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(Jason Raish)
(Jason Raish)

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Vin Diesel Is More Than Just an Action Star

Smug face, grumbly voice, and a wrestler’s build — there’s no secret how the ‘xXx’ star has found himself at the center of so many action-movie franchises. But what would happen if one of Hollywood’s most bankable leading men got a little unfamiliar?

I wonder if, when Mark Sinclair was growing up, any of his childhood friends in Greenwich Village ever called him "Slick." Or maybe "Sly" — though that one already belongs to one of the Hollywood greats. Maybe they found him some other name, one that might have adequately given credence to one of his most persuasive tools as an actor and persona: his face. Or maybe Vin Diesel, his stage name, already gets at it: "Diesel," because he’s always having a gas.

Picture, say, the 2002 spy hit xXx without Diesel’s smug mug. Or without the stark, bright baldness of his head to anchor it, his crown as gleaming and well polished as a statuette on Oscar night. You’d be hard-pressed to conjure more than a few of Diesel’s moments in that movie that don’t feature his face enlivened by some kind of wise-ass smirk. It’s his default setting. Xander Cage, his character, is the kind of action hero to outrun an avalanche of his own making — in part to show you up, but mostly to show you up with pizzazz. He’s — and I believe this to be the medically preferred term — a real sonofabitch. It probably reflects poorly on American culture during the early aughts that a guy like Xander — who brattily records himself stealing a senator’s red Corvette and driving it off a bridge, manages to stand toe to toe with Eastern European spies and the NSA despite having all the diplomatic finesse of a Gaboon viper, and says things like, "You just entered the Xander zone!" in earnest — could somehow still seem cool. I mean, what?

We’ll simply have to live with the fact that it did: Diesel convinced us. And though the movie hasn’t aged entirely well, from the looks of its third installment, xXx: The Return of Xander Cage, which is out Friday, Diesel is still in the mood to convince. Not that he really has to anymore. Are there any other Hollywood stars — genre or otherwise — whose résumés compare to his? Gripes over franchise fever aside, the man’s track record is overwhelming. He’s best known as one of the key stars, alongside Dwayne Johnson and the late Paul Walker, of the massively successful Fast & Furious franchise, the eighth volume of which, The Fate of the Furious, will be released in April. He’s also the star of the Chronicles of Riddick series, the fourth of which is entering production this year. And that’s to say nothing of his role voicing the treelike creature Groot in yet another franchise, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy (sequel out in May). Nor of his roles in the upcoming Avengers sequels (slated for 2018 and 2019). Plus xXx, of course.

"I enjoy playing a quintessential antihero," he once told Collider. This from the guy The New York Times recently called "America’s Sweetheart." "I’m not saying you have to view the world through rose-tinted glasses," he told Men’s Health in 2011. "But there’s a way of living life that involves positive energy." (That attitude was undermined, recently, by an unfortunately pervy interaction with a woman journalist.)

I’m not saying all Vin Diesel movies are good, or even that he’s good in all of them. Truly, it varies. But it’s hard to not be impressed by his undeniable success, when he once struggled to get cast in movies because of his racial ambiguity. Now, he’s carrying multiple film franchises as if he were the Atlas of the action-movie set. The majority of these credits are all starring roles, to boot: Even when packed tightly into an ensemble, as he is in the Furious films, he’s the designated leader of the squad, the Don Corleone of hot rods. He’s kind of a big deal: Forbes named him one of Hollywood’s most bankable actors in 2015.

Something about the conversation surrounding him is missing, however. He’s not lacking for respect and he’s certainly not without work. We’re openly curious about the guy: his Instagram and Facebook feeds, his heartbreak over his dear friend and Furious costar Walker, old footage of his breakdancing, and his every mention of his beloved Dungeons & Dragons. None of these discoveries occurred in movie theaters, however. And perhaps because of that, we think we already know all the big star-making stuff. The rest is pleasant noise. When’s the last time you saw him strike a muscular hero-pose on a magazine cover that wasn’t also selling you on diet tips for better abs? How many profiles of Vin Diesel have you read over the years? (Granted, that could be due to any number of reasons; we should always allow that actors and other artists are, despite their relatable public personas, extremely private or even, in some cases, complete jerks.) He’s a celebrity who inspires love and admiration. But he’s also saddled with a sense of overfamiliarity: Even his nice-guy antics off-camera feel consistent with who we think he is.

