Despite a popular run at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival, Vin Diesel's feature debut, "Strays," sat around unreleased for over a decade, even as Diesel's star rose and fell with the action movie tides. When the star first hit the scene, we were told he wasn't just some lug, but a full-on filmmaker, having written and directed both this feature and a short ("Multi-Facial," which dealt with his struggles as a young actor of mixed heritage) that won the attention of those watching the festival scene. And yet it's not until now, in the middle of a notable lull in Diesel's career, that "Strays" finally finds sees the light of day.
But while the film is being marketed as a peek at Early Vin, it's actually more notable as a peek of a certain age of filmmaking. "Strays" has Mid-90s Indie Flick written all over it: the grainy photography, the shot-on-the-fly sidewalk scenes, the emphasis on character over plot. Despite the obvious Scorsese/Lumet New York influences, the story's really nothing more than another tale of self-absorbed Gen-Xers coming to grips with maturity and romance. It's an Edward Burns drama redressed in muscle shirts.
For all its familiarity, there are wonderful character moments and energetic asides hiding among the clichés, and Diesel captures cleverly honest snapshots of the lives of twentysomethings in the big city. There's a scene where Diesel's character hangs out with his friends at a basketball court, and they brag about women, crack lighthearted insults at each other, and here, in moments like this, the movie crackles. Diesel knows these characters, these conversations, this way of life.
Things don't click as well when Diesel tries to push the story forward. "Strays" is a film where nothing happens for long stretches of time, but that's sort of the point - it's a portrait of selfish, immature young men in a rut, and the fascination comes in seeing how they fill their lives with sex and weed, oblivious to the emptiness that surrounds them. To kick start the plot, Diesel suggests his character, a pot dealer named Rick, has grown tired of cruising and macho preening; he's looking for something better, and he finds it in Heather (Suzanne Lanza), a striking blonde neighbor from the right side of the tracks.
The screenplay offers few surprises here (unless you count an out-of-left-field miscalculation that finds Rick singing "If I Only Had a Heart" - in its entirety! - to Heather while on a date), as Rick and Heather engage in a rocky courtship where she's put off by his reflexive brutish ways but charmed by his efforts to sweeten up. Again, the film works well here when it's just the two talking, sharing their stories, getting to know each other. When Diesel forces Rick's attempted redemption into scenes where it doesn't quite fit, we're left with clumsy storytelling.
There's also the problem of Diesel's fascination with himself. "Strays" is a literal vanity project, with all those lengthy shots of the star shirtless, his physique like a whole other character. The camera doesn't just linger - it gapes. It's as if Diesel took the self-absorbed attitudes of his character to heart, creating the sort of shots Rick himself would want: lots of himself, never mind if the story doesn't call for it.
(Diesel turns his entire character into his own fantasy, actually. His Rick is a saint, the center of his friends' universe, and a sexual dynamo to boot.)
And yet for all this sloppiness, there's something at the center of "Strays" that consistently fascinates. There's terrific character work here, and not just from Rick. F. Valentino Morales, a friend of Diesel with (at the time) no acting experience, is wonderfully disgusting as Rick's oafish, unbelievably prickish best pal; Mike Epps, who would later weigh down a string of terrible comedies, delivers a surprisingly fresh performance. These are characters who live in the small moments, and these small moments make "Strays" a sharp piece of small-scale storytelling.
"Strays" is available in both regular and Steelbook packaging; the disc, however, is the same in both versions.
Video & Audio
Frankly, "Strays" looks pretty terrible in this 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, with heavy grain and washed out colors. I'll chalk most of this up to the source itself, shot on a shoestring, using 16mm film in less than optimal conditions. Digital interference is absent, which helps.
There's no need for a Dolby 5.1 mix, considering the focus on dialogue. But we get one, and it works fine, balancing the accompanying music nicely.
Our only real extra is the 35 minute documentary "The Making of Strays," produced in 2007. Most of the major players return for in-depth interviews in which they reminisce about Diesel's early days, the guerilla filming, and the movie's successful reception at Sundance. (Not mentioned: why the film disappeared for a decade.) Presented in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen.
The film's trailer (a newly minted preview produced to hype the overdue release) is also included, as is a collection of trailers for other First Look titles; those previews also play as the disc loads.
"Strays" is a rough but engaging character study - a little too rough to demand repeat viewings, however, which is why you'll do fine to simply Rent It.