Interview | D.J. Caruso on ‘xXx: Return of Xander Cage’ and Super DJs

The director tells us about the latest evolution of the franchise and why xXx's big, furry jacket matters.

William Bibbianiby William Bibbiani

You gotta love a good XXX movie, and this weekend there was a new one in theaters. Or rather, there was a new “xXx” movie in theaters. Similar sexy, feel-good thrills if we’re being honest about it.

Yes, Xander Cage returns in xXx: Return of Xander Cage, the third film in the xXx franchise. It’s another “extreme” action thriller, about a team of talented rebels who are enlisted by the government to save the world. Their skills aren’t of the normal superspy variety. They’re extreme sports stars, stuntpersons and kick-ass DJ’s, and they use those abilities to fight bad guys, and team up with other bad guys to stop worse guys.

xXx: Return of Xander Cage is a heck of a lot of fun, honestly, so I got director D.J. Caruso on the phone to talk more about how this franchise has evolved over the years. What started as a response to James Bond movies now plays a heck of a lot more like The Avengers, and what used to feel contemporary now has an undeniable air of nostalgia. And of course we talked about that absurd coat the Vin Diesel likes to wear in these movies, because why wouldn’t we?

xXx: Return of Xander Cage is now playing at a theater near you.

Paramount Pictures

Paramount Pictures

Crave: You have directed a very entertaining movie, and I don’t want to put words in your mouth but it sure as hell seems like that’s what you were going for.

D.J. Caruso: [Laughs.] Yeah, yeah, you know it was one of those where we just decided let’s make sure we’re having fun. Xander is a character who is a rebellious, sort of reluctant patriot, and let’s just sort of have fun. It was really inspired slightly by… well, encouraged… it was my first instinct but I was encouraged when I saw Deadpool last year. I had so much fun. I had such an unexpected time of just going, okay, this is great. I’m laughing, I’m a having a great time, it’s outrageous, it’s fun.

And Xander Cage and this new crew of characters that we’re bringing around are incredibly talented. I can do action that is sort of extreme and push the boundaries of outrageousness but at the same time, let’s just have fun. Let’s just have people sit back and have a really fucking good time. That was the intent from the get go.

The original xXx seemed like it was a reaction James Bond movies, and indeed a guy entirely like James Bond got killed in the opening scene, just to say that this was going to be new.

Right.

Your version, on the other hand, namechecks superhero cinema a couple of times. You just mentioned Deadpool. It does play bigger and broader. Does the existence and popularity of the superhero genre change what xXx is…?

I think it changes it a little, the landscape, the action style. I think it’s one of those things too where you go, okay, I was treating these characters as they’re superhero types without super powers. They’re just extreme. They all have something amazing that they do, whether it’s the way Donnie Yen fights, Tony Jaa fights, Vin’s got that right hook, Adele is a sniper… everyone has their own thing.

But I think it felt to me as if that, in order to advance this franchise and reintroduce Xander fifteen years later, that everything’s sort of changed. The world has shrunk. It’s a global marketplace. It was sort of a machismo male action movie. Which is great, I’m not saying this [new movie] isn’t, this will still satisfy that. But I feel like in order to advance the franchise we have to push it in this direction.

Paramount Pictures

Paramount Pictures

You pushed it in the direction of an ensemble cast. I wonder how much of that is because you just thought it was cool, how much of it is trying to appeal to a larger demographic or global marketplace, and how much of that is setting the stage for future franchise installments?

I think it basically was, once we decided in the initial development stage that in order for Sam Jackson’s character, Gibbons, to keep xXx going and to maintain, let’s say who would he need to bring in and how would handle this? Who would need to take in? So obviously there was the second movie with Darius Stone, but who would he take in and how would it work? That gave us the permission to say let’s make this a world organization, based here, and if that’s the case… I was at the time going, “Jackie Chan could be in xXx!” Or whoever that could be. And as it started to develop I realized, god, wouldn’t it be great to get Donnie Yen?

So it kind of opened the door. Once we decided that was the way we were going to go, it opened that door. And then you thought, taking your actors from India is great, but the Indian film market for an American movie, you’re not going to reap the benefits from that in a way that you would if you’re… it’s not like making $100 million in China or Brazil. So it really was just she was the most interesting actress that I had come across, Deepika [Padukone], when I sought for this role. I was completely blown away by [her], and she fit the global profile not from a business standpoint, just based on the movie that we were making.

Yeah, of course it helps when you have Donnie Yen and Kris Wu from China. Hopefully that’ll help us at the Chinese box office. It didn’t seem to kick Rogue One into another place so I’m not sure if that guarantees anything, but the studio liked the idea of what we were doing. I think it made great business and it also made a synergistic sense from in helping create this new world of xXx agents.

