Vin Diesel, Donnie Yen and Tony Jaa on xXx: Return of Xander Cage and the beauty of multicultural casting

With Indian, Chinese and Thai co-stars, it’s a global cast for a global audience, says Diesel of his latest action outing as master spy Cage

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 January, 2017, 9:03am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 January, 2017, 5:29pm

Fifteen years since Vin Diesel played extreme sports-loving espionage agent Xander Cage in xXx , the star can takes some credit for changing the Hollywood spy movie.

Back then, the James Bond franchise was wheezing along with the much-maligned Die Another Day . When xXx arrived, says Diesel, “they went grittier – hired a new Bond and relaunched that franchise with Casino Royale to try to speak to that grittiness that Xander had. But beyond that, all the other secret agent movies failed to be truly contemporary.”

It’s a bold claim, when you consider the Jason Bourne and Mission: Impossible movies. But then the 50-year-old Diesel has a point: Bond, Bourne and M.I.’s Ethan Hunt are still all Caucasian heroes frequently fighting foreign assailants.

On the other hand, xXx: Return of Xander Cage represents something modern: not in its story so much – with agents chasing after a gadget called Pandora’s Box – but in the multicultural casting. From Bollywood’s Deepika Padukone to Asian stars Kris Wu Yifan, Donnie Yen Ji-dan and Tony Jaa, the new sequel is a Diesel dream come true.

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Much of it he puts down to the success of The Fast and the Furious, his all-action franchise that tapped into hitherto underserved markets by casting across continents. Diesel wanted the same for xXx. “The idea was to create a cast that knew no boundaries and didn’t allow the restraints of Hollywood to hold us back from casting in a truly international way,” he says. “We scoured the Earth for the cast that lives in this movie. It’s a global cast for a global audience.”

Diesel had already worked with Jaa on Furious 7. Famed for his Ong Bak movies, the Thai action star – here playing a character called Talon – calls it “a good opportunity” to come to Hollywood and make a movie like xXx: Return of Xander Cage.

“When I was young, I was inspired by Jackie Chan but also Hollywood movies – Sylvester Stallone, Tom Hanks,” he says. Coming to America – or rather Canada, as the film was shot in Toronto – was the ideal chance to fly his nation’s flag. “I want to represent Thai culture, Thai movies and Thai boxing.”

Unlike the original xXx or its Diesel-free 2005 sequel xXx: State of the Union (which cast rapper Ice Cube as another triple X agent), this latest instalment is all about teamwork, with two rival teams pursuing the Pandora’s Box.

Cage’s group includes Game of Thrones’ Rory McCann, Orange is the New Black star Ruby Rose and Kris Wu, the Chinese-Canadian actor-singer who began his screen career with notable titles such as Mr. Six , The Mermaid and Never Gone . Here, he plays Nicks, a party-animal DJ who hooks up with Cage and his extreme sports buddies.

“I want to be open to new stuff; I think this will help me a lot in my acting career,” says Wu of his Hollywood debut. “So I definitely wanted to be in this movie. The difference is the language: reading scripts in English, coming to set and everyone is speaking English, saying your lines in English.”

What about the way a Hollywood set operates? “That’s different too,” he agrees. “You’ll see small details [between] a Chinese crew, and how they work, and how they work here.”

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Led by Yen’s antagonist Xiang, the other team comprises Padukone, Jaa and British-born MMA fighter Michael Bisping. So how can you describe them?

“Better looking than the Ocean’s Thirteen and younger than The Expendables!” Yen says with a laugh. “My role has a lot of weight and substance, compared to most of the Asian or Chinese characters that you see in Hollywood movies. Most of the time when you see an Asian guy, usually he’s the kung fu master – the stoic cliché. This is a role that is not written for a Chinese man, so that inspired me a lot.”

Even before the Hong Kong martial arts star featured as the blind warrior Chirrut Imwe in the recent Rogue One: A Star Wars Story , US audiences were already warming to him, says xXx director D.J. Caruso, who recalls one particular test screening.

“People were saying, ‘I love Donnie Yen!’ I never thought an American audience in the middle of Arizona would know who Donnie Yen is. This globalisation of cinema is so cool to see. You don’t have any credits [on the film] when you do a preview – and they were still saying, ‘I love Donnie Yen!’”

Of course, bringing in the likes of Yen and Jaa is not just about appealing to the Asian audience. Both men are more than capable of doing their own stunts, which adds to the film’s authenticity.

“They’ve really different styles and really different personalities,” says Caruso. “Along with someone like Vin … it was great to have that combination on set. You’re looking at Tony Jaa, with that Ong Bak style, he’s like an aerial acrobat fighter. And Donnie Yen is just so precise and so wonderfully fast and explosive.”

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For Diesel, returning to the role of Cage presented a maelstrom of emotions. Back in 2005, after watching Ice Cube take up the mantle, he felt immediate regret.

“I remember feeling as though a lot of the fans of the first xXx were let down that I didn’t return to the second one. That was at a time earlier in my career where I would turn down movies because of the script – because I had that old-millennium philosophy that the script has to be perfect before you film a movie.”

While he spent the next few years trying to relaunch the series with Cage back in the frame, when it came together, the reasons were more emotional. “If it wasn’t for a darker period of my life – or the experience of finishing Furious 7 – I might not have fought so hard to play a character so fun.”

He’s referring, of course, to his friend and Fast and the Furious co-star Paul Walker, who died during the making of Furious 7. This tragic event left Diesel devastated and emotionally spent.

“I needed to play Xander now more than ever in my life,” he says, “recognising my own personal need to play a character that fun and that liberating, and that irreverent and that outrageous. For someone who has played so many stellar and serious characters, it was something truly therapeutic and something I really needed to do.”

As Caruso recalls, “We were about halfway through, and Vin said, ‘I haven’t had this much fun in a movie in a long time and I haven’t laughed this much since we lost Paul.’” The way he sees it, Cage brings out Diesel’s lighter side. “It’s a character that allows him to relax and have fun. He’s not brooding, he’s not too heavy. So it allowed that part of Vin’s personality to resurface.”

xXx: Return of Xander Cage opens on January 19

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