Vin Diesel is an exceptionally thoughtful and versatile artist — not that you’d know from his movies. Before the 52-year-old star of the Fast and the Furious and Guardians of the Galaxy franchises made it in Hollywood, he did everything from breakdancing to financing his own films, which played at prestigious festivals like Cannes and Sundance. (For his first feature, 1997’s Strays, which he wrote, directed, produced and starred in, Diesel also made meals for his cast.)
In interviews, too, he comes across as a funny, soulful guy — albeit a guy who’s partial to making egotistical statements. (When 2015’s Furious 7 was about to hit theaters, he proclaimed to Variety, “Universal is going to have the biggest movie in history. It will probably win Best Picture at the Oscars — unless the Oscars don’t want to be relevant.” To be fair to Diesel, Furious 7 for a while was the fourth-highest-grossing film worldwide of all time, but the Academy didn’t show the movie any love.) And like Tom Cruise, who doesn’t just star in Mission: Impossible films but guides them as a producer, Diesel has smartly managed his career by being a producer on the Fast and the Furious series, carefully ensuring the beloved franchise’s longevity and tonal consistency. (The franchise’s central theme of family? That was his idea.)
I bring all this up because, if you just saw him on screen, you’d probably never get a sense of the Renaissance man he is. (Diesel also dabbles in music and runs a video game company.) And sure enough, while watching Bloodshot, his new deeply mediocre action movie, I had to remind myself how much more interesting he is off camera. But whether because he knows his audience or he doesn’t have enough faith in himself, Diesel often plays men of few words whose most notable attributes are their muscles. Along the way, though, he’s found his movie-star niche — or, more accurately, rediscovered one that used to be insanely popular. In an age in which our action heroes are generally bright, clever quip-meisters, Vin Diesel is a throwback to 1980s stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, dudes for whom talking wasn’t their strong suit. Forget our modern era of noble, sensitive heroes — Diesel is just here to crack skulls and be the ultimate tough guy.
If you’re curious about what happens in Bloodshot, here’s a cursory explanation: Diesel plays Garrison, a badass special-ops soldier who kicks ass and takes names. But then one day, he’s murdered by an evil dude (Toby Kebbell) who likes to torture people while dancing to “Psycho Killer.” Garrison wakes up to learn that his body has been “donated” to a tech company (run by Guy Pearce) that has transformed him into an invincible fighting force. Alive again but with no memory of his past, Garrison is the ultimate soldier… but at what cost?!?
Stuff happens from there, and much of it hinges on Diesel’s ability to make us feel for a man robbed of his life and gifted with a surreal new one. It isn’t a spoiler to inform you that Diesel fails at this task. Making us feel for his characters isn’t Diesel’s thing — at least, not usually. If he’s voicing Groot or the Iron Giant, he has an incredible talent for conveying emotional nuance. But when he’s in live-action mode, forget it. Tis unmanly.
The 1980s were a halcyon cinematic period of massive bros with thick necks shooting humongous guns. Action movies were a ‘roid-rage extravaganza as Rambo, Rocky, the Terminator and Conan the Barbarian personified a hyper-masculinity that the rest of us puny humans could only dream of emulating. These characters weren’t erudite or reflective — that shit’s for wimps. The idea was to kill and conquer, exert your dominance, destroy the enemy. There were exceptions — Harrison Ford and Bruce Willis were very much not supermen — but for the most part, inexpressive physical specimens were treated as the platonic ideal of an action hero. Their muscles did the talking, which was good because when they opened their mouths, it was often monosyllabic nonsense.
Diesel has occasionally shown a softer side on screen — particularly around the time that his close friend Paul Walker died, which became part of the storyline for Furious 7 — but the key to his appeal is that he usually doesn’t. Whether in the xXx franchise or those Riddick movies, he’s always working hard at working hard, acting like being in an action movie is something that takes a lot of Discipline and Focus. Unlike his fellow muscle-bound Fast and the Furious costar (and real-life nemesis) Dwayne Johnson, Diesel wields his brawn with an air of superiority, practically demanding that you bow down before him. He’s always the sexiest and coolest guy around — just ask him.
That preening attitude is very much not in keeping with modern action heroes, who are all about seeming relatable to the audience. The Avengers may have incredible powers, but they’re as human as you and me. In his heyday, Will Smith was funnier than he was buff. The Rock consistently undercuts his Adonis-like physique with self-deprecating humor as a way to appear more down-to-earth. And even when Cruise does his own crazy stunts, his advancing age gives him a vulnerability that’s very endearing.
Vin Diesel isn’t interested in this approach, and in Bloodshot he doubles-down on it, playing an enhanced killing machine whose chief function seems to be reminding you how tough Vin Diesel is. The only time he isn’t tough, when he’s with his beautiful wife Gina (Talulah Riley), is because the pre-enhanced soldier Ray is busy wooing his woman — so, maybe he’s not quite so macho, but we can tell by how much she’s into him as they roll around in bed that he’s still definitely all man. Perhaps no current movie star is so invested in making sure we admire his masculinity than Vin Diesel. It’s all you can think about during his movies because, honestly, there’s nothing else to ponder.
Will the more compelling Diesel ever reemerge on the big screen? A lifetime ago, he teamed with legendary Network director Sidney Lumet for an offbeat courtroom comedy-drama called Find Me Guilty, and before that he was trying to get a Joe Louis biopic off the ground with Spike Lee. But for now, Diesel (who also produced Bloodshot) seems to indulge his creative side by being one of the chief architects of the Fast and the Furious sequels. “I’m the one that dreams up all these stories,” he bragged in 2017. “I’m the one that hires the directors — I greenlight the damn thing!”
In fact, Diesel is infamous for his perfectionism, once giving Steven Spielberg notes on how to spruce up the dialogue on Saving Private Ryan, in which he had a small role. (The Oscar-winning director’s response: “Vinny, you’re already dead by that point [in the movie].”) Unfortunately, that fastidiousness has found its final form in his lumbering performances: With Bloodshot, he’s achieved a perfect simulation of an 1980s action star. He’s succeeded magnificently — in reminding me why I don’t miss that decade’s hulking he-men much.