The release date of XXX: The Return of Xander Cage seems appropriate. Who among us would be too proud to admit they need to see Vin Diesel surfing a wave on a motorcycle after the last few days of Trump-related anxiety? Never mind that President Trump imagines himself the protagonist of his own gravity-defying action spectacle. We need this right now.
When we need Vin, he’s always there. When we needed an action star to fill the void left by Arnold, Sly, and Bruce, he appeared on cue in The Fast and the Furious. When the James Bond franchise was at its most ridiculous, yet simultaneously humorless, nadir, Vin made the first XXX to needle the bland Brosnan films. When the Furious series looked to be on life support, he swooped in at the last minute to take it to new heights. To borrow a phrase from sports, it was just Vin Diesel doing Vin Diesel things.
The peculiar thing about the Vin Diesel phenomenon isn’t that he’s a success. It’s that he’s a success with the type of person who wouldn’t usually admit to watching the sorts of films he stars in. Notoriously prickly media outlets like The New Yorker gave Furious 7 a mostly positive review. His films appeal to an audience that would sooner mail themselves anthrax than see a Transformers movie.
Vin Diesel movies are undoubtedly stupid, but in a knowing sort of way. Then again, so are the Transformers films, and most Michael Bay films, for that matter. There was a time not long ago that Bay’s brand of cheeseball escapism was trendy with cinephiles. After all, there’s a Criterion DVD for Armageddon.
Maybe if DVD was still the dominant home video medium, there’d be a Fast 6 Criterion edition, complete with a commentary track from some underpaid intellectual. It would come with a lavish booklet full of critical essays about the significance of Dom snatching Letty out of mid-air after exiting a car going in excess of 100 MPH and Dom and Hobbs representing the id and the super ego. Of course, I’d buy a copy for myself, plus one for every single house on my block. I’m a sucker for these movies.
One could strain to make the argument that Vin Diesel was some sort of symbol of Obama’s multi-ethnic America (another great idea for a Criterion booklet essay) but it’s simpler than that. What makes Vin Diesel so appealing is that he miraculously projects both strength and vulnerability simultaneously. Audiences have lusted over brooding heroes since all the way back to the emo stylings of the Tim Burton Batman movies. This wasn’t an Obama-era invention. It’s hard to know whether to fist-bump Vin Diesel or hug him while he gently weeps into your shoulder. But the movie star image of Vin Diesel – the hulking sad boy who just misses his girlfriend/best friend — isn’t Vin Diesel.
“Vin Diesel” isn’t a one-size-fits-all cinematic persona. Xander Cage isn’t exactly Dominic Toretto. Diesel’s work in XXX was all swagger and extreme stunts, minus the legit pathos that turned the Fast and Furious franchise into a global phenomenon. Cage’s fur coats and eroticized bluster is miles away from Dom’s loose-fitting jeans and tank top.
XXX: The Return of Xander Cage isn’t just a test of Vin’s star power outside of the Dom comfort zone. It’s a test of everything Vin Diesel; whether or not he’s even appealing when he’s not furrowing his brow and moping. As important as he is to those Fast and Furious movies, they’re an ensemble in the purest sense of the word.
Part of the pleasure of watching those movies is seeing the gang get back together and to speculate on what trauma will befall the “family” and how they’ll get themselves out of it. Family bonds were built into the DNA of the series from the first movie’s reliance on Dom’s relationship with his sister as a plot device. The XXX franchise was, and is, a monument to Vin Diesel, the brand.
Studio executives sat in an air-conditioned boardroom and sipped bottled water while pondering the notion of Vin Diesel playing a spy in a movie. Where The Fast and the Furious naturally spawned a franchise that has endured long past anyone’s estimation, XXX is being dug up from a shallow grave with the same calculation that spawned it in the first place.
As much as audiences love Vin Diesel, he’s struggled to capitalize on that affection in any role that doesn’t primarily require driving, unless you are one of the many adults who wore out your copy of The Pacifier in middle school. Despite his best efforts, the Riddick series wrapped up with an imaginative, but patently ludicrous sequel, followed by an uninspired retreat of Pitch Black. There’s some merit to his performance in Find Me Guilty, mostly the ghastly sight of Vin Diesel in a wig, but it didn’t launch his serious acting career the way he thought it would.
This moment in Vin Diesel’s career is fascinating because he’s finally resurrected all three of his most iconic roles (unless you want to include the Iron Giant in that list). If XXX: The Return of Xander Cage doesn’t work, where else is there to go? He’s already publicly put an expiration date on the Fast and Furious series. If the critical consensus is any indication, Xander Cage will not join Dom in the pantheon of movie heroes. The real question is, will audiences embrace a different side of Vin Diesel? Regardless, it would be wise for Vin to hug a few more people in his next film.