All We Do is Vin: Top it Off with Diesel

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.


Enlivened. Bulky. Burly. Surly. Interesting. Marble-mouthed. Bleary-eyed. Unshaven. Enraged. 

Gives it his typical all. Lifeless. 

The best thing about The Fast and the Furious. Not good per se in Furious 6

Palpable unease. Too bummed out to do much more than speak in brusque slogans. 

Harmlessly, but pathologically, people-pleasing. A dorkily optimistic doofus. 

Another good performance.

Over the last two decades, these are among the things I’ve written about Vin Diesel. I haven’t formally reviewed all of his films. But I have now seen them all. 

That’s right: Every last Vin Diesel movie, live-action or animated — from his uncredited appearance as an orderly in Awakenings to the recently VOD-displaced Bloodshot.

The Pacifier? Less of a 180 and more of a 120 for Diesel.

The short-film Fast & Furious prequel Los Bandoleros, which Diesel also directed? A strained, lackadaisical effort to establish credible serenity in a franchise where there was no need.

Knockaround Guys? That’s where “another good performance” comes in.

Thirty years. Thirty-four movies. Groot. Shroom. Riddick. Caparzo. Toretto. DiNorscio. Taylor. Chris. Mike. Rick. Sean. Shane. Kaulder. Xander. Find me guilty, for I have known them all.

Until a few days ago, I could not throw my arms wide, turn up my brow, tilt back a Corona and make this claim — and not only because of the pandemic-prompted bumping of his latest film, Bloodshot

A handful of Diesels eluded me: In total, three shorts, three features — two of them tangential to the rancid Riddick franchise (the worst of Diesel’s three). A cold-case sixer of folderol and formative moments from the career of Mark Sinclair, the milquetoast moniker of this iron giant.

“The world is big but always fits in your heart.” Superspy Xander Cage once said that. The same should apply to Diesel’s filmography. So here is how I made my heart full over one week’s time.

BABYLON A.D.

“Save the planet. Whenever I’ve read that bumper sticker, I’ve had to laugh. Save the planet. What for? And from what, from ourselves? Life’s simple: Kill or be killed. Don’t get involved, and always finish the job. A survivor’s code. My code. And it all sounds great until the day you find yourself confronted by a choice. A choice to make a difference, to help someone — or to walk away and save yourself. I learned something that day: You can’t always walk away. Too bad it was the day I died.”

Hugo Toorop, “Babylon A.D.”

So begins Babylon A.D., with Diesel delivering that aforementioned voiceover with an intonation of dreary boredom rather than distemperate buoyancy. At least it fits the film that follows — a studio-interference mishmash of flat digital camerawork, anemic action (remember parkour?), re-heated beats from its star’s past glories (one snowmobile sequence feels like a bad Balkan spin on xXx) and dystopian-future tropes that carry no continuity from one moment to the next.

Much as it’s difficult to simultaneously “finish the job” and “never get involved,” as Diesel recommends in his voiceover, it’s hard to understand why Aurora — his lazy-Leeloo love interest who’s revealed to be some sort of universally empathetic, immaculately conceiving artificial intelligence or whatever — goes from wanting to save everyone to slaughtering bad guys in a millisecond. (As for other Fifth Element rips, Mark Strong, in a supporting role as a smuggler named Finn, gets the Korben Dallas haircut and boy, is it … something.)

From the first frame, it’s clear director Matthieu Kassovitz has also fatally mistaken Diesel for someone who could convincingly embody an immovable-object hardass with no human connections. Another problem? Diesel plays someone named Toorop. Hugo Toorop, to be exact. But no one calls him Hugo. Only Toorop. And constantly. If Vin Diesel is going to play someone named Toorop, then Toorop should be a salty animated walrus.

Anyway: Go back and read that voiceover again. You can hear Diesel saying it in your mind. But if you know the man’s work, you can’t imagine any scenario under which he’d truly believe it. The opening credits then unfold over Diesel stalking a campground in a camouflage poncho, barking at kids who bother him. You’re supposed to admire scars and ink slapped and scribbled on Diesel’s body, but you just chuckle and wonder: “Is … is that the Necronomicon symbol on his neck?”

