PITCH BLACK put Vin Diesel on the radar, THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS put him above the title. But it was his work as an independent filmmaker that got him into Hollywood in the first place. His short film MULTI-FACIAL (1995) shows what must’ve been his frustrations with auditioning for acting gigs. Like HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE‘s Bobby Taylor his character is an actor who keeps running into a brick wall in auditions, and the bricks are molded from the limited imaginations of casting directors chained to racial stereotypes and cliches.
But the Diesel version is a little different because he’s coming at it specifically from a mixed-race perspective. His character in the movie tries to pitch people’s inability to distinguish his race as an advantage, leaving his options open for playing many different ethnicities. It’s a strong point that doubles as an acting reel and calling card, but sometimes it’s embarrassing. The Al Pacino imitation I can let slide, but the freestyle rap is not cutting it in my opinion. Stick to breakdancing, Vin.
Spielberg saw MULTI-FACIAL (and I’m assuming the above BREAKIN’ IN THE USA: BREAK DANCING AND ELECTRIC BOOGIE TAUGHT BY THE PROS  tape as well) and cast him in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, a pretty good movie to be in in my opinion. But before that breakthrough he thought he was gonna have to create his own roles if he was ever gonna get any, so he made STRAYS, his first and so far only feature as a director. According to the 1997 Sundance Film Festival guide, “STRAYS marks the arrival of a truly gifted writer/director/actor, Vin Diesel.” His boastful opening credit also includes producer.
This one’s probly more inspired by SWINGERS than by any of the famous indie debuts I’ve reviewed in this series. It’s the probly-somewhat-autobiographical tale of a long time player and small time pot dealer (“introducing Vin Diesel”) changing his lifestyle to maybe settle down with a girl he likes (“introducing Suzanne Lanza”). He lives in a small, shitty apartment in New York City, and the strays of the title are his knucklehead friends who mooch off of him and bring girls there to have sex with, pretending it’s theirs. They always accuse each other of “acting stupid” and at the end he makes a speech about how they all grew up without fathers (spoiler). From what we see and what they say, none of them seem to have jobs or responsibilities of any kind. They spend the days just walking around or going to the gym (not shown), the nights going to bars and strip clubs and Rick’s apartment.
(How come none of the women are surprised when they ask for the bathroom and it’s not in the apartment, it’s down the hall? Is that a New York thing?)
But Rick is tired of this life. He has condom wrappers laying all over the place and it’s just a mess, you know? He claims “I must’ve fucked about a million girls in my life. From all around the world… I wanna change, ’cause most of the time I hate myself afterwards.” He falls for this neighbor named Heather, asks her out and has a successful Rocky-and-Adrian type date with her. But afterwards his friend brings over a gum-chewing stripper wearing a Playboy logo half shirt and begs him to fuck her. “All right, this is the last time,” he says.
An awful lot of this movie is about Rick brooding and refusing sex offers. There are two different women who come over and he ignores them and just goes into his room to sleep while they’re in the living room with his friends. He says he doesn’t want to “hang.” There’s a woman who hits on him at a meat market type bar and says “You look bored, like you don’t want to be here.” In another scene he stands outside of the strip club, his friend comes and questions why he won’t go inside and why he’s rejecting the hot stripper who likes him. “What’s up with you? You’re not acting like yourself.”
I’m hesitant to bring this up, because it could be taken the wrong way, because this is the internet in my opinion. But I got this thing for honesty, you know, so here it is. I had a big misunderstanding watching this film. It’s supposed to be about this guy who is just really, really heterosexual, just goin around sticking his dick in anything that is female all the time, and then when he really falls in love it’s a problem because… he gets in fights sometimes and she doesn’t like that? I don’t know, it’s not a very clearly told story, but I was reading it real wrong because it seemed to me like it was all pointing at him being gay, and closeted all his life, and getting real tired of overcompensating so much.
I’m not just saying that because of the sort of odd scenes of Rick talking to his friends while laying in bed in his underwear posing like a model…
…which can easily be explained as the vanity of a director-star wanting to show off his body for the ladies. The strays just look to him for leadership. He gathers them up, because he has straydar. And then they always bother him even while he’s trying to catch some Zs. It’s understandable.
But there are just so many different scenes where it seems like it’s circling around him being gay. In fact one character even straight up asks him:
So I’m not the only one wondering. There’s also alot of attention paid to gay men being impressed by the strays’ muscles. In one scene a guy comes to buy pot while Rick is in the shower, so his friend does the transaction and the customer recognizes him from the gym and talks about it. When the guy leaves he calls him a “fruitcake” and jokes about letting him suck his dick.
In another scene Rick talks on a pay phone and in the background of the shot a very effeminate man is checking him out the whole time.
He invites Rick to a party which turns out to be attended mostly by gay men. His friend looks around at all the dudes and is pretty uncomfortable. Rick just laughs, a little embarrassed.
Even Rick’s professed love for the children’s book The Story of Ferdinand could be interpreted to fit this theme. The scene where he discusses the book is so important to Diesel that he opens with it and then replays it later. The story is about a bull who just wants to smell flowers instead of bullfight like people expect from him. Doesn’t that sound like a guy who feels trapped, expected to act a certain way, but he just doesn’t have it in him? I guess the idea is that people expect Rick to keep on picking up different women all the time but he wants to, in the words of George Michael, “explore monogamy.” Or, as the Sundance guide puts it, he’s “a macho cruiser” who is “frustrated by the repetitious grind of one night stands and aimless hustling.”
There’s alot of talk about his “insecurity,” which is used to mean that he gets in fights with random dudes he gets into arguments with on the street. (Is this the only movie where Diesel uses the n-word?) So really it’s kind of reversed from the book, people expect him to smell flowers but he can’t help but bullfight. I guess that’s all it’s about, he’s a tough street guy and he doesn’t know how to be a sweetheart 100% of the time.
But even late in the movie I thought there might be a reveal that he’s holding something else back. These strays know each other so well, they are true bros for life, and even though they’re macho and they fuck a million girls from all around the world and everything they gotta be able to open up and be honest with each other and look out for what’s best for their friends. So after they’ve had a few drinks his friend gets the courage to bring it up, to tell him he’s in denial.
Oh good. Here it comes. They’re finally gonna have that hard conversation. Because he wants his boy Rick to be happy being true to himself.
Oh shit, my mistake. He’s in denial about not visiting his mom enough. Man, I gotta say, my interpretation is at least a little more interesting.
(to be fair, I read that they ran out of money and had to miss a week of filming and tack on this ending that he SPOILER goes to visit his mom.)
So no, I was reading too much into it. Rick doesn’t end up being gay, in fact it’s about his love for this woman he saw while he was taking out the garbage. He’s just a guy who wants to cut down from fucking a million women all around the world to just one in his neighborhood. That’s all it is. Sorry for the confusion.
Diesel has a big emotional speech where he yells at his friends for laughing about “giving a girl a disease.” Then he gets quiet and makes a speech about “We– we go out every night, every night to get pussy. Like vampires. And we suck their souls only because we can.” And he breaks down. Not blubbering like Rambo in FIRST BLOOD, but it’s kind of the equivalent. Diesel does a great job performing this monologue, and their reactions look very sincere. It gives me the sense that his acting skills are underestimated to this day, but maybe not his writing.
As in most of his movies he has a good tough guy presence and is a charismatic leader to all the other characters. But he also shows more vulnerability than we’re used to, and seems genuinely sweet and charming sometimes when he’s with Heather.
That’s not to say that it’s not awkward. There’s a weird scene where he tells her to close her eyes, he has a surprise for her, and apropos of nothing he sings her the entire “If I Only Had a Heart” song from THE WIZARD OF OZ. I guess he knows what he’s doing, though, because she is completely charmed by it. Same goes for the scene where he talks to her about sneaking Snapple into a movie and both of them act like it’s this weird thing that only he’s thought of and she can’t even imagine how he pulls it off.
It’s not as good of a showcase for his filmmaking as his acting. His failure as a writer/director is convincing me there’s anything interesting at all about his meathead friends trying to get laid. They’re not anywhere near as interesting as him, they just seem like losers that would be on Jersey Shore or something. One is played by Joey Dedio, the voice of Daniel La Russo in the Karate Kid cartoon. Another is F. Valentino Morales, a friend of Diesel from his days as a bouncer at New York City clubs who has bit parts in many of his movies and associate producer credits on THE LAST WITCH HUNTER and FURIOUS 7. And the one that’s around the least is Mike Epps in his very first role. I guess give Diesel credit for that. He gets to be funny a little bit.
Filmatism-wise it’s very basic. Not much sign of directorial chops. One bit of guerrilla filmmaking that I can appreciate is the scene where they filmed a conversation on a moving, populated subway. Good for them getting the shot, but too bad it’s a weird conversation where Rick is prodding his friend about his fingernails being dirty and how he must not take enough showers. (At least it leads to a good joke where we see him at the party cleaning his fingernails using what you gotta assume is the host’s toothbrush.)
Since Diesel wrote, produced, directed and starred in the movie and based it partly on his own life and cast it with his own friends and probly filmed it in his own apartment you gotta figure it has some signs of his personality in it. Well, there are xeroxes of muscle drawings on his door. It’s true, he’s into muscles. There’s a shot of a huge Travis Bickle poster in his apartment right after he talks to himself in the mirror. It’s true, he’s into Robert De Niro. He also has a poster of an Edsel, a type of car that at one time was considered fairly furious.
But there is no sign of the nerd that Diesel is known to be, the one that is super into Dungeons & Dragons, that was so proud of his sci-fi character Riddick that he started a video game company to continue his adventures and did a cameo in TOKYO DRIFT to get the rights back from Universal and then sold his house to get the money to make another one. It’s hard to imagine that guy being the guy in this movie. I hope if he directs another small drama it will be about being a bouncer with a secret double life as an elf wizard guy or whatever it is in those games.
I cannot really recommend STRAYS as a movie, but as a piece to the puzzle of Vin Diesel it was worth my time. And I think as time goes on that will be an important puzzle to solve.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.