I was reminded last year, when his Furious costar Johnson became only the second man of color to be named People’s Sexiest Man Alive, that Diesel — who would appear to be less of an outright actor but who’s very much an equal as an action star, is just as famous, and, likewise, is a "serious" persona enjoyably undermined by selective goofiness — has never gotten that kind of regard. Johnson keeps surprising us: In last year’s Central Intelligence, which is a comedy, he practically stole the show from working comedian Kevin Hart.

Fifteen years ago, we were excited to learn more about Diesel when he was the young new guy who so impressed Steven Spielberg with a short film at Cannes that a character in Spielberg’s next movie, Saving Private Ryan, would be written specifically for him. That 1995 short film, Multi-Facial, traced the travails of a young multiracial actor trying to get work. It’s apt that, at the start of Diesel’s film career, the public was curious about the prospect of a multiracial, or even simply nonwhite, action hero (an idea that doesn’t seem as quaint, in retrospect, as it should be). Today, Diesel seems to have surpassed those discussions. He’s one of the key figures of his Hollywood lane, he has tons of fans, he makes studios great moneybut we’ve stopped asking questions. When’s the last time Vin Diesel — the screen actor, not the persona — was given a chance to surprise us?

"Diesel is interesting," wrote Roger Ebert decisively, but vaguely, in his review of 2000’s Boiler Room. "Something will come of him." "No one knows if he’s a star or not," said producer Art Linson (Heat, Fight Club) of Diesel in 2002, "but what they’re doing is they’re betting on the fact that he might be!" — "they" being the Hollywood decision-makers faced, at the dawn of the 21st century, with the economic reality of the declining Hollywood star. Diesel’s stock began to rise just as the box office potential of once-dependable names like Clooney, Roberts, DiCaprio, and Bullock seemed to be in decline. This was the moment the industry was beginning to realize that stars were being displaced by franchises. Diesel, it seemed, could potentially satisfy the need for both. Given the success of the previous year’s The Fast and the Furious, some dared to have high hopes for the then-upcoming xXx. Diesel wasn’t the only star of the Furious franchise, of course, nor even the franchise’s most naturally gifted actor. Gal Gadot, the comical Chris Bridges (a.k.a. Ludacris), and, yes, our current box office’s bankable leading man Dwayne Johnson have always had him beat there.

But there’s something about Diesel, more of an "it" factor than an outright bit of technique you might point to like you would, say, Matt Damon, and his ability to render himself anonymous, or Tom Cruise and his manic likability. Diesel has charm, but his acting skills are easily strained; it wasn’t until Furious 7 that I bought the emotional underpinnings of that role as he performed them — and even then, it was because of the circumstances of that movie. Diesel is simply someone many of us can’t help but want to watch — and like.

He has apparently always been this way. As a buff 17-year-old in New York, he began to work as a bouncer at trendy clubs, among them the Tunnel, where, his ex-manager Ricky Marcado once told CNN, "He would come in on his nights off and dance by himself. People would stop and watch him." Part of the appeal of the bad boy is that you want him (or want to be him) despite yourself. xXx’s Xander Cage is a case in point, a role from "the guts of the American culture," as director Rob Cohen put it. xXx was basically an inversion of the neat 007 myth. "He is not interested in the Kennedy-era idea of sophistication — like what kind of cigars you smoke, brandy you drink, martinis you sip," said Cohen. Xander was understood to be a Gen X hero, specifically, which broadened the archetype’s appeal. And he’s also a distinctly, if ambiguously, racialized one, at a time when, on the heels of America’s ’90s obsession with the idea (or threat) of a biracial future, ethnic ambiguity held some sway. (Diesel’s racial makeup has been the subject of online debate for years. For his part, he’s reportedly been known to say he’s either "multicultural" or "Italian and a lot of other things.")

