The career of Vin Diesel has been an interesting one indeed. He seemingly came out of nowhere in the late 1990s when he appeared in Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan (1998), and then made a huge impression on audiences in the sci-fi action thriller Pitch Black (2000). From there, Diesel was poised to be the leading man action hero of the 21st century. In fact, I was one of those people that believed Diesel had what it took to be the next Lee Marvin--a steely actor who could handle both drama and action with equal intensity. Instead, he primarily appeared in films that were total crap--The Pacifier, Knockaround Guys, The Chronicles of Riddick--and it looked like the perceived talent of Diesel was just an illusion. This is what makes the recent release of 1997's Strays, starring, written, produced and directed by Diesel, such a compelling film; because it proves that all the perceived talent is really there--it's just been obscured by a decade of primarily bad decisions.
Diesel stars as Rick, the unofficial leader of a quartet of directionless twenty-somethings. Rick makes his money selling weed--although he is quick to point out that it's not a career--and his nights are spent trolling the clubs with his posse and screwing an endless parade of bimbos. But after years of living this meaningless lifestyle, he begins to realize that there is something missing in his life, and he is desperate to turn things around. In a powerful first act scene, Rick tries to explain to a woman who has followed him home why he doesn't want to have sex with her. "Look, I'm gonna be honest with you, if I had met you in my wild stage, something woulda happened," he tells her. "But I'm trying to get my shit together right now." And the rest of the movie is like that, as Rick slowly comes to grips with the fact that he has outgrown everything in his life, including his closest friends Tony (F. Valentino Morales), Fred (Joey Dedio) and Mike (Mike Epps). But it isn't until he meets and falls for his beautiful neighbor Heather (the skinny but stunning Suzanne Lanza) that he really begins to understand how messed up he really is. Raised in homes without fathers, Rick and his friends have struggled all their lives to define their own masculinity, but for him the new struggle is to undo the damage of the past.
Strays is not a great film, but it is good, and at times it is very good. Diesel's writing is solid, and the performances he gets from his cast--as well as himself--are very natural. Some of the best scenes are Rick and his friends sitting around talking about women and sex, which possess a natural, improv-like cadence and energy that brings the film to life. The love story between Rick and Heather gets a bit contrived, especially when compared to the moments between the guys, but there is chemistry between Diesel and Lanza that makes the romance angle work, even though it shouldn't. In another great scene that defines the true theme of the film, Rick describes his friends to Heather, explaining to her that they all were boys raised without fathers, calling himself and his friends "strays."
In the film's opening sequence, Rick recounts in narration how his mother's ex-boyfriend gave him a copy of the book Ferdinand the Bull, and scribbled the note "Life is a matador" on the inside. The significance of this speech does not make itself readily clear, but when Rick repeats it to Heather much later in the film, we begin to understand--even if we have never read Ferdinand the Bull--the full implication of "life is a matador." It is a profoundly poetic way of explaining the brutal challenges that the world has in store. But in the context of Strays, where the statement represents the sole piece of guidance offered to a boy by a transitory father-figure, it becomes all the more profound.
Having played at the Sundance Film Festival in 1997, Strays is just now getting released on DVD. It is interesting to watch the film now that Vin Diesel has become a star, and to see all the promise and potential that existed then, while also knowing how it played out in the subsequent years. Watching the film is a bit like watching some of Sylvester Stallone's more recent work, and then going back and watching Rocky and realizing that there was something very promising that was pretty much squandered. The difference between Diesel and Stallone is that Diesel has only been making bad career choices for a just under ten years, whereas Stallone has been making bad choices for over thirty years. Perhaps if Diesel can learn from the mistakes of Stallone, and return to the sort of material that helped launch his career, he will be remembered as something more than a pair of biceps.