Ice Cube, a glowering teddy bear, is not the sort of guy you expect to erupt into whirling, gymnastic kung fu moves. Yet he turns his limbs into weapons with surprising grace in XXX: State of the Union. His moves grow right out of the scowling nihilism with which he plays Darius Stone, a disaffected special-ops soldier with roots in the hood who gets plucked from prison (by a scowlier-than-usual Samuel L. Jackson) to fight the government rogues who played him for a sucker. State of the Union has more preposterous excitement in its opening five minutes than the first XXX, starring Vin Diesel and his cornball monotone, did in its entire two hours. This is a B movie rooted in gut-level stirrings of power and retaliation.
Though the director, Lee Tamahori (Die Another Day), doesn't go 15 minutes without blowing something up, Tamahori, a lean demon of the close call, stages the slow-mo helicopter leaps and crunched-metal climaxes with a timing and finesse that turn sadism into play. As the secretary of defense, who plans a takeover of the U.S. government, Willem Dafoe resembles Donald Rumsfeld in his hair and diamond eyes only; yet Dafoe, with his rattlesnake charm, creates a witty comic-book X-ray of American military arrogance. The central joke is that Darius, the black superspy, has zero patience for these power-mad white hypocrites, and if Ice Cube's performance keeps hitting the same note of disgruntled cool, it's a note you never doubt.