With the release of Fast & Furious this Friday, Vin Diesel joins the elite ranks of actors who have starred in franchises that have spun off more than two sequels. Now that Vin is rubbing shoulders with such lucky thesps as Robert Englund, Bill Shatner, and Kane Hodder, we thought 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 star and multi-hyphenate media mogul. Get ready for plenty of action, folks — it’s Vin Diesel time!
Obviously, Diesel’s films haven’t always enjoyed the kindest reviews — his overall Tomatometer is a rather depressing 21 percent — but as much as we might like to chuckle at critical turkeys like The Pacifier and Babylon A.D., the truth is that he’s always been much more ambitious than some of his script choices might indicate; though there’s no getting around the fact that this list is bogged down with questionable fare like 2002’s Knockaround Guys, it would be unfair not to give Diesel credit for the positive reviews he’s earned while starring in critical duds (Find Me Guilty), the unqualified bright spots on his resume (The Iron Giant), or the surprisingly long list of behind-the-scenes credits he’s amassed. So let’s give Vin his due, shall we? Here, without further delay, are the 10 best-reviewed movies of Mr. Diesel’s career!
Released after years in limbo in order to take advantage of Diesel’s newfound popularity in the wake of Pitch Black and The Fast and the Furious, Brian Koppelman and David Levien’s Knockaround Guys presented — on paper, anyway — an interesting twist on the gangster action comedy genre, fusing mob warfare and frontier justice via a plot that sent a pack of wiseguys to a small Montana town in pursuit of a missing bag of money. Despite this relatively novel premise, and a cast that included generally reliable character actors like Seth Green, John Malkovich, and Dennis Hopper, Knockaround received a fate worthy of its title, landing with a thud at the box office and dropping to 20 percent on the Tomatometer thanks to reviews from critics like Movie Eye’s Frank Ochieng, who wrote, “It may not be instantly forgettable, but it comes close.”
Ever since Arnold screamed “It’s not a tumor!” action stars have known that the quickest path from squinty-eyed genre hero to bona fide box office royalty has been taking a role in a family flick that uses its star’s beefy bod to comedic effect. Yes, it’s the quickest path — but notice we didn’t say it’s a failsafe one: for every Kindergarten Cop or The Game Plan, there’s a Mr. Nanny…or The Pacifier, Vin Diesel’s entry into the kiddie pool. As a Navy SEAL who ends up babysitting his dead partner’s five children (and directing a high school production of The Sound of Music in the process), Diesel did well enough to earn begrudging admiration from some critics (like Jim Schembri of the Sydney Morning Herald, who complimented him for “[working] hard with a cast of great kids”) — and take the movie over $100 million at the box office — but all in all, it was a complete critical dud. “Per its title,” wrote Nigel Floyd of Time Out, “The Pacifier will lull you to sleep.”
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.”
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.”
“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.”
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.”
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.”
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 it might have reached the boiling point at the box office.
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.”
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, The Iron 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.”
Finally, here’s the trailer for Strays, written, directed by, and starring Vin Diesel: