How Vin Diesel Became the Frog Prince of Movie Stars

The Fate of the Furious
Courtesy of Universal Pictures

No movie star in history gets as little respect as Vin Diesel. A lot of people — too many — still see him as a fake star, a joke, a beady-eyed mush-mouthed poseur in a wife-beater. He’s the action-film equivalent of a politician (like, you know, Trump or Obama) whose legitimacy has never been fully accepted by the other party. Hipsters have no problem with Dwayne Johnson, whose quick sharp delivery, along with his superman physique, conveys an invincibility they’re comfortable with. But Diesel is a different hunk of rock. Off camera, he leads with his proletarian hip-hop swagger; onscreen, his identity in the Hollywood galaxy comes down to his being the renegade hood ornament on a series of wildly overwrought vehicular thrillers that a lot of people have zero to no patience for. (Meanwhile, as today’s box-office returns for “The Fate of the Furious” indicate, the fans still think these movies are God. Talk about a cinematic blue-state/red-state divide.)

For 20 years now, Vin Diesel has been the star you love to hate, to mock, to place yourself above. Yet none of that is really fair. For throughout that time, he has honed his act and kept it tight. In another era, he might have had a more prestigious career, but the reason his name brings out the snark factor is that he incarnates the current era in all its disreputable shagginess. He’s a star for the age of high-octane bluster.

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It’s worth recalling that he started out as a gifted and compelling actor. In “Saving Private Ryan” (1998), he was macho but spooked, and years before “The Wolf of Wall Street” he caught the wormy bravura of the new financial hustlers in “Boiler Room” (2000), where he turned selling fool’s-gold stocks into a game that dripped with the lure of corruption. A year later, he co-starred in “The Fast and the Furious” (2001), and it’s fun to go back and see what it looked like when Dominic Toretto was just a grease-monkey hot rodder with a shady past in a B-movie that no one expected to go anywhere.

Diesel gave Dom a ’50s-delinquent, old-kid-on-the-block mystique, and though the plot, at least compared to everything that came later, made the movie look as classical and restrained as a season of “Downton Abbey,” Diesel was already using his thick round features — the muscles, the chrome dome, the syrupy growl — to create a larger-than-life aura. Born Mark Sinclair, Diesel has always claimed to be an ethnic mutt; though he never knew his biological father, he’s implied that he’s of mixed-race heritage, a factor that became a crucial part of his image. From the start, the “Fast and Furious” films were multiculti casseroles of the new polyglot youth culture (Asian meets Hispanic meets African-American), to the point that Paul Walker, with his second-coming-of-Rob-Lowe white-bread aura, could look like the exotic one. That made Diesel, with his swarthy glower that straddled categories (was Toretto really Italian? Or was he the gangsta Andrew Dice Clay?), the perfect star-mascot.

The movie, of course, was yuge (domestic gross: $144 million), and that’s when Diesel went for it, signing on for a breakout star vehicle that, like one of those souped-up fast-and-furious roadsters, took his career into the stratosphere and over a cliff at the same time. “XXX,” released exactly one year after “The Fast and the Furious,” was a James Bond-meets-Chuck-Norris-on-steroids spectacular, a gilded but chintzy piece of high-testosterone trash, and though it, too, made $142 million at the box office, it was greeted with such derision that, in certain ways, Diesel’s image never recovered from it. As Xander Cage, he didn’t quite look like he was acting — it was closer to preening. But the real problem is that the character’s cornball machismo was extreme enough to seem fake. I still remember his super-cheesy neo-Arnold/Eastwood kiss-off line (“Welcome to the Xander zone!”), at which point the entire film, including Diesel’s performance, seemed to get devoured by a fireball.

Yet the cultural nose-thumbing also came from a deeper place: Diesel was being punished for what movies were becoming. Actors like Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis didn’t launch their careers as “action stars,” they evolved into it (and maintained their credibility), but Diesel, with only a couple of good movies under his belt, seemed to cut right to some decadent level of junk superstardom. Overnight, he became the leering, growly-voiced icon of the pulpization of movies.

