In 2001 The Fast and the Furious, a B-movie gear-head romp, was a surprise hit, launching the careers of Vin Diesel and Paul Walker. These careers have since crashed (not yet burned like, say, Robert Blake's) but both now collide for the fourth entry in the franchise, Fast and Furious. What are we to learn from all of this? Firstly, I think, it is obvious that Diesel and Walker feel the real problem with their previous film titles have been all the definitive articles. Removing the "The" before "Fast" and the "the" before "Furious" might turn out to be one of the great masterstrokes of 2009. If only we can have them solve our economic crisis next ...
Both actors have been the butts of late night punch lines. But have they deserved it? And more importantly, which of these two guys is a better actor? Normally this would be a more snarky-laden article, but I'm feeling pretty good these days, and I'm going to give these boys a fair shake.
Vin Diesel first turned heads in 2000's Pitch Black for which he received mostly strong reviews. Diesel is a Razzie favorite these days but let's not rewrite history. Pitch Black, in its own little cult sci-fi way, totally frigging ruled and Riddick, as played by The Vin, ruled in it.
Criticism is often trendy, and I think it's been more trendy to beat down on Diesel's acting chops than it is substantial. He was just fine in Boiler Room, and I thought he played his role in The Fast and the Furious just right. It wasn't Hamlet, but it was pretty cool and muy macho. Look, Diesel's career is where it is because he made too many bad movies, and he didn't help the "laugh at the lug-head actor" taunts by continuing to play roles like Taylor Reese in Knockaround Guys.
The concept behind XXX was always on the wrong side of the asylum walls, but it wasn't his performance that I think disappointed some people (the film did gross $142 million). But really bad movies like A Man Apart and flops like The Chronicles of Riddick aren't ever going to win anyone any favors with the public. By the time Diesel went Kindergarten Cop with 2005's The Pacifier, I think most people had pretty much written the guy off (ironically, it was one of his biggest hits, pulling in a family-friendly $113 million).
After he dissolved most of his box office clout, he delivered his best performance in a decent little Sidney Lumet movie called Find Me Guilty. This movie is best known as "the movie where Vin Diesel has hair" and at first it's jarring. But the guy truly slips into the role of Jackie DiNorscio. It's Diesel at his most charming and winning.
And then we have Paul Walker. Early in his career, the guy didn't make too much noise in a few supporting gigs (though I did enjoy his gosh golly gee willickers turn in Pleasantville) until The Fast and the Furious. Walker's performance in The Fast and the Furious is the stuff of legend. I will be telling my grandkids about this one. There are bad performances and then there are epically bad performances. Paul Walker's work in that movie belongs in a museum.
I used to refer to Walker as the blond Keanu but that's an insult to the Keanu. I actually enjoy watching the Keanu and ... whatever the hell it is he does on screen. Walker was just some straight-to-DVD knockoff version of Keanu with, yes, blond hair. Watching Walker in the movie I just wanted to grab him by the shirt collar and tell him that "I need more NOS!!!" will never, ever, replace "50! Stay above 50!" Not in my lifetime, at least.
Walker fared a little better in the fun, suspenseful John Dahl entry Joy Ride. He was still a pretty vacuous actor but without overdoing it this time. 2 Fast 2 Furious was vintage Walker atrocity, only it was upstaged by an even worse performance by Tyrese. Timeline was Walker trying to grow up as an actor but failing pretty miserably. Into the Blue was a bad, bad movie highlighted only by the sight of Jessica Alba's skin. But honestly, Walker isn't terrible in it. It's the perfect setup for an iconic, bad Walker role but he's actually OK in the movie, and I always suspected it was because he was mostly playing himself, or at least the self he feels most comfortable with. Was the actor finally finding a groove?
Let me be honest here. I didn't see Disney's Eight Below in theaters. Why? Because I had a choice. But I was kind of forced (not by gun point or anything, but close) to see it on cable one day. And Walker, for what it's worth, wasn't half-bad in the movie ... even if he still manages to be upstaged by dogs. I somehow managed to miss Bobby Z and The Lazarus Project when they stormed the DVD shelves last year (don't ask me how!!!), but I will tell you what I did see. I saw Paul Walker in a small bit role in Flags of Our Fathers. I don't know if it was the brevity of his role or what, but I remember him being decent. And I definitely saw Walker in Wayne Kramer's Running Scared. And here's the thing about me and Running Scared ...
I love Running Scared.
Not just the Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines movie either (a solid buddy comedy). I'm talking about the movie where I can say finally, unapologetically that Paul Walker gives a pretty darn good performance, easily his best. Now I know what you're thinking. Dre, you're pulling my leg. But I'm not making this up. Believe me, I know the dark forces at play here and wouldn't dream to mess with them. If you haven't seen this insane piece of cinema it's worth checking out. It got killed by the critics and died a quick death at the box office, but it's one of those anomalies where most people were just dead wrong. It gives me hope that Walker really can be the blond Keanu after all, a whoa-like, baffling concoction of good looks, air, and watchability.
But he ain't quite there yet, and the bottom line is Diesel has the better track record of the two. Each Fast and Furious movie (hell with definitive articles) has performed worse and worse at the box office, and the only reason I think that trend comes to an end this time is because Diesel is back behind the wheel.
Now you decide ...
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Dre writes two times a week for Film.com. Email him!