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He’s not driven by any sense of justice – he doesn’t save the world because it should be saved. XXX is a new kind of action hero: a badass guy who kicks bad butt only because he’s good at it. And because he has to – or go to jail. Andrew L. Urban reports on the birth of a movie franchise: Triple-X.

We know exactly what sort of guy XXX is from the opening scenes: he is a thieving thrill seeker of extreme proportions. He’s so good at being bad that he attracts the attention of the US secret service, who needs someone just like him to save the world.

"the all-American anti-hero"

When approached to direct XXX, Rob Cohen believed Vin Diesel was the only man who could pull off the central character of Xander Cage, better known as Triple-X. “He is Triple-X. I wouldn’t make this movie without him. I like to refer to Xander Cage as the all-American anti-hero. He’s not the guy who does the right thing because he believes in all the good principles. He’s the guy who does the right thing because that’s what circumstances demand, not conscience. And somebody who has that degree of attitude, defiance, toughness, vulnerability, likeability and soul is Vin Diesel.”

The admiration is mutual: “When you stumble across a great actor-director relationship like the one I found with Rob Cohen on The Fast and the Furious,” says Diesel, “you are quick to get back into that environment again. A big part of my attraction to Triple-X was to work with Rob again.”

Diesel was also pretty intrigued by the character created by screenwriter Rich Wilkes. “The idea of giving birth to a new breed of secret agent was interesting and challenging. What attracts me to projects first is the content, and with Triple-X I was attracted to the concept of a guy who is solely concerned with his own thrill-seeking endeavors. He couldn’t care less about political affairs outside of the ones that directly affect him. I liked the idea that someone like Xander could be called upon to step into the shoes of a secret agent. Taking a guy who’s the least likely to want to save the world, and having him do just that, fascinated me.”

Perhaps that attitude hits the right note in today’s dangerous and cynical world. And it gives licence to extremes in action scenes that set a new adrenaline high.

“Rob Cohen had created action set pieces that raise the bar for movies to come,” says Joe Roth, who should know. He’s the founder of Revolution Studios, and the man who developed high concept movies like Con Air, The Rock and Die Hard.

But there’s something different about XXX; it has a central character unlike any other serious action hero. Or, as director Rob Cohen puts it, “Xander is a rebel without a clue. He is going no place fast, but he’s a man of great skills, which comes to the attention of Agent Augustus Gibbons of the National Security Agency. And therein lies the plot...”

"the King of Cool"

Cohen knew from the start who he wanted for the character of Agent Augustus Gibbons: Samuel L. Jackson. “He’s the King of Cool,” says Cohen. “Sam’s inside his own skin, and he’s completely at ease there. He’s as close to an enlightened man as I have met, because the enlightened man is one who knows himself, the space he occupies and is totally accepting and detached from it at the same time in terms of ego. Sam is that man. He’s self-confident, supremely talented, an ultimate gentleman. He’s got all the charisma one could ever want, and then some. In fact, he would be a trillionaire if he could just sell some of his charisma.”

As it happens, Vin Diesel and Samuel L. Jackson had been looking for the right project to work on together. “We met years ago in London when Vin was doing Saving Private Ryan and I was doing Star Wars Episode I,” recalls Jackson. “We accidentally ran into each other in a sushi bar and spent some time together. We’ve had some common experiences, and our relationship is such that we’ve wanted to work together for awhile.”

Just goes to show – you never know where a simple bite at a sushi bar might lead.

But then came some hard work, disguised as fun. “Part of the draw to this character for me was that I’d have to do three months of preparation and training,” explains Diesel. “So I set out to train with the best rock climbers, motocross, snowboarding and weaponry experts, BASE jumpers and Navy S.E.A.L.S. for underwater work. All of the different aspects of Xander’s proficiency had to be worked out in pre-production. I’m a thrill-seeker myself, to some degree, and I really enjoyed the process.”

The all-important villain, Yorgi, is played by a New Zealand actor – well known there, vaguely known in Australia even, but an unknown in Hollywood. Not any more.

It was casting director Ronna Kress who had recommended Csokas for the role of Yorgi. “She said he was six foot one, very good looking and an incredible actor. Marton travelled to Los Angeles and I sat down with him for a meeting,” recalls Cohen. “ At first, I was a little taken aback, because although Marton was indeed tall, dark and handsome, he was also so shy and mild-mannered that I wondered if he could play a dangerous villain like Yorgi. 

“Marton asked me how I saw the character, and I explained that Yorgi is a military man who was trained to fight for Mother Russia, and lived through the collapse of everything he was taught to believe, which leaves him completely disillusioned. He doesn’t want to run the world, he doesn’t want self-aggrandisement ...Yorgi wants the world, as we know it, to disappear. He wants freedom, but in a way that’s sick, dangerous and twisted. I told Marton that what we wanted was to see Yorgi as a demented genius, which is a kind of villainy that’s much more frightening than a big guy with a lot of guns.

"this guy’s amazing"

“So Marton said quietly, ‘Oh, all right, I understand. Let me give it a try.’ And then, when he started to read a scene from the script in character, he was suddenly seven feet tall! The transition was incredible, it made me sit back in my chair. After Marton left the office, I turned to Ronna and said ‘Let’s get him. Let’s not even look any further. I don’t care who else is out there, this guy’s amazing.’”

Csokas has a clear take on it all: “In a way, both Xander and Yorgi set out to achieve the same thing, initially. Perfect freedom and the end of oppressive systems of belief. But where they depart is that Yorgi wants to save the world by destroying it, and Xander comes to know that there’s a lot worth saving.” Let’s hope it doesn’t turn him into a good guy and spoil the franchise.

Published September 5, 2002

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