XXXtreme spying: Diesel's new film not quite so Furious

Where are the drive-ins when we need them? Between XXX this week and Blue Crush next week, it's like we're back in the '60s, but with bigger budgets and more extreme, sometimes computer-enhanced, stunt work.

Last year director Rob Cohen and star Vin Diesel gave us The Fast and the Furious, which may have been the greatest drive-in movie of all time. This year they collaborate again on XXX, an attempt to raise everything to the next level. The result's not bad, but it proves that while more money can buy bigger and better stunts and more exotic locations, it can't buy a better movie.

The Fast and the Furious was fed by a purer hunger, an eagerness for success, and perhaps a quest for artistic achievement, even within a genre. If you watch American Idol, you've seen contestants evolve from week to week as their confidence grows, advisers work on packaging their talent, and they become more addicted to audience feedback. In the same way, Cohen and Diesel have had a taste of success and want more. That's not hunger, it's greed. It's the difference between the feeling you have on an empty stomach and your craving for dessert after a satisfying entrée.

At least Cohen and Diesel are still willing to work for success at this point and give audiences their money's worth. Instead of grinding out a 15-minutes-shorter Fast and the Furious 2 they've applied some of the same story elements to a different genre and created a James Bond for the rock and roll generation.

Again a hero infiltrates a gang with which he has a certain amount of sympathy, but this time Diesel is the hero, and we're operating on an international scale. Diesel plays Xander Cage, known as "X" and identified by a "XXX" tattoo on the back of his neck. He's an unlikely combination of minor felon and high-profile extreme sports star with a number of videos in circulation.

NSA Agent Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson, not as underused as he was in Star Wars, but still operating well below capacity) comes up with the idea of recruiting criminals to work for the agency: "The best and brightest and bottom of the barrel.... They're programmable, they're dependable, and they work." Debatable reasoning, but let's not shoot down the premise so quickly; besides, it gets him X, in exchange for immunity from prosecution.

The target is Anarchy 99, an ex-military group based in Prague that's been doing business with Russians who specialize in biological weapons. Their leader is Yorgy (Marton Csokas), whose goal is to bring down all the world's governments. X isn't a big fan of governments either, so it takes some time before his repulsion at Yorgy's methods wins out.

There's also a woman, Yelena (Asia Argento), who's with Yorgy and couldn't be slower to warm to X if she were a lesbian. But, don't you know, she eventually does. Between secret agents, loose allegiances, and the easily swayed, there are more people changing sides in this movie than at a bisexual orgy. On this level of screenwriting, that passes for character development.

XXX is about action, not character. Diesel, now a full-fledged action star, is our character, and his attitude will appeal to the young male demographic that gets off on the film's extreme sports and heavy metal music.

The action becomes ever more plentiful as the movie progresses– on land, in the air, on and under the water. You've got X driving off a bridge, skiing ahead of the avalanche he started, and making you believe a dirt bike can fly. You've also got a computer grafting Diesel's face onto his stunt double's body, but that's the 21st century for you. Somehow stunts seemed more exciting when you could believe your eyes, even if you knew the stars weren't really doing them.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about XXX is the way Cohen inserts grace notes in the climax in the form of snapshots of everyday people going about their normal lives, unaware that they're on the verge of being annihilated by the stuff on that amphibious craft zooming down the river. A bit more such texture would have been a welcome relief from the nonstop, balls-to-the-wall action of the second hour, but this ain't an art film.

I'm probably reading too much into the differences between The Fast and the Furious and XXX. The simple fact is that last year's movie came as a surprise, and now our expectations have been raised. Still, the target audience will have no reason to be disappointed.