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Split & XXX: The Bald & the Boo-tiful

January 21, 2017

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It’s Larry David’s dream come true: This weekend’s two biggest movies star bald men: XXX: The Return of Xander Cage‘s Vin Diesel and Split‘s James McAvoy. No such luck for The Founder‘s Michael Keaton, who sadly receded from the top 10.

The shaven-head stars aren’t the only things XXX and Split have in common: Both also boast “surprise” encore cameos of characters from earlier films: Darius Stone (Ice Cube), who stepped in for Cage in the Diesel-free 2005 sequel XXX: State of the Union, and SPOILER ALERT! Mr. Glass (Bruce Willis) from Split auteur M. Night Shyamalan’s 2000 cult-favorite superhero movie Unbreakable.

But here’s where the movies start to diverge: The lean and mean $9 million-budgeted Split is a hit, expected to draw $35 million over its first three days, while the overblown XXX will be lucky to scrape up $20 million against its $85 million price tag.

I didn’t see the first two XXXs, yet I had no problem following the plot, such as it is. The presumed-dead Cage gets back into action after his mentor, NSA agent Augustus Eugene Gibbons, is apparently killed by a terrorist . That’s a shame, since Samuel L. Jackson (Willis’ Unbreakable co-star—the connections continue!) plays Gibbons, and he gives by far the most fun performance in the movie. And if you really believe Gibbons is dead, you’re dumber than F. Scott Frazier, the presumably pseudonymous screenwriter who penned with this lame-brained script.

Diesel tries so hard to be cool, he’s ice-cold (not to be confused with Ice Cube, who is genuinely cool). The rest of the rainbow-coalition cast, clearly put together to appeal to the international audience who will need to redeem this dud at the box office, includes Rogue One scene-stealer Donnie Yen, Orange is the New Black‘s androgynous Ruby Rose, her fellow Aussie Toni Collette, Bollywood model Deepika Padukone, Chinese-Canadian pop star Kris Wu, Thai martial artist Tony Jaa, British UFC brute Michael Bisping, and ex-NFL tight end Tony Gonzalez (whose cinematic charisma rivals Stone Cold’s Brian Bosworth’s). Oh, and The Vampire Diaries‘ drop-dead gorgeous Nina Dobrev plays a computer nerd—we know that because she wears glasses.

That shows you the level of subtlety to XXX: The Return of Xander Cage. Split isn’t exactly nuanced, either, but McAvoy does deliver a twisted tour de force as a man with 23 different personalities, including a 9-year-old boy and an animalistic creature known only as “the Beast.” He kidnaps a trio of nubile teenage girls and holds them captive as he toggles among his personae and eventually reveals his nefarious plans.

The movie demonizes mental illness and borders on torture porn at times as it lingers over the images of its three damsels in distress in varying stages of undress. Still, Anya Taylor-Joy, the enchanting star of last year’s horror sleeper The Witch, manages to turn her victim into a real flesh-and-blood character, even with her own distasteful “twist” (there are more, as that has long been Shyamalan’s shock-in-trade). And Eight is Enough‘s Betty Buckley contributes her usual solid work as McAvoy’s shrink.

But it’s the bald dudes (including Willis and Jackson) who rule both movies. We live in a deeply divided nation, but we seem to have finally conquered baldism. There may be hope for George Costanza yet.

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