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With Ice Cube in on the action, 'XXX' sequel offers a bigger bang

There are really only two kinds of big-budget action movies: stupid, and good and stupid. Surprisingly, ''XXX: State of the Union" is good and stupid, which makes it an immediate improvement over 2002's meatheaded ''XXX." The difference between sequel and original is exactly the difference between Ice Cube and Vin Diesel.

Well, that's not exactly true. ''XXX: State of the Union" also has a more loopily enjoyable B-movie plot, some impressively ridiculous stunts, a serious car fetish, and a racial chip on its shoulder that breathes interesting new life into the old macho cliches. This is, quite intentionally, a Bond movie reconfigured to play in the 'hood. (No surprise, director Lee Tamahori helmed the last 007 installment.) Luckily, ''XXX" doesn't turn Ice Cube into an action figure so much as bring the action genre to Ice Cube.

Still, it remains profoundly dumb stuff, bent on pleasing an audience for whom the bigger the explosion the better. The mayhem starts with an assault on an underground defense department bunker near Washington, D.C. Top dog Augustus Givens (a returning Samuel L. Jackson) needs a new ''extreme agent" to get to the bottom of it, and since the news comes in that Diesel's Xander Cage has been killed in Bora Bora (sounds of cheers from the back row), Givens goes with his ex-Navy Seal comrade Darius Stone (Ice Cube).

First, however, the spymaster has to get Stone out of military prison, where he has served 10 years for leading a mutiny against his commanding general in Kosovo. Just so you know, that same general, Deckard, had ordered the death of innocent civilians, is currently the Secretary of Defense, is played by Willem Dafoe, and since Dafoe doesn't bother to show up for Hollywood studio movies these days unless he can ooze evil from his follicles, well, you can see where this is going. Especially since the US president is played by Peter Strauss as a somewhat less impactful John Kerry.

But all this is an excuse to get Stone back to his stomping grounds in southeast D.C., where he visits a chop shop manned by rapper Xzibit and -- of course! -- a crew of scantily clad female automotive experts. The true car junkie is Stone's ex-girlfriend Lola (Nona Gaye), who has moved uptown and is selling half-million-dollar Shelby Cobra concept cars to senators who never get out of first gear. Both Stone and the movie seem much more interested in the automobiles than the women, though, which is in keeping with the teenboy-friendly PG-13 rating. The Cobra, the modified 1967 GTO muscle car, and the Ford 150 urban assault vehicle all have more personality than Lola.

Eventually, Stone works his way up to commandeering a tank on top of an aircraft carrier, gleefully bobbing and weaving as Deckard's men fire away at their own artillery. And there's a bit with an inflatable motorboat driving up a ramp, onto a bridge and on top of a police car that defies belief even as you're hooting in destructo adolescent delight. By contrast, a climactic chase and fight scene on the president's personal bullet train leans too heavily on CGI animation and the movie ''Speed." By that point, it doesn't matter who the star is -- the action-movie machinery has taken over.

Until then, Ice Cube has managed to stay himself. The actor has bulked up but not to the point of freakishness, and he smartly lets the film edit around him during the melees. Why is his sullen, weary hostility more palatable than Vin Diesel's? Simple: Ice Cube doesn't smirk, and he wears his grievances as though he has earned them. That may merely be a matter of persona -- Ice Cube has been a well-paid star for more than 15 years now -- but, as with all true movie stars, the persona is vivid enough to trump reality.

As for the rest of the cast, Jackson's Givens comes and goes, sometimes not of his own free will, and Michael Roof reprises his role as Tobey, the yuppie-nerd gadget geek from the first film. Scott Speedman, former boy-hunk of TV's ''Felicity," pops up as Kyle Steele (how come no one in these movies is ever named Bob Cottonball?), an NSA agent who suspects Stone might not be the crazed terrorist Deckard insists he is. There's also a lissome blonde senatorial aide named Charlie (Sunny Mabrey), with whom Stone nervously flirts before backing down. This has nothing to do with the character's professed black pride and everything to do with the movie's box-office prospects in the deep south and overseas.

In other respects, ''XXX" meets Hip-Hop Nation a little more than halfway, and its patriotism is amusingly conflicted. ''The fate of the free world's in the hands of a bunch of hustlers and thieves," says someone as Stone's impromptu homeboy army prepares to go into battle against Deckard's troops. ''Why should tonight be any different?" responds Stone. But revolution isn't really on this movie's mind. Yes, the President of the United States quotes Tupac, but the soundtrack version of Public Enemy's ''Fight the Power" is by the heavy-metal-bonehead band Korn, and it sounds very much like corporate business as usual.

Ty Burr can be reached at

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