The original xXx was in many respects trying to refute nostalgia for certain action movie stereotypes, but it’s been so long since the last xXx that the marketing has kind of portrayed this as almost a nostalgic movie for films like xXx in the early 2000s. What’s your take on that? What is xXx’s relationship with trying to be of its time, or not of its time?

That’s interesting. I think it serves… yeah, I guess it does try to harken back to nostalgia, with Xander Cage has returned, and I think it’s interesting because even though you say “early 2000s” to me it felt like, and this is a compliment in a way, it felt like one of those late 80s, mid-90s action movies where action action was sort of crazy and outrageous but it was sort of the time when American action movies were kind of the Die Hards, the Lethal Weapons, however it would be. It’s sort of in that category. I think it’s kind of harkening back a little to that.

I don’t know if you think the marketing is maybe capitalizing a little on that nostalgia, which is sort of the antithesis of what the first film was, but I feel like – for me anyway, I can only speak for my standpoint – I was saying “How do I pay homage to ‘I live for this shit,’” and “I need to put that jacket in the movie because I remember that fucking jacket,” the swag he had on that jacket. So how do I do that so that the true fans will go, “Great, you’re being respectful of the franchise,” but also thinking I have to launch this for a whole new audience? In order for this to work and be exciting and entertaining to a new audience, how do we do that?

So I think the marketing is kind of playing a little on the nostalgia in what was, and also selling it for, hopefully, as a good starting point for someone who’s new coming into the franchise.

Paramount Pictures

Paramount Pictures

Tell me about the jacket. He had that big furry jacket in the first film but you could’ve just had him have that jacket. Instead you had him go to another country, confer with a hacker, sleep with all the hacker’s… assistants, I guess? Just to get the jacket back? Why was it so important to have that sequence?

[Laughs.] You know what’s so funny about the jacket to me is, the more I investigated it… for me what I always thought when I was watching it – being a filmmaker – was, “Okay, someone in Prague gave him that jacket to walk from his trailer to the soundstage, and it was just like this really warm ridiculous jacket that Vin decided he was going to keep on and wear in the scene.” That’s what it reminded me of. There was such an outrageousness for it. And then hearing the story about how [Mark] Zuckerberg bought the jacket and gave it to his right hand man because one of their mantras was “I live for this shit,” right? So realizing that that jacket kind of has this history, that Mark Zuckerberg bought this jacket, there was such a folklore built around the jacket. And Vin loved the idea of the jacket so he said, “You find a way to do that.”

Hermione [Corfield] ’s character, Ainsley, wasn’t in one of the earlier drafts that we did. There was some simple way that he found where they were hiding out. So once we came up with her I thought, okay, wouldn’t that be interesting if we did that? It was on a whim. It was almost like the day before we shot it and I decided let’s throw this line in here and see if we can go with it, so when we see him with the jacket it can kind of come back. I tell you, when you’re sitting with the audience there’s always your first test screening, and when he says “I want to find my jacket” they all start laughing, you realize there’s something about that that is interesting for everybody.

Tell me about the word “extreme,” because it’s a word that became kind of a buzz word. It kind of stopped meaning anything terribly important. It became a marketing thing. But it’s always what the xXx franchise is built on. What does “extreme” mean to you?

I think “extreme” just means taking something that might seem familiar and pushing it further, taking the risk, that this person who’s extreme is going to take a risk a normal person will not take. You know it’s really interesting you say that because as you were saying that, I remember when I was prepping this film… remember the remake of Point Break that came out?

Yeah.

It’s like, “these are extreme athletes… these are extreme athletes… this is why they can do this and extreme athletes! Extreme athletes and extreme athletes!” and I realized that wasn’t working in the campaign. And obviously it didn’t work, the movie was a damn good movie but it didn’t get anybody there. Because I think they were just selling it on the extreme athleticism or “This is an X Games athlete who became a super agent.” Wasn’t really enough for me.

So I think the extreme aspect of it is all these unique individuals. Like Donnie Yen’s character is incredibly extreme. He’s going to jump off a building, plow through a window and literally get out of a room where there’s 40 people with guns and he comes in with no guns. That’s extreme. Riding a motorcycle on the water when people can only ride it on land, that’s extreme. Skiing in the jungle without snow, that’s extreme. So to me that’s what extreme is in relation to xXx.

Paramount Pictures

Paramount Pictures

How is DJ’ing “extreme?” It seems like a lot of these people have superpowers that have to do with sports or martial arts but one of our heroes can just really DJ super hard.

