Diesel’s macho men’s magazine covers and booming movie trailers make it easy
enough to mistake him for The Rock. The two multiracial, ripped-and-cut
actors both fight evil beasties on screen, and battle each other à la
Stallone-Schwarzenegger for supremacy over teenage boys at the box office. But
while The Rock remains a kind of blow-up-doll cartoon of masculinity, happy to
go the Kindergarden Cop route in comedic tripe like The Rundown,
Diesel seems to be headed for something more interesting — or, at least,
away from that terribly predictable weightlifter-turned-barbarian-becomes-cuddly-comic-then-governor
career track. If Diesel’s gruff, irritable turn in The Chronicles of Riddick doesn’t
quite work, at least it’s less overblown than the film’s CGI effects. Which is
something you can never say for The Rock, who’s always too eager to please, chewing
up the scenery, talking about himself in the third person, and wiggling his his
eyebrows more than Nathan Lane.
The meathead marketing angle on Vin Diesel is that the
buff, bald former bouncer was discovered at a New York nightclub and
America’s next action hero overnight. But Diesel, unlike fellow self-admiring
freak The Rock, is in fact a lifelong thespian, on the record saying
things like: "I probably could sing and know by heart eighty percent
of the songs in My Fair Lady."
Whereas The Rock got his start playing football at the
University of Miami, and then wrestled professionally, Diesel, the tattooed star
Fast and the Furious and XXX, was a natural-born bohemian. Raised
in an artists-only, rent-controlled Greenwich Village housing project, Diesel
(born Mark Vincent) is the son of an astrologist mother (he’s a self-described “Cancer
with a Scorpio rising in a Sagittarius moon, which is a deadly
was begging for a shot at the transvestite lead in Flawless.
combination”) and an Off-Off Broadway theater director father.
“My father also was a fan of British theatre and he imparted
that to me,” Diesel once told a reporter. "We used to have these long conversations
about the different approaches — essentially the English dress themselves
up with a character and work from the outside, whereas the Americans were mainly
all into Lee Strasberg, the Method and ‘externalizing.’" (The
Rock dispenses acting advice like "Love scenes can also take themselves
too serious, when they’re doing it.")
The same Vin Diesel who pummels aliens with his bare
hands in Riddick started
acting at seven, and regularly performed Off-Off Broadway, en route to becoming
an English major at Hunter College. And contrary to the PR spin, Spielberg didn’t
cast Diesel in Saving Private Ryan after meeting him at some trendy nightclub — the
director first spotted the actor in 1994’s Multi-Facial, the short film
wrote and directed and premiered at Cannes. Appropriately, the film earnestly
exploited Diesel’s experiences as a struggling actor dealing with racial typecasting.
(See, muscle-bound actors have feelings too!)
So while The Rock’s cartoonish
wrestling career unfolded, Diesel worked as a bouncer to finance his independent
shorts, following Multi-Facial with
1997’s Strays, about New York buddies who keep a Lower East Side pied à terre
for their afternoon affairs. Diesel says that role had something to do with
his Meatpacking District bouncer years, when he’d befriended many of the
West Side’s famous clubbers (after all, there are only two categories of
people who make up a name like “Vin Diesel”: Hollywood wannabes, and gigolos;
Diesel is, in some way, both). By 1999, Diesel was begging for a shot
at the lead in a Joel Schumacher film — no surprise there, except that
the role was the transvestite lead in Flawless. Unfortunately, Diesel
lost the Flawless role to Philip Seymour Hoffman. Fast-forward two
years, past his relatively subtle performances in Boiler Room and Saving
Private Ryan to the surprise box-office success of The Fast and the
Furious. He scores $20 million for XXX and Time magazine
declares him "The Next Action Hero.”
I like to imagine that if Vin Diesel had landed that
role in Flawless, he might never have become known as that box-office
tough-guy with an action-figure — and instead, we’d know him as that transgressive
indie star with the butch figure. I imagine him playing Alan Cumming’s big-bear,
or, since he knows the words, Rex Harrison’s role in My Fair Lady. As
it is, Diesel seems very happy as a wealthy tough guy: racing cars, fighting
aliens, carousing with chicks in Page Six.
As an action star, Diesel’s rise is part demographic, as the teens who drive the box office become more diverse. Diesel, son of an Italian-American and an
imgagine him playing Alan Cumming’s big-bear.
African-American, refuses labels. “I support the idea of being multicultural primarily for all the invisible kids, the ones who don’t fit into one ethnic category,” Diesel once said — which is either a righteous statement, or merely another spin on what advertisers call the “urban” market.
In any case, Diesel seems to lap up the fame, and his
acting in The Chronicles of Riddick is subsequently less disciplined (he’s
still that teenager flexing in front of his bedroom mirror), and more full of
dreadful dialogue and the kind of made-up words that doom even the most dystopic
sci-fi ("Necromongers," "Furians").
I prefer the Vin Diesel of the terrifically scary, low-budget thriller Pitch Black: sinister, misanthropic, and mercenary. The problem with The Chronicles of Riddick is that they give him too many voice-over’s (think: Keanu), until the mystery’s all gone; he telegraphs his thoughts like he’s some blogger, instead of the biggest, baddest, most antisocial threat in the universe. Still, he’s got presence — he knows exactly how to lean back and nearly out of the frame, so that you find yourself leaning forward, following him. And those snakeskin wifebeaters he wears look more appropriate in some future dystopia than on Jay Leno’s couch.
In some egotistical Russell Crowe gambit, Diesel’s now signed on to go back to the past, playing Hannibal — not the cannibal, the Carthaginian leader — in a film based on a script by David Franzoni, who wrote Gladiator. It’s a horrible mistake: a speaking role, and too heroic for someone so utterly unlikeable. But at least it won’t be The Rock who’s riding those elephants down into Rome. Let The Rock be the next Schwarzenegger, the governor of Hawaii; Diesel’s still got a shot at being the next Stallone.
Remember: Sly had a secret painting habit, the desire to direct, and, most importantly, the good sense not to talk about any of it in public.