Days of Vin and Poses
As promised (if that's quite the right word), a Stream a Little Stream double-bill focussing on the career of the artist formerly known as Mark Sinclair, the great (for a given value of great) Vin Diesel. It's very easy to take the mickey out of Diesel (and I am tempted to say 'let's get straight to it'), but the inescapable fact is that he has managed to sustain a twenty year career as a movie star, if not quite at the very top then certainly there or thereabouts (a net worth of – be still, my watering eyes – $200 million speaks for itself).
Nevertheless you could certainly argue that Diesel is in an odd position, rather akin to Sylvester Stallone or one of the Marvel Chrises (Evans and Hemsworth) that in his films make huge amounts of money, but he seems to be limited to just playing the characters he is best known for. Is there a reason for this? This is what we will be searching for today, by examining a couple of Vin Diesel movies with a rather lower profile (still available on Netflix, though).
First off, F Gary Gray's A Man Apart, released in 2003. A startlingly baby-faced and slimline Vin plays tough DEA agent Sean Vetter, who as things get underway is a member of an unorthodox team hunting the leaders of the Mexican drug cartels. (The movie opens with a lengthy scene-setter, narrated by a tranquilised-sounding Diesel, describing just how big an operation the cartels are running and the sheer quantities of drugs entering the States every week – it's hard to tell whether this more resembles a Trump campaign video or a commercial for cocaine.) Well, Vin is instrumental in catching El Big Chief (Geno Silva) and is allowed some time off to visit his wife and cat.
Yes, Vin has a lovely wife (played by Jacqueline Obradors) who makes scented candles, and a cat (played by a cat) who does not. Lengthy (or, certainly, lengthy-seeming) scenes establishing their deep and loving relationship, and what a caring guy Vin is, ensues (I'm talking about Diesel and his wife, not him and the cat, though they probably get on well too). This paints a figurative bullseye on Mrs Vin's forehead and so it proves: it seems that with El Big Chief in the chokey, a new drug lord known only as Diablo is seizing power, and packs off some hired killers to get rid of Vin.
Needless to say, Vin survives but his wife does not, and the fate of the cat remains a mystery. After a lot of shouting and emoting, a volcanically vengeful Vin sets out in search of justice, but will he be able to keep it together long enough to find the mysterious Diablo and deliver a well-deserved diving headbutt?
Now, the thing I should say about A Man Apart is that it is a bit of an outlier in the Diesel canon, as it seems to have been made before his rise to genuine stardom – exactly when is a little difficult to figure out, but a court-case concerning the rights to the film's working title of Diablo was in progress in 2001. This is one of those movies that sat on the shelf for some time before landing a release, something which is never a particularly good sign. However, it does explain why Diesel looks so young and why the film sometimes seems a bit unsure about what to do with him.
On the one hand, this is a very routine revenge melodrama set against the backdrop of the war on drugs (combining such a trivial story with a genuinely serious issue inevitably produces a movie with an uncomfortable tone), while on the other it also seems to be trying to be a character piece about Diesel's character struggling to come to terms with grief. It would be great to say that the young Vin is a revelation as an actor, but the best one can really say is that his performance style hasn't yet ossified into the handful of expressions he tends to rely on these days. He still has his usual presence and charisma, and he passes the movie star test of being watchable even in a bad movie – but this is still a tedious, nasty, uninvolving thriller. I almost never bail out halfway through a movie, even at home, but I was sorely tempted here. But hey, he was young, he needed the money.
The same probably wasn't the case in 2015, when Diesel made The Last Witch Hunter with Breck Eisner – something of a major event in his career, as it's the only lead role he took between 2008 and 2020 which wasn't a sequel to an earlier movie. Here he plays Kaulder, a twelfth-century warrior who – a pattern develops – has lost his loved ones to the bad guy, on this occasion the Evil Witch Queen. (Just to vary things a bit, Diesel has lost a daughter rather than a cat.) Cue various scenes of Diesel running amok with a flaming sword and looking psychotic, but his vanquished foe has the last laugh – Diesel will be cursed with… eternal youth and immortality! (Not, I would venture, the worst curse ever administered.)
Well, roll on 800 years, and Vin has had a haircut and is living in present-day New York City. Not content with being a bit like Macleod in Highlander, he is also rather like Blade, Hellboy and one of the Men in Black, as he has been recruited by a vaguely Catholic Church-like outfit to ensure the world's secret witch population behave themselves. Helping him out is Michael Caine, who is basically reprising his performance from the Christopher Nolan Batman films.
However, it looks like Caine has just signed up for a cameo, as his character is bumped off by a witch. But which witch? With his old sidekick gone, Vin has to switch to a new guy (Elijah Wood), who is a bit of a titch and prone to twitch, which is a bit rich considering his job. Soon the two of them team up with a friendly love-interest witch (Rose Leslie) and must pitch themselves into battle with their foes, hoping it all goes without a hitch. Life can be a bit annoying sometimes, can't it?
If only I'd had as much fun watching The Last Witch Hunter as I had writing that last paragraph. This is, let's be absolutely clear, an incredibly derivative movie, which sometimes plays like a list of all the mistakes people make when doing these mid-budget fantasy films: too much CGI, too many stock characters, and so on. On top of this, the film has the serious problem that Diesel is just delivering his stock performance as a swaggering, smirking, smug tough guy in this film: you get no sense that he is a man out of time.
With the exception of Caine and possibly Wood, you get no sense of anyone on this movie actually trying very hard – the premise is hackneyed, the plot predictable, the special effects capable but bland. It just feels like an exercise in by-the-numbers film-making. You would perhaps have expected a little more commitment from Vin, given the film was apparently based on one of his Dungeons & Dragons characters, but apparently not. Despite all this, and the fact the film contains only one really memorable moment (Vin delivers his signature diving headbutt to a giant wooden insect), it apparently still did well enough for a sequel to be on the cards. It's enough to make your teeth itch.
But what have we learned? That Vin Diesel's non-franchise movies just aren't very good? Perhaps. Or perhaps the answer is staring us in the face. It's not the case that Vin has made a string of obscure flops and is only known for his successful, franchise movies: when he leads a movie, it's usually a success. The thing is that he just doesn't make a lot of films, and having found a lucrative niche, he's stuck to it, making the movies that people want to see him in, more or less. Whatever this suggests about Diesel's ambitions as a creative artist, it's certainly a good business model. Perhaps this makes him the McDonald's of movie stars, and this feels oddly appropriate: certainly both he and that corporation are popular internationally, give their customers what they want, and are experts in shifting large volumes of beef at high speed. And there's nothing wrong with any of that.
Next Week: Oh, I don't know. How about another double bill of films starring someone whose name starts with 'Vin'? It's that or a Jason Statham retrospective.