All we do is Vin, Vin, Vin, no matter what. Got Diesel on our minds, we can never get enough. And every time he shows up in the cineplex, everybody’s wallets open up! … AND THEY STAY THERE.
It’s been a few years since we’ve seen Vin Diesel in the flesh onscreen, but he’s back in this month’s Bloodshot. It’s also been a full quarter-century since Diesel’s short-film debut caught Hollywood’s eye and eventually launched an improbably enduring career that spans several franchises.
As famous for his multi-ethnic makeup as his (sometimes literal) monosyllabic musings, here’s our monthlong ode to a guy whose career gets great mileage. This is All We Do is Vin.
It’s entirely understandable that as the Fast & Furious franchise has expanded and evolved over the years into full-on blockbuster spectacle, the original movie is all but forgotten. Somehow — over 10 films (and counting) — we went from a relatively straightforward “undercover-cop-falls-for-the-wrong-girl” street-racing movie to “The Rock and Jason Statham fight a cyber-genetic supervillain” and there’s really no looking back.
It’s a shame, though; the original The Fast and the Furious is a marvel of pacing, practical effects and stunt work, and elaborate action setpieces. Oh, and it’s also the movie where Vin Diesel transformed from a nobody into a household name, playing an iconic character in a multimillion-dollar franchise.
In 2001, CGI special effects were the hot new toy. Directors were using the technology to bring their vision to life, doing things that would have been difficult or even impossible with practical effects. Unfortunately, in retrospect, what was magical at the time doesn’t hold up two decades later. The first Harry Potter is still a classic, but some of those digital Quidditch sequences are cringeworthy. The first Lord of the Rings had an almost unlimited effects budget and a truly visionary director who understood how to get the most out of the technology, and parts of it still look like a bad video game cutscene. I don’t think I even have words for The Mummy Returns and the visual catastrophe of The Rock as a half-man, half-scorpion straight from the pages of a kindergarten art project.
With one truly horrible exception — the digital animation in the first street race is just excruciating — The Fast and the Furious sticks to perfectly choreographed stunt driving and physical stunt work. Even the epic final race — in which Brian (Paul Walker) and Dom (Vin Diesel) blaze across a railroad crossing a hair in front of an oncoming freight train — is just a combination of careful timing and clever manipulation of film speed. That commitment to reality pays off; even 19 years later, none of those carefully performed setpieces has that jarring out-of-date feel that inevitably affects so many special-effects bonanzas.
As a result, The Fast and the Furious feels real on some visceral level. A masked hijacker leaping from the back of a Honda onto the hood of an 18-wheeler comes with an adrenaline rush and a sense of drama all its own. The film flies along at a breakneck pace, its largely incoherent storyline mostly just there to give the stunt team a chance to catch its breath. It’s mostly your basic “in-too-deep” undercover cop story with a romance that’s sadly ineffective due to Walker (as Brian, the earnest undercover cop) and Jordana Brewster (as Mia Toretto, sister to street racer and alleged gang kingpin Dominic) utterly failing to produce any chemistry beyond “we’re the two most alarmingly attractive people here, so we probably ought to hook up.” Little tension exists outside the action scenes, and this movie probably ought to be a forgotten footnote, remembered only by the small subset of people who are fascinated by fast cars but don’t know enough about them to realize that the screenwriter probably never drove anything cooler than a used Ford Taurus.
Great action sequencing or not, this one shouldn’t be worth a second look.
Except it is. And not just a second look, but a solid dozen sequels, spinoffs and short films. And that comes down to one thing: Vin Diesel.
I know. Vin isn’t the most dynamic action star out there. He looks for all the world like he should have never made it past playing “Thug #2” or “Angry Bouncer” who gets knocked out by Matt Damon or Denzel Washington on their way to confront the villain. He’s not that great-looking. He’s not especially funny. He seems like he should be mostly suited to hulking in the background and sneering. And yet he’s undeniably the most special thing about The Fast and the Furious. He doesn’t have the easy charm of most leading men, sure, but he makes up for it with pure charisma and presence. He’s just real. The same way the car crashes and stunts are real. He makes Dom Toretto into a real person, powering through the silly dialogue and whiplash plot points with a grounding force that anchors the whole film on his performance.
Dom isn’t a supervillain, a vicious criminal mastermind or even a misunderstood hero. Dom is a leader, the type of natural one that almost everyone has encountered. The kid who organizes all the games on the playground at recess. The person who keeps everyone calm in the office when the tornado siren goes off. The one everyone looks to for approval when someone new comes into a group of old friends. You have no problem believing Dom’s crew would follow him into a burning building without pausing for an explanation because every time Diesel is onscreen, he’s commanding the audience’s attention the same way.
Around the end of the first act, Brian challenges Dom to an underground street race with his car on the line (taxpayer-funded car, no doubt), hoping to impress him and earn his trust by winning. He’s ahead for a good chunk of the race, only to see the savvier and more skilled Dom blow by him to win. Still, Brian is clearly elated, both from the adrenaline of the race and because he thinks Dom must surely be impressed by his performance. “I almost had you!” he blurts, almost giggling. It’s Diesel’s first big moment in the film, and he seizes it. “You almost had me? You never had me. You never had your car.” The dialogue is nonsensical, like someone pointed the screenwriter at a Reddit thread about street racing and played Mad Libs with the slang, but it doesn’t even matter. Diesel sells out for it. He swaggers, that unmistakable growling voice booming as he savages Walker’s character for daring to presume he was ever a real challenger. You won’t stop to be confused by the slang — I swear I’ve looked up “double clutching” and “granny shifting” every time I watch this and it still doesn’t make sense to me — or pause to question how completely nonsensical Brian’s strategy was here. You just ride the wave and completely, instantly buy into Dom as a character.
His parting shot says it all: “Ask any racer. Any real racer. It doesn’t matter if you win by an inch or a mile. Winning’s winning.” It doesn’t matter if Diesel is the best-looking or the best actor. It doesn’t even matter if he can effectively play any part besides Dom Toretto: Winning’s winning, and Vin Diesel wins the hell out of The Fast and the Furious.