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A star is shorn: Diesel
We have, I suppose, Steven Spielberg to thank for the recent booming career of Vin Diesel. Had the director not cast the wannabe actor in the 1998 WWII epic, Saving Private Ryan, Diesel might never have made it to the big screen in such a big way. Then again, one suspects Diesel would have made it one way or another. He’s just too big a guy to miss.
Everything is big about Diesel — his build, his biceps (which must be at least as thick as his neck), and his voice, a booming New Yorker-style basso profundo. In some respects, Diesel’s meteoric and unfounded rise to movie star glory recalls that of another larger-than-life ascent: Arnold Schwarzenegger. Except that Schwarzenegger had a drop of talent, a driblet of humor, and a dash of charisma.
Diesel has none of these assets. In fact, one has a hard time looking at him and wondering why exactly he’s not working on the back of a New Jersey garbage truck. (Of course, if they ever make a movie called The Garbage Man, Diesel’s a shoo-in for the lead.)
Diesel is yet another pre-packaged, pre-sold Hollywood byproduct, a rough and tumble sinew-head for the new generation. He’s as faux as the tattoos he sports in his new action thriller, XXX. When Diesel attempts to act, there’s no conviction in his delivery, no realism in his expression — just a monotone drone in his voice and a blank, vacant stare in his eyes. Diesel isn’t so much an actor as a big “Country Bear” gone astray.
The irony is that XXX is not a completely unenjoyable experience. Rob Cohen’s movie — in which Diesel’s character, extreme sportsman and loveable rogue Xander “XXX” Cage — is recruited by NSA bigwig Augustus Gibbons (Samuel L. Jackson, sporting scar makeup that looks like a screen-test reject from Unbreakable) to infiltrate a group of head-bashing, rave-throwing scoundrels known as Anarchy 99 — has its hyperkinetic guilty pleasures. The action, magnificently overblown, is as preposterous as that found in any recent James Bond movie or PlayStation 2 video game. And the various set pieces — such as a riveting scene on a mountaintop in which Cage must out-snowboard an avalanche — offer up a heart-pounding vitality. What’s lacking is flair. As a director, Cohen has an obvious gift for splicing together a coherent action scene, but his is the way of the sledgehammer. Nuance doesn’t exist in the world of XXX, a world dominated by explosions and gunfire, augmented by an eardrum shattering soundtrack.
The movie’s villain shares a motive eerily similar to that of Alan Bates’s Dressler in The Sum of All Fears. Anarchy 99, headed by a Russian expatriate named Yorgi (Martin Csokas), has developed a monstrous biological weapon. He plans to deploy it secretly, starting in Prauge, hoping that the world’s nations will blame one another, resulting in nuclear retaliation and, ultimately, global devastation. Why Yorgi wants to bring to the world to an end is never made entirely clear. Either he’s just plain mad, or he’s mad at Mother Russia for not providing a better dental plan. It’s up to Cage to stop Yorgi, but Cage has no experience at his craft (“I’ve only been a secret agent for a week,” he says at one point) — only instinct and the ability to spontaneously ride a silver dessert tray down a handrail.
XXX doesn’t reinvent the James Bond format; it just cranks up the volume. Still, the movie is sure to spawn sequels. Maybe ten years from now, we’ll be wondering who the next XXX will be — long after Diesel has retired from the role and gone on to win Oscars for more important projects like, say, a remake of The Man Who Would Be King or, better yet, Twins.