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How Vin Diesel Became the Frog Prince of Movie Stars

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.

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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