Vin Diesel’s Killing It. So Why Isn’t He An A-Lister?

Closing in on a cool billion dollars after less than two weeks, The Fate of the Furious sits at the top of the box office, adding to a bewildering string of successes from the Vin Diesel Action Brain Trust™.

Remember Riddick? Turns out it opened to a #1 weekend. How about xXx: Return of Xander Cage? Surely nobody saw that piece of hot threequel garbage. Wrong. So far it’s the seventh highest-grossing film of 2017. (The Fate of the Furious is #2.)

Not to be outdone by anyone but himself apparently, Diesel’s starring in a third mega franchise installment opening this weekend, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, sure to be a box office slam dunk itself.

What’s more, Vin Diesel isn’t just an actor in his films. He’s the main creative voice and a major financial and producing partner in the Fast and Furious, xXx, and The Chronicles of Riddick franchises. He picks the directors. He casts. He typically has a lot of influence on the story. His movies bring in billions. The Fast and the Furious films together have grossed over $4.8 billion and there’s at least two more coming by the end of 2021. What’s more, it’s clear Universal Pictures is happy with their man; they’re rewarding him with a fourth Riddick film, which is currently in development.

Financially, Vin Diesel is safely one of the most bankable and recognizable figures in Hollywood and abroad. Don’t mistake it. The man is at the top of the entertainment industry. And if you look at his resume he’s done drama, comedy, notable voice-over work. But…you wouldn’t necessarily call him a distinguished actor. How come?

Firstly, there’s the fair perception that he just makes trashy films, even the ones critics intellectually compartmentalize because they’re made with a wink and a nod, i.e. Fast and Furious 5-8. His preferred genre lives very comfortably in the shit pile. An experimental franchise-starter like The Last Witch Hunter –the protagonist of which Diesel based on his longtime Dungeons and Dragons character- isn’t sitting on the shelf next to the likes of “quality” action films like Iron Man or Skyfall.

Secondly, Vin Diesel is just not a leading man like say, Robert Downey Jr., Daniel Craig, or Chris Pratt. I don’t believe audiences are filling theaters specifically to see Diesel in each Fast and Furious installment. I’ve always felt the charm is more in them being an ensemble. Besides, these days it’s Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson who’s practically running away with the show. The Rock, who’s made a small habit of stepping into franchises late and turning them around, has proven so popular in The Fast and the Furious that’s he’s likely getting a spin-off film with co-star Jason Statham.

So despite the record business Diesel fetches and high-profile films he stars in, he’s still a rung beneath his contemporaries. There’s a prestige ceiling he seems unable (or more like content not) to reach for.

Which is interesting because other actors with low-brow action franchises like Kate Beckinsale (Underworld) or Liam Neeson (Taken) enjoy a level of “legitimacy” separate from their tent pole vehicles. So what gives?

You might say, he just doesn’t have the chops. It’s certainly easy to dismiss his gurgling, bruiser action performances as the best he can do because they’re all you see of him. He just doesn’t do any other movies. Unlike other actors might do, he doesn’t alternate his crowd-pleasers with quiet indie films or Oscar-bait. He doesn’t really step out of his corner. But he’s not a hack. Go watch 2006’s Find Me Guilty, a based-on-true-events courtroom procedural and tell me he can’t embody a compelling character. He does a good job.

Vin Diesel - Vin Diesel

I think Vin Diesel has had massive success and owned the path his life has taken, but isn’t in the place he expected to be at the start of his career.

When he was just starting out Diesel made a couple of very earnest, very straight independent dramas: Multi-Facial and Strays. They were his first films, impressing Stephen Spielberg enough to cast him in Saving Private Ryan. In the transparently autobiographical Multi-Facial especially, Diesel’s character sees himself as a proper dramatic actor in the shadow of Al Pacino and others. And he gives himself sympathetic scenes to show off. He’s actually pretty good and the film is full of pathos. I think this is (or was) the real Vin Diesel, the dramatic actor. Even the first Fast and the Furious, while an actioner, was handled with more sincere dramatic weight than the series’ current melodrama. I suspect he may have ended up a type of actor he didn’t originally intend to be.

Let’s differentiate though. There are two Vin Diesels: Vin Diesel in front of the camera and Vin Diesel the producer. As an actor I imagine he originally identified with his early work. But he’s also a capable businessman and quietly a major nerd, which informs his producing. He taught Dame Judi Dench how to play D&D on the set of The Chronicles of Riddick. The only reason that franchise continues is because Diesel himself is the biggest fantasy fan in Hollywood and makes it happen. His first independent films he didn’t just act in; he wrote, directed, scored, and financed them. I think there’s an auteur somewhere deep down inside.

I know, laugh. Of course he’s not reinventing the wheel. But instead of art film he’s doing it with pop action. Again, make no mistake: Vin Diesel has major financial and creative control of three blockbuster franchises, chief among which is one of the most globally successful film series ever. He has a lot of clout.

So why isn’t he higher on the “list?” I think it’s the completeness with which he’s moved into his role as action brand-maker in the last decade. I’d put him in a similar category as Sylvester Stallone in terms of career trajectory: begin artistically, continue crowd-pleasingly. Long ago, Stallone wrote and starred in Rocky, so he’s got the talent. But for the rest of his career he never really seemed interested in re-proving that he could be “actorly.” And in fairness, why should he? He’s Sylvester Stallone, he’s done just fine. The same with Vin Diesel. He’s carved out such a huge and multi-faceted piece of the pie that he’s made his own reputation and legacy, regardless of if his career doesn’t feel like an on-going improvement.

You always hear actors talking about improving and reaching with every role, growing as an artist and performer. You take on challenges to deepen your repertoire as a professional. Is Dominic Toretto a particularly difficult character for Vin Diesel to play? Probably not. But you can bet he took Saving Private Ryan seriously.

He’s likely a fine actor and I imagine he looks forward to ending The Fast and the Furious so he can do something else, maybe something he can really sink his teeth into.

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