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XXX: STATE OF THE UNION *** (Out of four)

Rated: PG-13

Ice Cube, Willem Dafoe, Samuel L. Jackson, Peter Strauss, Scott Speedman and Nona Gaye in Lee Tamahori's sequel to the FX-filled secret agent saga. Opening Friday in area theaters.

We see a bucolic horse farm somewhere.

Nice -- you know? Soothing.

Not for long. In less than a minute, the farm's underground NSA installation is under full-scale attack from marauders for reasons I still don't entirely understand. Nor was "XXX: State of the Union" all that eager to tell me.

No matter. All that does matter is that the installation's chief, Augustus Gibbons -- the ever-ready Samuel L. Jackson -- has to lam out with his trusty computer geek in tow and reconfigure his bunch of rogue spies. He needs a new Triple X agent, which is, he says, what they call "deep cover agents with special skills." It seems the old one died.

Well, not really. It's just that the first XXX, Vin Diesel, in his four-year-long demonstration of virtuosic career mismanagement, chose to make the ridiculous and awful "The Chronicles of Riddick" rather than a new XXX movie. On Diesel's behalf, it's worth noting that there was always something deeply silly and fake about "XXX" which was a quasi-Bond action fantasia specifically (and with painful artifice) designed to have street cred.

Anyway, Gibbons needs a new Triple X, one "more dangerous, deadlier" and with "more attitude."

"Where are we going to find that?" asks his cyber-nerd buddy.

Quick cut to Ice Cube, all chained-up in a prison jumpsuit. He plays Darius Stone, a mutinous former Navy SEAL who's already done nine years in a military slammer -- apparently for having more attitude than uniformed types find comfortable. Under different circumstances, he might have been named ambassador to the United Nations, but under these, he's in prison.

Until, that is, Gibbons busts him out and he can become the new XXX.

If you somehow missed the Cube movie career up to this point, you've missed something delightfully subversive. Ice Cube, a short, shlubby rapper with a permanent scowl and no acting talent whatsoever, keeps making bad, smash hit movies in defiance of all higher laws but the one that says there's a huge contemporary audience for fantasists looking to goof big time on Hollywood. The same thing that makes hair-dressers and real-estate salesmen stars of reality TV has made Ice Cube a kind of self-styled Nicholson, Poitier or Redford.

Or, in this case, a kind of stunted, hip-hop answer to James Bond.

Which, if you ask me, is a far finer joke than the original Diesel XXX who was only good when he was skiing down avalanches. (Cool scene, that. Very cool.)

What I'm saying here is that I found this new junky "XXX" easy to like -- a big-budget B movie starring a short, shlubby guy who can't act getting to do superhero stuff.

What? Well, riding a speed boat up a chute onto a bridge. And trading in a 1,000-horsepower GTO for a tricked-out super-truck that's like a tank. And dutifully turning down sex with a sleek, beautiful woman (Sunny Mabrey). And getting the president of the United States -- Peter Strauss -- to quote Tupac Shakur in a speech.

Stuff like that.

Willem Dafoe is the bad guy, a nutso secretary of defense who wants to overthrow the government and fight everybody.

In a pretty funny way, hip-hop and ghetto style are constantly and implicitly counterpoised here against establishment decadence and offered up as The Answer.

What actually happens at the end is that Ice Cube and Samuel L. Jackson team up with Scott Speedman (Felicity's old TV boyfriend, now in deep cover JFK Jr. mode) to rescue Peter Strauss.

So, for those keeping score of signifiers at home, we have two of our top-ranking ghetto blasters -- one a fantasist and one a senior onscreen evangelist of cool -- teaming up with two white guys who couldn't possibly better exemplify Northeastern Ivy League style if they tried.

By the time they finish, the United States Capitol has been blasted into something out of Baghdad and Sarajevo and Ice Cube has chased a bullet train in a new Ford Shelby Cobra going at 160 mph on a railroad track.


Also dumb, empty and mechanical but built solidly on a good hearty joke -- a sort of revenge of the nerds by other means.

Word is that they'll try to keep the XXX street-Bond franchise going with different XXX's every time.

Unless, of course, Ice Cube -- the Charles Barkley of American movies, the screen's very own Round Mound of Rebound -- racks up sufficiently big numbers to keep him going in the role.

You won't catch me voting against him.