Diesel Powered

I’m not sure if it’s the deep voice and that lazy drawl he has, or the bald head, but I quite like Vin Diesel, and have recently popcorn munched my way through a few of his films.

The Fast and the Furious (2001)

This film was the launch pad for one of Hollywood’s most popular franchises. Vin plays LA street racer Dominic Torreto, who the police suspect of being behind a gang in high performance cars who pillage trucks carrying tech goods and other stuff of value. Paul Walker as undercover cop O’Conner is sent to infiltrate the street racing scene and win Dominic’s trust. Unfortunately he does rather too good a job of this, becoming involved in races and fights with rival gangs, and falling in love with Dominic’s sister. When push comes to shove he wonders if he will be able to betray the man he has come to like and respect. This is all very simple, by the numbers fare, with larger than life characters and a ‘the car is the star’ mentality. We are introduced to Dominic as a violent and ruthless thug, but naturally there is a lot more to him than that – he is loyal to his friends, has a code of honour, is brave and good at what he does, and besides, the guys he robs have plenty to spare. O’Conner’s attraction to him and the budding bromance that follows makes perfect sense, though you also know that it is all fated to end in tears. The trick is in seeing who drives away from this and how it’s made to happen (you never doubt that it will happen – the subsequent seven or more movies are a big clue). Add to that some high octane car races and hair raising automotive stunts, and it’s all good, fun to watch but nothing that’s going to prove memorable.

xXx (2002)

Vin plays extreme sports star Xander Cage, a rebel who has issues with authority. This makes him just the right man for NSA bigwig Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson in training to play Nick Fury), who subjects Cage to a couple of trials by fire, before recruiting him to infiltrate terror group Anarchy 99. Sent to Prague, Cage wins the confidence of 99’s leader Yorgi, who plans to unleash a biological weapon on the Czech capital. With betrayals, double crosses, and an unlooked for romantic angle to complicate matters, it’s up to Cage to stop Anarchy 99. I remember at the time of its release this film was billed as raising the stakes for James Bond and his ilk. Certainly it’s top heavy with stunts, Cage strutting his stuff in vehicles and on snowboards and just about every other extreme sport variation they could think of, all of which is as preposterous as it is fun, with plenty of gob smacking moments. What differentiates the movie from its peers though, is Cage’s surly manner, an attitude that can be summarised as ‘like it or lump it, I got no time for your shit’. A suave agent from the Bond mould, this guy ain’t. He has the skills to justify the bad attitude though, and once you get past the initial marking territory piss, it turns out that Cage is a lot more likable than he might appear at first blush. In fact virtue wise he could almost be a clone of Dominic Torreto, which is probably why they recruited Vin to play the guy. It’s all a little bit silly and absurd, a Boy’s Own adventure for guys who never grew up, but as that’s most of us it worked rather well. I was entertained, and that was all the movie promised, so we’re good.

The Last Witch Hunter (2015)

Vin plays Kaulder, an immortal witch hunter working for an agency called the Axe and Cross which maintains a truce between witches and humankind; Kaulder’s role is to execute witches who cross the line. But the latest witch menace is proving more than a match for Kaulder, having placed his ‘handler’ in a coma, and now he plans to revive Kaulder’s greatest enemy, the Witch Queen who killed his family and to whom his immortality is linked. Can Kaulder prevent her unleashing a plague that will destroy mankind? There’s not a lot to be said about this. The film has some interesting ideas, such as the Axe and Cross and the immortality twist, but none of the characters seem anything more than ciphers, with underwhelming villains who seem to lack anything in the way of motivation beyond ‘I am evil’ and heroes who seem to be doing nothing more than going through the motions (even Vin’s heart isn’t in it, with the feel that he’s just giving a performance rather than actually living the role), while most of the action consists of light shows and sfx. Overall I just found it dull, though not to the point that I would never watch it again. I’ll need time to forget the first watch though, but sadly I don’t think that will take very long (it’s fading already).

xXx: The Return of Xander Cage (2017)

When a device is stolen that can cause satellites to crash to the ground, in effect turning them into weapons, and the first victim is his old handler Gibbons, Xander Cage comes out of hiding and enlists with the NSA to help find those responsible. Nothing is quite what it seems though, as Cage and the guys he has recruited to his team clash with another team of former xXx agents, and over and above that there is treachery in high places. With names like Talon and Hawk, and the special abilities the xXx agents have, I think a case could be made for regarding this as a super hero movie, an impression reinforced by the presence of Gibbons using a Fury subplot from one of the Captain America films. Stripped to basics it all has a familiar feel to it, with the good guys becoming the bad guys, and the real good guys given outlaw status and forced to operate outside the law. And yet the end result is something that feels fresh, making it the best of these Vin Diesel movies thanks to the wholly irreverent approach taken with the material. There’s a pounding rock soundtrack, while the characters are larger than life, with gripping dialogue and memorable character traits. Vin is as feisty and acerbic as before in his Cage role, and the other members of the cast, none of them name players apart from Jackson, Toni Collette as an NSA power broker, and Ice Cube reprising his role as Darius Stone from the previous xXx film (which I haven’t seen, but now want to) give sterling support. It’s all fast paced and action packed, with lots of explosions and firefights and wirework, an almost music video sensibility underlying much of what’s up there on the screen (a vibe conveyed perfectly by the trailer), and even if intellectually I know that it’s all a load of bull crap, on a visceral level I found it thoroughly enjoyable and most definitely want to see it again when the DVD finally arrives in Poundland, at which I’ll probably wonder what the hell I saw in it all, but that’s a story for another day.

Anyone else have a favourite Vin Diesel film?

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