Thursday, April 2, 2015

Vinsanity - The Oeuvre of Vin Diesel

"I don't have friends.  I got family," growls Dominic Toretto in the trailer for Furious 7, the latest installment of one of the hardiest action franchises in cinematic history.  The line is wholly applicable to the career of the man who's now played Toretto six times: Mark Sinclair Vincent, better known to audiences as Vin Diesel.

Diesel's best-known characters are practically like familiar relatives, anchoring both nascent (Guardians of the Galaxy's Groot) and long-running franchises (Toretto in the Fast movies, sci-fi badass Richard B. Riddick), each sequel catching us up with what Uncle Vin has been doing.  It's a career so franchise-dependent that Diesel hasn't portrayed a live-action character other than Toretto or Riddick since 2008.

Nevertheless, being the face of a franchise (or two) obscures the individual underneath.  It isn't unusual for movie stars to become brands unto themselves, but the schism in Diesel's career is so abrupt and severe that it bears closer examination: both the glowering, gravel-voice action star who causes a ruckus on the internet simply by singing or dancing, and the hungry Hollywood neophyte with designs on being the De Niro or Pacino of his generation.

Diesel's debut feature Strays (1997) invites comparisons to Rocky and the career arc of Sylvester Stallone.  Both films were written by their stars, and feature gritty urban settings and marble-mouthed mooks with hearts of gold.  This being the peak era of the no-budget, achingly personal Sundance film, Diesel also directed and produced his story of an unambitious hustler taking tentative steps toward maturity in order to romance the wholesome girl next door (Suzanne Lanza).

Strays is a feature-length argument for Diesel's sensitive side.  The movie's mission is to subvert expectations, presenting a romantic drama that's more like John Cassavetes filtered through the sensibility of Kevin Smith than the next Mean Streets.  If that sounds dubious, well, that's because it kind of is - beyond the clunky dialogue and jarring tonal shifts, the film's main pairing suffers from a lack of chemistry.  But there's something appealing in Diesel's unpolished sincerity, an admission that both the movie and its star are rough around the edges, and thus more vulnerable than the film's macho bluster or the actor's superhero physique would have you believe.

You can see that same mystique in Diesel's first mainstream roles, which often capitalized on the "less is more" theory - witness his supporting role as a chiseled Army grunt in Saving Private Ryan (1998) and the voice that launched a million tears in The Iron Giant (1999).  But he's most cleverly utilized in David Twohy's Pitch Black (2000), an entertainingly efficient sci-fi thriller that's a bit like Stagecoach in space: when a star freighter carrying a cultural cross-section of passengers - including a dangerous criminal named Richard B. Riddick - crash-lands on a deserted planet, the survivors must pull together and find a way off the rock before they're hunted down by nocturnal alien predators.

As Riddick, Diesel finds an ideal route to his signature archetype: the noble tough guy.  He laps up the character's humor, menace, and singular code of ethics.  Like the film itself, he's convincing enough to allow the audience to buy into the conceit without taking it too seriously.  At the same time, Pitch Black smartly positions Diesel as the featured player in a slowly dwindling ensemble cast, gradually building his ass-kicking aura instead of relying solely on his charisma to elevate a fundamentally silly premise - a good move considering Diesel's baseline of campy self-awareness is somewhere far south of Schwarzenegger.

Of course, that didn't stop the creators of xXx (2002) from betting the farm on Diesel's potential as an above-the-title action hero.  And though it's hard to blame them after the runaway success of The Fast and the Furious made Diesel a household name, xXx fails to capitalize on the actor's strengths, casting him as an extreme sports enthusiast named Xander Cage recruited by a national intelligence agency to infiltrate a terrorist group run by a Russian mercenary (Martin Csokas).  But asking Diesel to play the part of the suave, globe-trotting spy - a kind of in-your-face James Bond for the Mountain Dew generation - is like trying to crush an anthill with a boulder.  Unsurprisingly, he responds with the phoned-in performance that this cheesy, cynical cash grab of a film deserves.

Xander's initial recruitment resembles a theme park version of a Hitchcockian "wrong man" conspiracy thriller, which Diesel plays like a prickish volunteer at a magic show who refuses to go along with the deception.  xXx quickly gives way to strident soda commercial edginess with heroes who think and talk like middle-aged Hollywood executives desperately trying to grasp what those crazy kids are into these days ("Stop thinking proud police, start thinking PlayStation - blow shit up!" is a typical xXx bon mot).  There's also something weird about watching a physical specimen like Diesel ordered to pursue the delicate business of espionage, which sounds the premise of a comedy, not the beginning of the next huge action franchise.

Not that his track record in comedy is sterling.  While The Pacifier (2005) is a dreadful attempt at giving Diesel his own Kindergarten Cop, the courtroom comedy Find Me Guilty (2006) should inspire more faith based on its director, Hollywood legend Sidney Lumet, alone.  Diesel plays New Jersey mafioso Jackie DiNorscio, who boldly and eccentrically served as his own counsel during a massive organized crime trial in the late 1980s.  A wiseguy in every sense of the word, DiNorscio stumbles his way through the legal proceedings with off-color jokes, waggish questions, and a constant shit-eating grin - Diesel's chompers are indeed on frequent display, making up for nearly a decade of grim stoicism.

It's not hard to see why Lumet cast Diesel in the film - the actor's success comes from the same elixir of streetwise charm and chutzpah that, in larger, more dangerous doses, breeds an overreaching big city hustler like DiNorsico.  Alas, a creeping phoniness sets in when you realize that the movie is actually trying to garner an uncomplicated sympathy for DiNorscio and his shady associates, sloppily rationalizing their defense by casting the prosecution as a bunch of shrill, smug tricksters.  It falls to Diesel, swaddled in the bulkiest of '80s fashions to hide his He-Man physique, to try and sell the idea of the populist antihero - a tall order in a film this flippantly corny.

While Find Me Guilty might have been too much of a stretch for audiences, it's preferable to the disappointing familiarity of the abysmal Babylon A.D. (2008), in which Diesel once again plays a taciturn mercenary comfortable in the criminal element - but only for the right reasons.  It's not often that a movie has me clamoring for more exposition, but the lack of guidance through Babylon A.D.'s incomprehensible mythology made me pine for the idiotic simplicity of xXx (which is clearly the superior film where Diesel traipses around Russia in a giant winter coat).

With a lot of material obviously left on the cutting room floor or omitted entirely in a cynical appraisal of Diesel's fanbase, Babylon A.D. is setting up its star to fail.  Yet Diesel remains remarkably self-possessed throughout the ordeal.  On the other hand, there's not much he can do with a character as stunted as Toorop.  Babylon A.D. is, to date, Diesel's last starring role before retreating into the comfort of his multimillion-dollar franchises - and given the quality of such unchallenging, one-dimensional roles, it's hard to blame him.

Looking at the arc of Diesel's career, it looks like one of two things happened: either he learned to play exclusively to his strengths as a intimidating screen presence; or he resigned himself to the industry's lack of imagination about how to use him.  The truth might be a mixture of both.  Still, it's interesting to consider a couple of Diesel's deeper cuts, particularly the fascinating Boiler Room (2000) - where he gets to be light, funny, charming, and everything else that seems improbable at this stage in his career - and Knockaround Guys (2003), where he gives his most underrated performance as an avenging ass-kicker who's deployed with great restraint and thus greater meaning.  Somehow, some way - perhaps when we run out of ideas for implausible car stunts - Mark Sinclair Vincent will once again get to spread his wings.