood. Much of the language has an urban flavor, but again, it's largely unobjectionable (there's worse in much hip hop and rap songs virtually every junior high schooler has heard). Still, this isn't a movie for younger kids. Tweens and teens, especially boys, from age 12 or 13 and up should be fine, though the older the kids get, the less I suspect they'll be willing to suspend belief long enough to watch this thankfully short film.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

** 1/2 out of ****

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy I've been waiting twenty years for this movie. That's how long it's been since I first read and fell in love with the series of very silly books written by Douglas Adams. (To this day, one of my personal e-mail accounts features references to 42 and the Hubble Constant in its signature, something fellow Hitchhiker fans will likely grasp immediately, but which will cause the rest of you to wonder about my sanity.) The story has been a BBC radio show (in fact, that's where it originated — the books came later). It's been a six-episode British TV series. But various problems (dissatisfaction with scripts, the untimely death of Douglas Adams) delayed the feature film until now. Was it worth the wait? Yes and no.

As Hitchhiker fans are well aware, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is actually a best selling book. It offers information and common sensical advice to those traveling throughout the known galaxy. British citizen and ordinary man Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) doesn't know this, of course. He wakes up to find heavy equipment outside his home in preparation for the creation of a bypass that will go right through his house. Still wearing his bathrobe, he leaps in front of a bulldozer and refuses to move. His best friend, Ford Prefect (Mos Def) shows up in the middle of this confrontation and convinces Arthur to step away for a drink in a nearby pub. Ford tells Arthur that none of this really matters since the world is going to end in twelve minutes anyway. But Arthur is too preoccupied to bother wondering if Ford is making an unfunny joke or not.

He is not. The world really is going to end momentarily, and the rest of the planet finds this out only when Earth is surrounded by a Vogon demolition team and the announcement is made. Earth, it seems, is in the way of a new hyperspace bypass and must be demolished accordingly. But there's something else Arthur doesn't know, and that's that Ford isn't human. He's actually from another planet, and he's on earth doing research for the next edition of the infamous guide book. At the last moment, Ford makes sure that Arthur has a towel, and the two hitch a ride on one of the Vogon ships. If there had been another choice, Ford would never have chosen a Vogon ship for his getaway. Sure enough, the decision proves deadly as the two are summarily pushed out an airlock.

Luckily, Galactic President Zaphod Beeblebrox has stolen a space ship that runs on something called an Infinite Improbability Drive. Since it is almost infinitely improbable that Ford and Arthur would be picked up by another ship before succumbing to the vacuum of space, they are, of course, picked up by Beeblebrox and his crew. Said crew consists solely of another earthling named Trillian (Zooey Deschanel) and a manically depressed robot called Marvin (voiced by Alan Rickman).

Of course, it's bad enough that Arthur must deal with the destruction of his home planet. But now he's got the Galactic authorities after the ship he's in! The Vogon fleet is typically relatively inept, being entirely bound by a runaway bureaucracy. But with the help of Questular Rontok (Anna Chancellor) and her desire to get her hands on Beeblebrox, it could very well be that the Vogons will be successful. Even worse, there's yet one more thing that Arthur doesn't know. That lack of knowledge could prove very harmful to him indeed if he should continue to consider white mice merely harmless lab animals instead of what they really are! Fortunately, he does have his towel and a copy of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy at his disposal.

Martin Freeman is a delightful Arthur. His earnestness overcomes the handicap of his ordinariness, and it turns out he's braver than even he thought he could be. Mos Def is surprisingly good in the role of Ford Prefect who has, in the past, been presented as both white and British himself. Zooey Deschanel manages to be both pretty enough and quirky enough to pull off the role of Trillian (or Tricia McMillan was she was formerly known on earth). Sam Rockwell is just terrific as Beeblebrox. At times, he sounded and behaved a bit like David Spade at others, he was a character all his own. And throughout, his manic behavior and self-centered attitude were never less than amusing to watch. Bill Nighy made a fine Slartibartfast; Alan Rickman was just wonderful as the unutterably depressed Marvin. Finally, John Malkovich appears for a brief time as Humma Kavula, a character that's not in any of the books. Douglas Adams himself, however, apparently added the character to his own version of a movie script (he shares posthumous screen-writing credit for this film) as a device to cut short some more involved explanations for the motivations of some of the other characters.

The movie itself is written and filmed in a style that's more than a little reminiscent of Monty Python. It is not, however, as funny as it could have been — and frankly should have been. The casting is inspired; the special effects are excellent. The droll British humor is admittedly often there, but it seems to me that there were missed opportunities for laughs and that the film would have been the better for it had they not been missed. The fact remains that inveterate Hitchhiker fans will probably be perfectly happy just to see the general storyline onscreen, while those unfamiliar with the books may find themselves wondering what the fuss is all about. That may not, however, be universally true. To wit, I'm a big fan and I liked the movie just fine (despite wishing it were funnier). The woman I went with, however, has never read a single Hitchhiker's book, and she liked the movie just fine, too. It's probably worth grabbing a towel and heading out to the theatre yourself just for a few giggles as well as to actually hear some Vogon poetry for yourself (you'll have to hear it for yourself to understand).

POLITICAL NOTES: It's hard to argue with a movie that makes the point that plans by the authorities are often largely hidden from those members of the public that will be affected by them. In the case of Arthur Dent, the plans for the bypass were posted, but they were posted behind a file cabinet in a basement. In the case of planet Earth, the plans were readily available for some time — on a planet orbiting Alpha Centauri. While I've not heard of plans being hidden or on other planets, it's perfectly fair to say that, with all too much frequency, the authorities do make it difficult for people to see plans or to comment on them; and it's even tougher to get any changes made to those plans.

FAMILY SUITABILITY: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is rated PG for "thematic elements, action, and mild language." While I didn't see anything particularly problematic even for relatively young children, this is not a simple or easily understood movie. That's not because it's so complex but rather because it deals with things so far away from our own frame of reference. Kids are also not likely to think some of the funniest bits are all that funny (the depressed robot is hysterical, but an adult understanding is needed to get the joke). I'd suggest that you get tickets only for your teenagers, and that you hold out for something a little less esoteric for the younger set.

Lady Liberty is a graphic designer and pro-freedom activist currently residing in the Midwest. More of her writings and other political and educational information is available on her web site, Lady Liberty's Constitution Clearing House, at http://www.ladylibrty.com. E-mail Lady Liberty at ladylibrty@ladylibrty.com.

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