Total Recall

Vin Diesel's Best Movies

In this week's Total Recall, we count down the best-reviewed work of the Riddick star.

by | September 5, 2013 | Comments

Vin Diesel

It’s been nearly a decade since the surly, freaky-eyed Richard Riddick graced our cineplex screens, but even after the relative failure of 2004’s The Chronicles of Riddick, fans never lost hope that we’d see his return — and neither did Riddick’s portrayer, Vin Diesel, who fought long and hard to secure funding for a third installment. It took a lot of work (and leveraging his house) to make it happen, but Riddick is finally here. Naturally, we decided that this week would be the perfect time to devote an installment of Total Recall to the Diesel filmography, and recount the critical high points of a journey that’s taken him from bit player to $100 million-grossing franchise topliner, multi-hyphenate media mogul, social media star, and future Marvel hero. Get ready for plenty of action, folks — it’s Vin Diesel time!


10. The Chronicles of Riddick

Four years after the surprise success of Pitch Black helped make him a star, Diesel returned to the role of the frequently goggled escaped convict Richard B. Riddick for The Chronicles of Riddick, a sequel that added $82 million to its predecessor’s budget in return for a more expansive storyline, better special effects, and the most inexplicable appearance of Dame Judi Dench’s long and distinguished career. Riddick cracked the $100 million mark, ekeing out a small return on Universal’s investment, but after Pitch Black, audiences and critics were expecting something more from the second installment of writer/director David Twohy’s sci-fi franchise. “It’s no Battlefield Earth,” wrote Empire’s Ian Nathan, “but it’s no Dune either. And no, before you ask, it’s not destined to be a cult classic.”


9. XXX

By the early Naughts, the good old-fashioned action flick had taken a bit of a box-office tumble — due partly to endlessly recycled high-concept storylines, but also to the glaring lack of a star with enough comedic chops and raw physicality to take the rock ’em, sock ’em mantle from Sly, Arnie, and/or Bruce. Early on, it seemed like Vin Diesel might be that star, which is what led Columbia and Revolution to promote xXx with wishful, hyperbolic comparisons to the Bond franchise — and promises to reinvent said franchise for a new generation. In the end, positioning Diesel as a hipper, younger 007 only made it that much easier for critics to beat up on the movie. This didn’t stop it from rolling over $140 million at the box office, but it kept xXx from a Fresh certification — and provided writers like Filmcritic’s Christopher Null an opportunity to dismiss the would-be Bond killer as “totally idiotic.”


8. The Fast and the Furious

“It’s the journey, not the destination” may have become a favorite cliche of guidance counselors and New Age enthusiasts, but it’s still true — witness, for example, the raging success of The Fast and the Furious, a film whose utter predictability is redeemed by 102 minutes of sleek visuals and an easy-to-look-at cast that includes Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster, and Paul Walker as the undercover cop assigned to infiltrate Diesel’s gang of thieving street racers. Not the type of film that needs positive reviews to make money, in other words — and sure enough, Furious sped to over $200 million in worldwide grosses despite negative-to-lukewarm writeups from critics like Reel Film Reviews’ David Nusair, who sniffed that it was “ultimately entertaining enough to warrant a mild recommendation.”


7. Pitch Black

Any film that takes place in the 46th century — and suffers the ignominy of being dumped into theaters in February — faces a fairly steep uphill battle with critics. Although Pitch Black didn’t quite make it over the hump, running out of steam at 57 percent on the Tomatometer, it did far better than most would have guessed — and it helped make a star out of Vin Diesel, whose turn as the hulking, creepy-eyed escaped convict Richard B. Riddick helped David Twohy’s low-budget sci-fi epic transcend its less inspired moments. In the end, Pitch Black became the rare winter feature that ends up spawning a sequel, thanks in part to the begrudging respect of writers like Entertainment Weekly’s Lisa Schwarzbaum, who praised it as “so jaunty, so limber, and so visually self-assured that art peeks through where crap has traditionally made its home.”


6. Find Me Guilty

The same year he starred in The Pacifier, Diesel packed on 30 pounds — and grew hair! — to take the lead in Sidney Lumet’s Find Me Guilty, a legal dramedy based on the true story of the longest Mafia trial in American history. As reputed mobster Jackie DiNorscio, who famously represented himself during the trial, Diesel finally won the nearly unanimous critical praise that escaped him in earlier films; sadly, critics found fault with just about every other aspect of Find Me Guilty, including what many saw as an irresponsibly rosy portrait of the real-life mobsters at the heart of Lumet’s screenplay. Still, even if it is, in the words of the Hollywood Reporter’s Kirk Honeycutt, “guilty of moral stupidity and misguided hero worship,” Diesel could take comfort in praise from the likes of the New York Post’s Lou Lumenick, who wrote that his “volatile performance finally proves he is much more than an action star.”


