The Other Diesel Project


It always surprises me when I sit down and realize that Vin Diesel is one of the biggest stars working in Hollywood today. That’s not because he’s a bad actor – I actually think he’s a pretty damn good actor when given the right material – but it’s just because there are, in effect, two Vin Diesels and neither of them, on their own, would be the kind of actor that you’d expect would be at the forefront of Hollywood cinemas. On the one hand you have Diesel the serious actor, the guy that self-funded his own short film, Multi-facial, as well as a longer work, Strays, before his performances got him work in Saving Private Ryan, which then led to turns in The Iron Giant, Boiler Room, and Find Me Guilty. This feels like a different actor from the Vin Diesel who found success in the The Fast and the FuriousStarted as a film about undercover policing in the illegal street-racing community, this series has grown to encompass a number of different genres and become one of the most bankable franchises in the world. franchise, the RiddickLaunched on the back of a low-budget alien horror film, Pitch Black, antihero Richard B. Riddick has seen his adventures grown into a full media franchise of movies, video games, and more. series, and the xXx films. Two different kinds of acting, the same guy. And one side, clearly, has taken over his career from the other.

Not to begrudge a guy for getting work and making himself his own empire in Hollywood (although his legal troubles with an assistant alleging sexual assault on the set of Fast Five could color opinions on the actor if that suit goes against him). The fact that Diesel worked so hard, for so long, to break into the industry before basically making it his way on his own projects and then spinning that out into huge blockbuster work is commendable. But there’s also regret that of the two versions of the actor that we could have seen, the big, dumb, blockbuster star is the version he’s settled into.

That transition, of course, started not long after the one-two punch of The Fast and the Furious and xXx. Both films were solid hits at the Box Office (when a $200 Mil take was considered a good day for Hollywood, and oh how things have changed for studio development since then). Obviously one of those two series took off and became Vin Diesel’s franchise, but xXx wasn’t a failure for the actor, either. It did well, and a sequel was on the books with the actor set to return, and it was only issues between the actor and the script that saw him leave the project. This series could have been a showpiece for Diesel as much as Fast & Furious had things worked out differently.

Well, or it could have been something that quickly degenerated into a bloat, stupid mess and quickly went away. Watching the first film again, it’s easy to see either path before it because, wow, this film is wildly uneven and not all that great past a certain point.

In the film Diesel plays Xander Cage, aka X to his friends. He’s an extreme sports bro who likes to perform vigilante pranks, like stealing the high-end sports car of a wealthy senator to get back at him for his politics. But his edgy style, and anti-authority attitude, apparently makes him the perfect person to become a secret agent. When the NSA loses another of their trained field agents on an assignment in Russia, project head Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson) decides to kidnap and bring in Cage, turning him into the perfect field agent in the NSA’s new Triple-X project.

His first assignment is to go to Russia to try and finish the mission that the previous agent started. He has to infiltrate a gang of Russian criminals, Anarchy 99, headed by Yorgi (Marton Csokas). Apparently these gangsters have stolen a biochemical weapon, "Silent Night," and they plan to unleash it because… well, just because, in fact (the reason doesn’t seem to have been made entirely clear in the film). Xander has to get in, make friends with the gang, find out their exact plans and, if possible, retrieve the chemical agent or, at a minimum, find out where it’s stored so the NSA can come in and take care of it.

When this film came out I wasn’t the biggest Diesel fan. The Fast and the Furious was a dumb movie, a early 2000s riff on Point Break (itself not the greatest film), and it was hard to take Diesel seriously as an actor when he was starring in crap like that film and xXx. This film is not high art; it is, in fact, pretty low-brow. A pure distillation of early 2002s bro-dude culture that even The Fast and the Furious couldn’t touch. I watched the movie back then more to hate it than to like it and, because I was predisposed to dislike it, that’s what I did. But going back now and watching it again with fresh eyes and an open mind, it’s actually not bad. It’s not great, but it is very watchable.

The first act is a little rough in places, to be fair. The whole setup, showing how edgy Xander is by having him steal a car and perform extreme stunts is silly. It’s still silly when he’s put into a test mission and ends up driving around a drug compound in Colombia, doing tricks off buildings and being an X-Games douche. But at the same time the film finds ways to actually show Xander as a smart, capable agent. He can detect when a test at a diner is clearly fake. He sees ways to get himself and some of the other tested agents out of the drug compound in Colombia. He proves to have skills, and that feeds into the second act which is, frankly, the best part of the movie.

The second act of the film sees Xander in Russia, working to infiltrate Anarchy 99. Him, being an extreme sports bro, the kind of guy that seems the farthest from an actual secret agent, that actually makes for a solid setup. It’s easy to see how this guy could worm his way in among a bunch of car thieves who just want to party and rock out to Nu-Metal all day. These are his people. Sending in an agent like this with total street cred earned after years of being anti-authority is a brilliant move. No one would ever see it coming. That’s the kind of storytelling I respect, and Diesel is able to sell it with casual charisma.

Unfortunately the third act of the film loses all that fun energy as it devolves into a generic James BondThe world's most famous secret agent, James Bond has starred not only in dozens of books but also one of the most famous, and certainly the longest running, film franchises of all time. riff. That’s the weird thing about this film: because the criminal gang has an over-the-top desire to destroy the world (far outside the bounds of them being street-level criminals), with a chemical weapon system that would make most James Bond villains drool, the film has to lean into that, elevating Xander past his skill set (and desire to do the right thing) into full blown MI:6 super-spy. And at that point the film’s low-budget, and cruddy writing, fails the story altogether.

There are still moments that seem gloriously dumb and fun, like Xander causing an avalanche and then snowboarding down a mountain in front of it all to destroy a building down at the base of the mountain. But the final car chase to cap the film feels too much like James Bond and not enough like the winking, humorous antics of xXx. This film has the wrong climax, and frankly the wrong story, to suit the lead character and his skill set. It would have been better for him to take on drug runners, or kidnappers, than international terrorists. His foes need to be street-level, like he is, so that his skills feel appropriate and his persona works to a benefit instead of seeming like an awkward fit for the world around him.

Because that, more than anything, is the real issue: Cage works great when the foes he’s battling are at his level, where he can blend in and play the bro and function on their level. The second he has to be a machine gun toting, bomb defusing, super spy, the whole reality of the world falls apart. This last act is from a different, somehow even dumber movie, and it just doesn’t work in the context of xXx. Somehow, dumb as it is, this film was actually too smart for this shitty last act, right up until it wasn’t, sadly.

I like xXx for the two thirds of the film where it actually knew what it was doing. Vin Diesel is a fun, enjoyable, charming lead just doing his thing and having fun. When he gets to play the casual agent, slipping into bars and having fun with cars, his character is believable the film works. If the movie could have played to those strengths I think it actually could have been an unqualified success. Instead it loses its way, and all momentum, in the last act and degenerates into bland super-spy pointlessness. As our hero goes off and has an ending that befits James Bond more than Xander Cage you realize this film completely forgot what it was trying to do. And that’s the point at which I tuned out because that’s when the film finally became exactly as dumb as I expected.