He had his passion projects, like the “Pitch Black” films, but his career as a grounded-on-earth actor was basically over. If the “Fast and the Furious” franchise had faded away, he might well have taken more chances (and maybe he still will), yet that series, more than ever, now seems like his destiny. And that’s because he’s the one who’s provided its glimmer of soul. Actors from Steve McQueen in “Bullitt” to Clint Eastwood in the spaghetti Westerns and “Dirty Harry” films to Mel Gibson in the “Mad Max” movies have had glamorous facades that concealed the action animal within. Diesel, in the “Fast and Furious” films, rips off that mask: His thick-featured mug, set off by a dyspeptic scowl that says, “I got no time for that pussy-boy glamour stuff,” is the id of every action star made visible. Just watch him in “The Fate of the Furious.” The scenes that reveal how Charlize Theron’s supervillain is manipulating him may be a bit moist, but once he gets into that car, he is fierce, he is still — yes — cool, he is the center of gravity. He’s the movie star he deserves to be.

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  1. Derek fleming says:

    Great F! $×ing article. Vin is definitely a crazy case of stardom. For all the bad movies he’s done the guy has headlined 3 big budget franchises that weren’t remakes or adaptations of preexisting material. That’s impressive in the 21st century, who else has even one?

    • jedi77 says:

      Gotta get real, dude.
      “yoyofrost” got it right. Vin hasn’t opened a movie outside the Furious franchise since XXX.
      And hey, headlining a big budget franchise is not the same as that franchise being popular or even making money.
      Anyway, the Pitch Black franchise only had the one big budget movie which bombed stupendously, and two low to moderate budget movies.
      I know you love the guy, and he’s done very well for himself, but don’t exagerate. It negates your argument, and makes you sound like an uncritical fanboy.

    • yoyofrost says:

      What stardom? The Last Witch Hunter, Return of Xander XXX, Babylon A.D, and Riddick were all flops. He can’t carry a movie at all

  2. skrable2a says:

    If you want to see a different acting experience by Vin Diesel, watch “Find Me Guilty,” directed by Sidney Lumet. That’s where the non-action star emerges

    • jedi77 says:

      And subsequenlty disappears. I really liked his performance in that film, but it was a one-off. He hasn’t been near a performance of that quality since then.

  3. Steve Barr says:

    Vin was also the the voice of Groot and The Iron Giant .

  4. frogbrains says:

    what a moron writing this. im not kooky for vin but im not whatever arrogant krap u are writing here. and i live in manhattan. u need therapy.

  5. Booda says:

    Whoever wrote this is a pure hater to a worldwide phenome , with over 36 million followers on insta and more on facebook i guess he is legit popular and respected worldwide , stop hating and get off dwayne band wagon…thx

    • yoyofrost says:

      LMAO what? I guess Vin’s fans are as dense as he is. The writer is defending Vin, who by the way isn’t respected (nor popular) in any stretch of the imagination. He’s a talentless hack whose career would have sink if his niche market (dumb, high-octane trash action movies) weren’t in business.

  6. Matt says:

    Ah, you forgot the great role he had in “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”. Shame on you!

  7. Ann says:

    He’s one of my favorite actors, in all of his movies.

  8. Lara Q says:

    He reminds me a lot of Bruce Willis.He would`ve fitted in perfectly during their reign as action stars.

  9. CJB says:

    Vin Diesel is a stiff. His emotional range runs the gamut from A to B. (On good days!).
    The other actors you mention, including Dwayne Johnson, have indeed shown a breath of characters
    completely absent from Mr. Diesel’s work. He’s lucked into some money making films. Nice for him.

    • Bill B. says:

      Couldn’t agree more. Even though I saw Saving Private Ryan when it was released, the first time he came on my radar was Pitch Black. Thought he was effective. Never liked him in anything else. He has some presence, but he is a boring, monotonous actor.

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