XXX, the fantastically stupid Vin Diesel vehicle from 2002, starts with a shaky premise: James Bond is done. The world has changed, and he can't survive. You can understand how someone might've arrived at that conclusion. The Pierce Brosnan era was nearing its bloated end, and Die Another Day, with its dumb invisible car, would come out later that same year. But here's where the team behind XXX figured the Bond franchise went wrong: Mr. 007 couldn't skateboard. He didn't play video games. He didn't have a belly-button tattoo. In this movie's opening scene, a tuxedo-clad Bond clone meets a sad end because, swear to God, he couldn't blend in at a Rammstein show. The world, clearly, was searching for a new type of hero: the type who understands Rammstein-show protocol. The world needed Vin Diesel.

This movie seemed perfectly ridiculous when it came out: It quite obviously aimed to exploit the living hell out of youth culture without having any idea what that culture is or how it works. I saw it opening weekend, possibly while drunk, at a midnight multiplex showing, and my friends and I just fucking howled through the entire thing. But somehow, XXX is even funnier now. It screams 2002 the same way that, say, The Running Man screams 1987. Before the movie's plot even kicks in, we get Mat Hoffman excitedly saying, "Word!" We get Eve announcing that "I'm trying to run an underground website here!!" We get Tony Hawk excitedly gaping as Vin Diesel crashes a Corvette into a rocky gorge, parachuting to safety while Drowning Pool's "Bodies" booms on the soundtrack. Not long after, there's an "Is that your final answer?" joke. The movie couldn't be any more early '00s if it actually invaded Iraq. It's absolutely glorious nonsense.

The earliest parts are the best, though, due to the filmmakers' clear desire to pound home the point that this isn't your daddy's secret agent. Diesel plays Xander Cage, an extreme-sports star and pre-YouTube viral sensation who speaks entirely in marbled, snarked-out catchphrases. He specializes in "tricks" aimed at humiliating the enemies of Young People. That Corvette, for instance, belongs to a state senator who wants to ban rap music and video games. (Cage, on video games: "That's the only education we got, man!") Meanwhile, proto-NSA functionary Samuel L. Jackson is dealing with a Russian ex-military terrorist group called Anarchy 99, but they've proven elusive, because Anarchy 99 can "smell the military training" on America's agents. Jackson loves Cage's "attitude," so he arrests him and blackmails him into becoming a new form of secret agent. It's all terribly plausible.

Jackson's whole performance is basically a dry run at his current Nick Fury guise, with a gnarly latex-makeup situation instead of an eyepatch. He throws Cage into situations—a diner stickup, a Colombian cocaine-field raid—to see how he'll react. During the Colombian scene, we get Danny Trejo, in the most Danny Trejo role ever conceived, as a cartel heavy who spouts awkwardly screenwritten threats. ("Hey, funny guy! Maybe I'll cut off your nose first, huh, funny guy?") And during his escape from the compound, Cage makes sure to jump a dirtbike at least 15 times. It wouldn't be an extreme-sports action movie if it only had a couple of motorcycle jumps, after all.

XXX turns into more of a rote Bond-movie clone once Diesel actually joins the program, jetting off to Prague to infiltrate Anarchy 99. He defuses bombs, blows up cars, survives shootouts in ancient villains'-lair hallways. There are enough double-crosses that you stop caring who's aligned with whom. Even then, though, the movie keeps up its heightened dream-reality silliness. We get Diesel and Anarchy 99's leader bonding over random-ass old Vandals lyrics. We get a scene in a nightclub full of gigantic Tesla coils. We get one henchman who looks like Brian Bosworth and another who looks like an eight-foot Viking. We get a wakeboarding scene set to Hatebreed's "I Will Be Heard." We get Diesel jumping a motorcycle over a castle wall and shooting a henchman while doing a no-hands trick. We get him escaping an assassin by riding a dinner tray like it was a skateboard. We get Asia Argento pouting sexily (the one aspect of the movie that has not aged absurdly). And finally, we get Diesel ziplining from an American-flag parachute onto a drone submarine, the fate of the free world hanging in the balance.

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Director Rob Cohen was an old-school schlockmeister who'd been around Hollywood forever. (He had an executive-producer credit on the aforementioned Running Man, for instance.) He's still at it: He made this year's reportedly dumber-than-dirt Jennifer Lopez thriller The Boy Next Door. The year before XXX, though, he'd hit unexpected paydirt, scoring a huge hit with the original The Fast and the Furious and making a star out of Diesel in the process; both Cohen and Diesel decided they wanted out of the franchise after that first movie, which would be a bad move for both. (Diesel would return soon enough.) And this was actually a pretty big hit, actually, making its $70 million budget back a few times over.

I can't imagine anyone looks back on it with anything resembling pride, though. The movie chases the teenage-male dollar so hard that it absolutely leaves behind any trace of plausibility. It's underselling things to state that it insults the audience's intelligence; it's more that the idea of the audience's intelligence never even occurred to anyone involved. But this is, of course, what makes XXX such a ridiculously fun viewing experience right now. It's funnier than you can possibly imagine.

Somewhere under all the bullshit, though, there are a few signs of a competently made action movie. The movie has its share of bad CGI and worse greenscreening, but it also has some legitimately dangerous and even deadly stunts. (Diesel's stunt double actually died while filming that zipline scene.) It's not possible to be legitimately thrilled at any of those stunts, since the characters attached to them are so resolutely unreal. But it's plenty possible to respect the craft of what you're seeing.

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And anyway, the screenwriters were right that the Bond franchise needed a kick in the ass; their tatted-up-mook solution just turned out to be laughably dumb. The Bourne Identity, which came out a few months before, turned out to be the reinvention that secret-agent flicks needed: dense and paranoid and soulful and relatively free of pandering nonsense. (At no point does Matt Damon tell a bazooka-toting Czech cop to "start thinking Playstation! Blow shit up!") And when the Bond movies themselves reinvigorated themselves a few years later with Daniel Craig and Casino Royale, it was the Bourne movies they were building on. Whereas XXX, sadly, had no influence whatsoever; another director would make a flop of a sequel a few years later, replacing Diesel with Ice Cube as a reformed gangbanger. I haven't watched it. A XXX movie without extreme-sports bullshit is, after all, not a real XXX movie. We have to draw the line somewhere.


Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he's written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, GQ, Grantland, and the Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.

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Netflix Instant doesn't have to feel like a depleted Blockbuster in 1990, where you spend half an hour browsing hopeless straight-to-video thrillers before saying "fuck it" and loading up another Archer. Streaming services can be an absolute treasure trove, particularly if you like action movies, and especially if you like foreign action movies. Every week in this space, we'll highlight a new one.

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