I like Vin Diesel. He is an enormously likable person when you meet him face-to-face, and much of what makes him so charismatic in person is communicated clearly through his on-screen presence in the 34 films he's made since he wrote and directed and starred in his short film “Multi-Facial” back in 1995.
That short film eventually got him a lot of attention in Hollywood, but by far, the best reaction was the one that Steven Spielberg had. He was preparing to shoot his film “Saving Private Ryan,” and he had screenwriter Frank Darabont create and incorporate a new character named Private Caparzo specifically so he could cast Diesel in the film and work with him. A year later, Brad Bird was the first to make use of Vin's most unusual pipes as the voice of the title character in “The Iron Giant,” something James Gunn did to such effective purpose in last year's “Guardians Of The Galaxy” as well.
Between those two moments, Vin's had a lot of shots at franchises, and Hollywood has treated him like a math problem that they are determined to solve, no matter what. Vin Diesel is, on paper, a perfect 21st century movie star. He is of ambiguous racial origin, he looks like he was built in a lab to star in action movies, and he never seems to take himself too seriously as a person. More than anything, he seems like he genuinely enjoys all of this, and he's grateful. It's a pretty appealing combination.
And sure enough, there's one franchise where Vin Diesel in front and center and pretty much the center of the thing that is positively gigantic. Universal has had tremendous luck with the “Fast and Furious” franchise, and even after the untimely and emotionally devastating death of Paul Walker, the team behind the films rallied and finished the last movie and turned it into the biggest success of the series so far. These films are so big that logic would dictate that everything else Diesel touches turns to equivalent gold…
… but it's not true. Not at all. When Vin originally left the “Fast & Furious” series, it was because he was poised for gigantic stardom, and it felt like they were going to start building new series around him. After all, “Pitch Black” wasn't a big hit in 2000, but it had an audience, and it seemed like Universal could give him room to do something much bigger building off of that with “The Chronicles Of Riddick.” Between those two films came the first “Fast and the Furious” and “xXx,” the James-Bond-of-extreme-sports movie, and when “xXx” and “Riddick” underperformed, suddenly it was like people didn't know what to do with him. “The Pacifier” may be the all-time favorite film of at least one working film critic (Jeremy “Mr. Beaks” Smith, I'm looking at you), but it did not expand his audience or build on his success at all. “Find Me Guilty” may be a nice performance, but it doesn't really work as a film as a whole, and no one saw it. By the time he agreed to make a surprise appearance at the end of “The Fast and The Furious: Tokyo Drift,” it felt like a Hail Mary pass on his part, a desperate attempt to return to one of the few things that had worked. One more big action/SF attempt, “Babylon A.D.”, tanked completely before there was a full-blown “Fast & Furious 4” with Dominic Toretto at the center of it in 2009.
Since then, Diesel's been fairly single-minded. He tried one last time with “Riddick,” but once again, the audience just wasn't there. I liked it, but it's a gnarly, crazy little movie, and it just didn't connect with the larger audience that shows up when you put Diesel in a muscle car. And, yes, “Guardians Of The Galaxy” is gigantic, and Diesel's work as Groot is certainly appealing, but you can't really argue that he made the difference one way or another in the overall success of the thing.
When Lionsgate releases “The Last Witch Hunter” tomorrow, they're giving Diesel something he's always dreamed of, even before he was famous. I don't have to even discuss it with him to know that. He's a fantasy uber-nerd, a D&D player from way back, and just looking at the trailer, it's clear he's getting to live out some of his most Gygax-fueled dreams, doing magic and fighting monsters. And I'm sure he'd love to jump right into another chapter in the series immediately. This is what Diesel built himself to do. But before it even opens, I'm getting that same feeling, that same sense that audiences want Diesel, but only in certain things. Only in the way they want him. It's less about what he loves, and more about what they love.
The love he has for the massive worldwide “Fast & Furious” fanbase is clear and sincere, and I don't doubt anything about it. But I do wonder if Diesel has private frustrations about what does or doesn't connect. He's supposedly making “xXx: The Return Of Xander Cage” for release in 2017, with DJ Caruso directing. That would have he film in theaters the same year as “Guardians Of The Galaxy 2,” which will no doubt be massive and entertaining, as well as “Furious 8,” which is pretty much guaranteed to be another monster hit. He can afford to try to get his spy franchise off the ground one more time, but if it whiffs, that'll be the last time he plays that part.
More than anything right now, I'm curious about his work in Ang Lee's upcoming “Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk,” which sounds absolutely bizarre in a very good way. I've heard a lot of bits and pieces about the film, and it sounds like a case of a very talented filmmaker seeing something in Vin that no one else sees, determined to cast him and to show the public what it is that he's reacting to, sort of like what happened with Spielberg and “Saving Private Ryan” almost 20 years ago now.
Will there every be another franchise where Diesel fits in the same way? Will he really tap out after making ten films in the series? Does it matter if he ever finds another series that fits him the same way?
I'll be checking out “The Last Witch Hunter” sometime in the next week, and I wish Diesel nothing but well. But I can't help but feel like there's a box that he's trapped in that is both enviable and infuriating. It's one of those “problems” you'd have to be crazy to complain about, but that doesn't mean it's any less fascinating or frustrating for the person involved.
“The Last Witch Hunter” opens everywhere on Friday. We'll see what happens.