5. Boiler Room

A sort of miniature blend of Glengarry Glen Ross and Wall Street, Ben Younger’s Boiler Room looked at the seedy underbelly of the tech bubble’s millionaire boom, peeking inside the price-fixing exploits of a seedy Long Island “chop shop” brokerage firm. It wasn’t a big hit, and critics were fairly divided in their opinions, but it gave Diesel the opportunity to deliver a nicely understated dramatic supporting role, and with just a few more reviews from writers like the New York Times’ A.O. Scott — who said it “reflects the sensibility of the generation it holds up to critical scrutiny, and it’s a cunningly ambiguous act of self-portraiture” — Boiler Room would have a nice fresh tomato next to its title.


4. Fast & Furious 6

After shifting into a higher critical and commercial gear with Fast Five in 2011, the Fast & Furious franchise kept the pedal to the medal with Fast & Furious 6 two years later, retaining the series’ new heist thriller approach (and recent cast addition Dwayne Johnson) for another round of souped-up action and automotive mayhem. While the series’ sixth installment ultimately fell a few percentage points shy of its predecessor, it still went down as one of the summer of 2013’s better-performing blockbusters, rolling up nearly $800 million in worldwide grosses — along with applause from critics like Colin Covert of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, who wrote, “It’s a ripsnorting carmageddon that stylizes automotive annihilation the way John Woo used to choreograph death and destruction with guns and explosions.”


3. Fast Five

Very few franchises notch critical high marks with their fifth installments, and The Fast and the Furious series — a perennial critics’ target since its debut in 2001 — hardly seemed like a logical candidate for ever achieving Certified Fresh status. But lo and behold, that’s exactly what happened in 2011, when Fast Five roared off to 77 percent on the Tomatometer (and over $625 million in worldwide grosses). So what changed? Well, it didn’t hurt that Five‘s storyline took a “heist action” approach rather than the “street racing action drama” of previous installments, and the returning cast members (including Paul Walker, Jordana Brewster, Tyrese Gibson, and of course Vin Diesel) benefited from the copious charisma of new addition Dwayne Johnson. Whatever the reasons, longtime Furious fans had company in critics like Connie Ogle of the Miami Herald, who called it Five “Embarrassingly fun, the sort of speedy, senseless, violence-crammed action flick that virtually defines the summer season, with superheroes who aren’t gods or crusaders in tights but guys in T-shirts and jeans who can drive cars really fast.”


2. Saving Private Ryan

Movies like xXx and The Pacifier make it easy to forget this, but Vin Diesel has always been more than your average action star; in fact, he wrote, produced, directed, and starred in his film debut, 1995’s Strays — and managed to have it screened at Cannes, where it attracted the attention of Steven Spielberg, who was inspired to create the role of PFC Adrian Caparzo in Saving Private Ryan specifically for Diesel. And while it wasn’t the film’s biggest role — in fact, Diesel’s character is the first member of the squad to be killed — it still gave him a nice leg up from one of the biggest directors in the business, and allowed him to be a part of what James Berardinelli of ReelViews called “a singular motion picture experience.”


1. The Iron Giant

Today, he’s animation royalty, but in 1999, Brad Bird was still a relative unknown getting his first big break with a Warner Bros. feature based on Ted Hughes’ 1968 children’s book, The Iron Man. Commercially speaking, Giant was a less than auspicious debut — thanks to what many saw as a misguided promotional campaign on the studio’s part, the movie only managed a pitiful $23 million domestic gross — but the adventures of young Hogarth Hughes and his imposing metal friend struck a deep chord with critics like the Chicago Tribune’s Mark Caro, who wrote that “animated films excel in conjuring up colorful fantasy worlds, but few evoke an actual time and place as vividly — and playfully — as The Iron Giant does.” Diesel, of course, was the voice of the titular giant — and lest you scoff that lending your voice to an animated robot doesn’t require much in the way of actual, you know, acting, we defy you to watch the film’s climactic sequence without having your heart torn out by Big Vin’s delivery of one simple word: “Superman.”

In case you were wondering, here are Diesel’s top 10 movies according RT users’ scores:

1. Saving Private Ryan — 92%
2. Fast & Furious 6 — 84%
3. Fast Five — 82%
4. The Fast and the Furious — 79%
5. The Iron Giant — 78%
6. Pitch Black — 76%
7. Boiler Room — 74%
8. Fast & Furious — 73%
9. The Chronicles of Riddick — 69%
10. The Pacifier — 66%

Take a look through Diesel’s complete filmography, as well as the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don’t forget to check out the reviews for Riddick.

Finally, here’s Diesel’s acting and directorial debut — Strays, from 1997: