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While Vin Diesel was sucking on The Pacifier, Ice Cube was stepping into the bald one’s XXX shoes, in yet another sequel the meathead decided to ditch. 2 Fast 2 Furious? Understandable that Diesel took a pass. The Washington-based XXX: State of the Union? Well, that was a mistake. Though no one will mistake it for, say, Enemy of the State, this latest franchise flick is a marked improvement on the ludicrous first installment—which means, basically, that there’s not as much to make fun of. That’s due in large part to the script by freshman writer Simon Kinberg, who took over Rich Wilkes’ characters and feeds the new Triple X one-liners (including a nod to a Marion Barry classic: “She set me up. Bitch!”) that our leading man can actually pull off. (Diesel trying to be funny was not a pretty sight.) Kinberg’s tough talk is still action-flick-absurd, of course, but he maintains a rhythm that’s nearly Mametian as all the goons strong-arm one another. The plot itself is practically nonsensical, something about an unfamiliar breed of terrorists bombing their way into the National Security Agency, leading Agent Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson) to yelp that the gang needs a new XXX agent-for-hire who’s “all attitude—not another snowboarder, skater, or biker!” Director Lee Tamahori (Die Another Day) then cuts to a close-up of the snarling Darius Stone (Cube) being led down a prison hallway. Add a rather cool sequence in which the bad guys power-tunnel their way into underground NSA quarters, and State of the Union has already demonstrated more finesse than its predecessor. There are still plenty of things to make you go, “Huh?”—a faked murder, the terrorists’ connection to an evil secretary of defense (Willem Dafoe), and the usual bedlam that ensues when every other object onscreen is blowing up. Cube, who gets to do things such as freefall until he latches onto a helicopter like a trapeze and drive a car at 160 mph on some train tracks (sometimes to his own music), proves a worthy action hero, capable of both workin’ the ladies and winning the guys’ respect without going all Will Smith on us. Let’s just hope he doesn’t sign on for Pacifier 2. —Tricia Olszewski