Well that was my idea from the get go, because I always thought we’ve seen these movies. You try to avoid the cliché. “How do we do this? This guy is this kind of expert.” The idea with Nicks was always from the get go, like we just want one guy, the only thing is he’s fun to have around. He’s hung around with Xander, he’s DJ’ed at the X Games where he learned a little bit of gunplay. But the idea with Nix literally was that he just never had anything special. He wasn’t really necessarily an extreme athlete but he met Xander, met him through all the X Games through the years when he was DJ’ing in the 15 years he’s been hiding out, and the idea to have one character who literally was just fun to have around was just an idea we had from the get go.

Is there ever a point when you’re making a movie, when you’re developing the movie, when you come up with an idea or someone presents you with an idea and you actually go “That’s just too stupid?” Or is everything fair game in xXx?

Everything’s almost fair game in xXx but there are a few things that might go a little too far or might be too stupid. Like there was a scene where Vin comes into the café where Hermione is basically [has an] ankle bracelet, she’s under house arrest, at the café below her pool after he’s got his jacket. There was the idea where he was coming in whistling the theme from Oliver Twist or something like that. That’s where you go, “Okay, it’s alright, it’s cute, we’re all laughing on the set, but that’s like pushing it too far.”

There’s always those moments that you just police on the set to make sure, “Okay, we’re pushing it, it’s fine and we’re laughing. You know what? For the regular audience that’s going to be something that’s not going to be great for the character.” So you kind of pull yourself back.

Paramount Pictures

Paramount Pictures

One thing I think is interesting about [Xander Cage], particularly in this film, is he’s very cheerful. And even though he kills a lot of people, even though he has sex with a lot of people, he never drinks. Was there like a note? “xXx doesn’t drink? We don’t want to promote that kind of behavior?” or did that just sort of happen?

No. Vin really liked the idea of bringing back one of the moments from the [first] movie where he orders the cranberry and club soda. He doesn’t drink. When you’re on point you don’t drink to make sure you perform at a certain level in extreme situations. You wouldn’t drink. So it was kind of a conscious decision. It was really inspired to make him someone that doesn’t drink. And the fun aspect of it was really just, that’s who Xander was.

When I had first met Vin I kind of expected kind of a dark, kind of a brooding guy because I’d kind of been Dom’ed out a little bit, you know? But when I saw him in real life he’s kind of wacky and fun and outrageous and comes to set with his own walk-in music every day just to get him all pumped up, and the whole crew gets pumped up and they clap. You see that, so I thought that’s the Xander I’d like to bring out. Because I think everyone’s so familiar with, particularly the new younger audience who only know some of the last [Fast and Furious movies] and might not know Vin as some other character… I thought Xander was at least Vin having fun, so I wanted to celebrate that and help him push that envelope where he has fun.

In the original xXx it just seemed like the character was a bit broodier, and maybe coming from a more severe, dark background. Is the goal with xXx: Return of the Xander Cage to make him more heroic? More aspirational? Someone kids can look up to?

Well, I don’t know if it’s so much… it’s still sort of the same rebel who does what he does. I guess that’s what I always thought. Like you know, he poses the question: there’s no more patriots, there’s either rebels or there’s tyrants. This is a guy who fell into that patriotic aspect of it.

I think Xander and the entire cast is what I was hoping everyone would look up to because these are really unique individuals, and I think Xander is sort of a celebration of being who you are. And if you are who you are, particularly nowadays, it shows you that if you can collectively bring together a group of incredibly diverse individuals, all different cultures, one who can really only DJ and fire a gun, one who’s an amazing sniper, whatever they are the collective power of the individuals is something that should be celebrated.

So that was a conscious choice by all of us since the beginning. That was a theme for me as a filmmaker. You know, even in a movie like xXx you want to have a theme. It was sort of a celebration of the individual and the collector power of being the individual and not having to worry about what side of the fence you’re on.

The spy genre, the action genres, films that take place on a world stage and political stage have a tendency to reflect the era in which they are produced, and there’s a lot going on in the world right now in terms of politics. How do you films like xXx movies, or other similar films in different genres and franchises, are going to respond? Could you make this movie next year or would it be a different film?

I think you could make this movie next year, and I think I would push the theme of what Sam [Jackson] sort of says in his intro when he’s selling it. “We watch the watchers,” right? xXx watches the watchers. I think that the political climate, even having taken this movie down to Mexico, we had our Mexico City premiere and the question came up about the political environment here and the difference. I would say that you can push the xXx, the extreme.

If the franchise is to succeed and move one, next year’s version of the movie would really push the idea that someone needs to be watching the watchers and that’s going to be this xXx team. How other spy genres and stuff respond will be interesting because all the Wikileaks, with all this fake news, all this other stuff that’s going on… it will be interesting to see where they go. But I think as it relates to xXx it would be, we’re going to be this agency. We’re going to watch the watchers all over the world because we don’t trust the world leaders.

Top Photo: Victor Chavez/Getty Images for Paramount Pictures

William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon, and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most CravedRapid Reviews and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.