But he wasn’t too much of a bad boy — that, I think, is Diesel’s secret. xXx costar Samuel L. Jackson told CNN in 2002 that Diesel’s peculiarly relatable "bad boy" aesthetic felt like a new avenue at the time. "There’s an air of mystery and danger about Vin," Jackson said, "but he also has a little bit of the just-like-us quality." A notable early role was in the Wolf of Wall Street forebear Boiler Room, which starred Diesel, Giovanni Ribisi, and Ben Affleck as stockbrokers who too frequently say things like: "Pick up your skirt, grab your balls, and let’s make some money." The cast is full of actors who, in 2000, seemed like suitable cinematic representatives for a burgeoning generation of young hotshots in the financial sector. They are, for the most part, intentionally insufferable. Can Diesel be insufferable? In the movie’s best and most memorable scene, the brokers gather at one of their painfully underfurnished houses, sit on the floor, and watch Wall Street. They all begin to recite Gordon Gekko’s lines — but Diesel is the one who stands up and gives an actual performance.

It could be an analogy to Diesel’s own work as an actor. As good, and sometimes really good, as he is in the Furious films, which depend on the actors’ personas to rise above the often bland writing (far above, way up there, frankly stratospheric), the role is almost too good a match for what Diesel is capable of. That’s sort of the point: He’s able to make it look easy because it probably is, and his is a character who needs to come off with ease. On the other hand, acting natural in front of the camera, coming off as a character rather than an actor on a set, is what distinguishes every good actor — including Diesel — from the rest of us. The problem isn’t that he’s a bad actor, it’s that many of his films ask the wrong things of him. He’s big, he’s bald, he’s got charm: so, of course, he’s pegged as an action star. That doesn’t make the most of his weird tics. Have you ever noticed, for example, the pace of his speech? It’s slow. Scenes in many of his films seem to decelerate to a slow drip — Dali’s melting clocks come to mind — when Diesel has to perform dramatically, rather than casually.

He’s been given more chances to be expressive with his body than he is with language — rather, what he’s able to accomplish physically is a more natural fit for most of his roles than some of the subtler shades of his personality. "The physical aspect of these characters is a little bit more natural to me," he said at Comic-Con in 2013. It’s almost too bad. Diesel’s body is of course impressive, but his speaking voice may be his masterpiece. USA Today once called it a "grumble in the jungle": It’s an alluring baritone with speckles of raspiness that give it a sharp edge, like salt on the rim of a margarita glass. It’s a voice in need of some better notes to sing. One of the few roles to defy this, besides his voice work as Groot in Guardians and as the voice of the title character in Iron Giant, is as convict Richard B. Riddick in the series of films that begins with Pitch Black (also 2000).

Pitch Black may actually be Diesel’s best performance; the language is deliberately slow and sparse, the character wild and mysterious. It’s in Riddick’s refusal to emote that Diesel really reveals the extent of his talent: He isn’t an actor who needs to feel so much as he needs to just do. Pitch Black casts him in shadow, and it gives him a violent mythos to live up to. (Riddick has had what he calls a "surgical shine job" — a procedure that allows him to see in the deepest dark, which comes in handy on a planet that crawls with carnivorous beasts who stalk by night.) He isn’t the movie’s villain, but the glory of the movie is that he’s just as dangerous — and just as hard to trust or understand.

I wonder if the conversation about Diesel might be livelier with more roles like this, that play up what’s best about him, rather than what’s most familiar. He does have a friendly face — which might be why Pitch Black works so hard to obscure it. We could use more of this artful obscurity: In giving less of himself, and breaking from the familiar, Diesel stands a chance to reveal more. And it appears that the upcoming Furious movie, which plays up his bad side, may deliver. The secret to Diesel’s appeal is that he’s great at satisfying our expectations. But he may not be as great as he has the potential to become until he breaks course with his own.

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