It’s been 15 years since Vin Diesel first played Xander Cage in xXx, but after all those years — and the character’s apparent death — he’s back for another round of high-octane adventure. 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 multi-franchise hero. Get ready for plenty of action, folks – it’s Vin Diesel time!
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.”
After the relative failure of 2004’s Pitch Black sequel The Chronicles of Riddick, Diesel labored for nearly a decade to give the franchise another installment — first trading a cameo in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift in exchange for the rights to the character, then laboring for years with director and screenwriter David Twohy over ideas for the script. Ultimately, Diesel ended up mortgaging his home and heavily investing his own money into 2013’s Riddick, which finds our hero marooned on a distant planet and beset by ravenous beasts as well as a pack of mercenaries. The picture found a warmer reception at the box office, where it brought in nearly $100 million, but critics weren’t entirely sold — Riddick ultimately ended up just shy of Fresh territory, and even its fans openly conceded that it was more of a goofy good time than a serious piece of sci-fi. As Stephanie Merry wrote for the Washington Post, “Riddick can be cheesy and silly, not to mention excessively violent, but it’s also fun.”
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 would have a nice fresh tomato next to its title.
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.”
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 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.”
The Fast and Furious franchise has openly defied the laws of diminishing box-office returns — not to mention physics — over the course of its long lifespan, but it isn’t entirely immune to real-world concerns, as fans were sadly reminded when star Paul Walker was suddenly killed in a car crash while still in the midst of production on Furious 7. Walker’s death cast a shadow over the movie, adding a dash of poignancy to the action, and his surviving cast members proved up to the responsibility of sending off their co-star with one of the hugely lucrative saga’s more critically successful entries. “When a film is this exciting in its action set pieces and this meaningful in its quiet moments,” argued Tulsa World’s Michael Smith, “the filmmakers are getting it right.”
We come here to praise Vin Diesel, not bury him — and yet we’re compelled here to point out that he’s delivered some of his finest, most emotionally affecting work with a bare minimum of dialogue. All of which is to say that while some may have raised a quizzical eyebrow or let slip with a chuckle when word got out Diesel had been cast as the monosyllabic treelike alien Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy, longtime fans knew he could deliver — and he didn’t disappoint, anchoring the ensemble MCU space adventure with action, humor, and even a little heartstring-tugging pathos despite only ever uttering varying inflections on the phrase “I am Groot.” As Joe Williams wrote for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “If you’re old enough to remember when sci-fi and comic books were fun, Guardians of the Galaxy will be your new favorite movie. If you’re not, it will set a standard for everything you see.”
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, 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.”