Toorop later refers to Finn as an old friend. “Do you trust him?,” a reluctant sidekick asks Toorop. “I don’t trust anybody,” he retorts. Also bullshit. Sure, Toorop eventually kills Finn because … well, Toorop can’t trust him. But the camera cuts away from Toorop’s face before he can fully reiterate his mantra (“Remember: Trust no one.”) That’s because there could not have been a take where Diesel didn’t break — so impossible to his actorly worldview is the idea that any character’s life could persist without even a temporary ally or circumstantial compadre. The film fundamentally misreads the strengths that Diesel brings to his best action-film characters — a recognition, and eventual embrace, of leadership’s more inherently lonely demands but also the indispensable necessity of strong teams.

Being fair: Diesel had not, at the time, fleshed out his goofy-floofy side when Babylon A.D. commenced filming in 2007. The closest he comes here is a mutual nerding-out with Aurora over The Wizard of Oz and perhaps that sherry reduction he adds to the cat meat he must cook to survive. Diesel also was then a man without a bankable franchise, having forsaken a follow-up to xXx for the big-time flop of The Chronicles of Riddick and retreated to a mere cameo appearance in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. Watching Diesel grill Gerard Depardieu — wearing a ridiculous prosthetic nose that makes him look like Miss Trunchbull from Matilda — about whether he blew up a convent is to observe a contractually obligated performance at its grimmest, gamest face and see a man who wondered if it was over for him.

The few defenders of Babylon A.D. contest that Kassovitz’s director’s cut is preferable. It certainly couldn’t have a more incomprehensible ending. If there’s any silver lining to Babylon A.D., it’s perhaps that Diesel remembered, nearly a decade later, a movie he made one time in which a submarine emerged through the ice … and then cracked a smile with the thought of how it could be done better.

MULTI-FACIAL

Babylon A.D. is also a film in which Diesel unconvincingly utters a line cribbed from Scarface about a man having only his balls and his word. Twelve years earlier, Diesel wrote, produced, directed and starred in Multi-Facial, an autobiographical short in which he tries shedding such stereotypes.

Diesel allegedly carried VHS copies of this film around in his trunk, never knowing whose hand he might shake and fill with a copy in hopes of landing a big break. Indeed, it eventually got Steven Spielberg on the phone to cast Diesel in Saving Private Ryan. To watch it now is to recognize that we are but a quarter-century into Mark Sinclair’s master plan, to understand that Diesel wasn’t always the most confident ambassador of self-branding he is today and, most of all, to see precisely why Hollywood’s heaviest hitters thought the man would become a big deal.

The film opens with Diesel recounting the story of a homophobic beatdown that you start to worry might be the unfortunate narrative byproduct of bygone times. But then you realize he’s playing an actor monologuing in an audition for such an ill-advised film. Mike gets the usual “thanks for reading” brush-off and moves on. A beer commercial needs an African-American actor. Mike is too light-skinned, but come back for industrial next week, he’s told. They’ll need some Spanish types. On second thought, how black can he go? There’s a thing called Mad Homeboy. They’re looking for more of a Wesley, but can he rap? Yeah? OK, they’re ready to hear it.

Since becoming a superstar, Diesel has minimized and amplified aspects of his real-life melting-pot makeup. Thankfully, he hasn’t been pigeonholed into playing “misogynist homophobic Guidos” (as Mike laments the role from the first audition). But as a producer, Diesel ensures that the ethnic swirl of the faces in his billion-dollar blockbusters feel like no big deal. They’re not reflective of the pursuit for inclusion badges, just a depiction of a larger world. Multi-Facial represents the wholly sincere introspection of this mission’s inception. The film climaxes with another one-take monologue, one that bristles with honesty rather than empty bravado, and Diesel shows us how deeply he has considered the asterisks that would come from becoming the world’s most-beloved insert ethnicity here actor rather than just one of its most beloved period.

You don’t need to see Multi-Facial to understand the ways in which Hollywood has used these archetypes and ciphers Mike reads for to keep us from engaging too deeply with its more commercial offerings. But it does, at least for the more open-minded, help you understand a bit more about the choices Diesel has made in pursuing his own stardom. The last shot of this marvelous movie about Diesel taking his first steps forward from multi-ethnic anxiety finds Mike waiting on coffee after an audition. A sign, blurred in the background, reads “Please Seat Yourself.” It would be a few years before Diesel would heed that advice — and it wouldn’t always steer him in the right direction — but Multi-Facial lets us see that it was there for him to discover all along.

RIDDICK: BLINDSIDED / THE CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK: DARK FURY

Further evidence of Diesel’s occasional missteps: His inexplicably intense devotion to the Richard B. Riddick character across three features, two shorts and several video games.

“Seconds seem like weeks, and to blink an eye is a day’s work.” A villain utters that in regard to foes she has cryogenically frozen in The Chronicles of Riddick: Dark Fury, which fills in the narrative gaps between 2000’s introductory Pitch Black and 2004’s The Chronicles of Riddick. It also describes how it generally feels to watch these absurdly self-serious, self-serving sci-fi fantasy entries on Diesel’s résumé. (The first act of 2013’s Riddick is good. Pity about the other acts.) Such is the burden of completism to have consumed these two films. 

Riddick: Blindsided also fills in the blanks between the second and third films, albeit at a shorter clip. Technically, Blindsided is a motion comic. Call Diesel’s grunting and returning co-star Karl Urban’s dutiful voice work whatever you want. Be glad they called it a few minutes.

At least in Dark Fury, you can derive some enjoyment from the angular irregularities animator Peter Chung brings to his Æon Flux-ification of the Riddick character. Here, he looks more like the shaved-head Dee Snider of Twisted Sister than Vin Diesel, or maybe it’s more like the Heavy Metal version of Riddick. Honestly, Heavy Metal is closer to the lines of teenage lunacy for which the (presumably and hopefully) dead Riddick franchise should have strived. The overlying message of Dark Fury seems to say “Be the mange you want to see in this world.” Too bad too few of the films featuring Riddick really embodied that kooky kernel of wisdom.

STRAYS

Then again, Diesel didn’t need to play a murderously strong Furyan with “eyeshine” that helps him see in the dark to deliver some dunderheaded fortune-cookie oddities. Case in point: The motif and tagline for Strays, Diesel’s as-yet only feature-length directorial outing, shot and released in 1997 on a $10,000 budget. (Like Multi-Facial, he also wrote, produced and starred.)

“Life is a matador,” says Diesel’s character, Rick, explaining why The Story of Ferdinand, a children’s tale about a bull, is his favorite book. It’s almost as laughably opaque as Diesel’s diatribes in Babylon A.D.; the unspoken back-end of this decree seems to be that life will rile you up, piss you off and slowly draw blood until you’re on the ground to the crowd’s delight. 

How exactly that ties into casual drug-dealer Rick’s desire to get on a romantic straight and narrow with a lily-white lady next door never quite becomes clear across 100 very long minutes. What’s certain is that Strays includes the clumsiest action sequence Diesel has ever done, as he issues a beatdown to lecherous wolf-whistlers who won’t leave his lady alone.

You can tell what Diesel was aiming for here, but it plays more like Saturday Night Slightly Elevated Temperature. “We go out EVERY NIGHT to get pussy … like VAMPIRES!” Rick eventually yells at his sexually reckless friends after one of them takes pride in spreading gonorrhea. It’s an eruption of Pescian proportions delivered by a guy who looks like a 16-year-old on steroids — clumsy but at least it’s recognizably earnest as is Diesel’s stock-in-trade. It’s like Sylvester Stallone’s breakdown at the end of First Blood as applied to popping the balloon on bros’ predatory behavior.

As I do with most relationship dramedies of regrettable provenance from the mid-1990s, I blame Edward Burns — the squeaky-voiced filmmaker/actor behind The Brothers McMullen and She’s the One with whom Diesel went on to co-star in Saving Private Ryan. This came before their shared service with Spielberg, of course. But Burns’s success with those films, coupled with that of Doug Liman’s Swingers, surely emboldened Diesel toward the doltish decision to do this. You can envision a spin on this story that doesn’t suck quite as much, but only because there were 35 different versions of this movie back then — the malaise of the thirtysomething man who insisted he had something insightful to say. If you were to go looking for the natural endpoint of the genre’s usefulness, it’s probably the one that invokes Ferdinand the Bull.

BLOODSHOT

What better way to swing to the end than from a Diesel film that quotes a beloved fable for kids to one that lets him look and feel like a 52-year-old man for once while still indulging his teenage dungeon-master inclinations? 

Diesel has turned up in several superhero adaptations as a sentient tree, but Bloodshot is the first to feature him in the flesh. Intended to ignite another shared universe, this one for Valiant Comics, Bloodshot is bound to be yet another intellectual-property orphan thanks to botched business deals and low grosses in the wake of pandemic panic.

Diverged to premium VOD after little more than a week in theatres before COVID-19 closings, Bloodshot casts Diesel as Ray Garrison, a murdered Marine revived by a company called Rising Spirit Technologies, or RST. That outfit is run by robot-armed Dr. Emil Harting, played by Guy Pearce — who is hilariously the same real-life age as Diesel and basically doing here what Tom Cavanagh does on The Flash with a somewhat stronger pedigree. 

RST has pumped Ray full of nanites that render him impervious to injury, or at least up to a point. He represents the company’s latest innovation after clavicle-mounted respirators, ocular implants that attach to the optic nerve and blade-leg prosthetics. And if you don’t think Ray is, like Mongo, only pawn in game of life, well … Bloodshot might just surprise you!

Rarely do pastiches borrow as breezily as Bloodshot does. Call it The Vinter Soldier. Call it 50 First Diesels. Call it Mevinto. Call it Live. Diesel. Repeat. Its closest analogue is Venom — call it Vinom! — albeit less confident in its cacophony and minus the inimitable, comic X-factor of Tom Hardy. Still, Bloodshot mingles the mid-’90s milieu of superhero cinema with a new-millennium budget — keenly self-aware and delivering the sort of dumb-dumb delights for which you’d like Westworld to settle just a bit more often.

As for Diesel, he brings infectious wonderment to the pro-forma sequence of discovered powers. You’ve seen it in everything from Spidey to Shazam. You don’t usually see it from an actor who already believes himself to be a superhero. Egotistical? Perhaps. But it also helps Diesel sell the valleys in which Ray finds himself, wrestling with the moral onerousness of not knowing the true cause for which he’s fighting and expressing a map of mournfulness as he laments time lost with someone he loved. A moment during which Ray stands befuddled and bemused on someone’s doorstep gives you a long time to just gaze upon Diesel’s face. Because you’re probably watching at home — without a shamefully neglected projector bulb to diminish the sharpness — you see all the crags and creases, you get your first really good glimpse at a portrait of the artist as an old man and you start to marvel at what he might do next.

Don’t think that Diesel won’t stick around in Fast & Furious movies as long as he can physically sit down and turn a wheel. And they can always paste his face on someone else’s body for xXx: Snowboarding in Space. But to watch him in Bloodshot, blustery and bombastic as it may be, suggests that Vin Diesel’s next 30 years may yield some very satisfying evolutions.

If I’m lucky enough, I’ll be around to see all of those, too.



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An award-winning film critic and features reporter, Nick has professionally written or gabbed about movies for Illinois newspapers, national syndicates, Playboy, The Art Immortal, The Film Yap and Midwest radio stations. He once drummed in a Billy Joel cover band known as Silly Joel and freely presents his Letterboxd page to engage and mock if you wish: https://letterboxd.com/ragekage79/


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