Vin Diesel is an iconoclast and one of the most compelling filmmakers working in Hollywood today. He has deftly navigated the tumultuous movie industry time and again, bending it to his creative will, both as a lead actor — who now has both “The Fate of the Furious” and “The Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” in cinemas — and as the force behind his production studio, One Race Films. But while the headlines are busy trumpeting about all the financial cleverness and macho nonsense and international franchise-helming, they miss what makes him so unusual: Vin Diesel thinks about how to run a franchise in a way that is not only alien to the popular style of movie/darker sequel/big finale but is in fact antithetical to it.
Because while all the other people who run action franchises appear to have taken their creative cues from Star Wars, Diesel is working from another sacred text. And it has shaped his perspective on movie-making. He learned how to tell stories from a lifetime of playing Dungeons & Dragons, not rewatches of “The Empire Strikes Back.” He’s not following the Joseph Campbell storytelling guide; he’s following Gary Gygax.
Interviewers always play this up as a fun quirk — look at the tough guy and his love for the nerd game! — and at first, I thought he might be putting on an act for the press. But after diving into his history — and once again going to our longtime strategy of plotting performers’ box office revenues from database The Numbers against the Rotten Tomatoes ratings of their films — I think this kind of surface-level analysis misses the point. Dungeons & Dragons appears to be Vin Diesel’s primary cinematic influence and what, I argue, defines him as an artist. That he learned storytelling from decades spent with role-playing games explains what makes Vin Diesel different from the crowd — it shows why critics occasionally don’t get him and why some of the best character-driven storytelling of the blockbuster era happens in a bunch of car movies.
Here are the four types of Vin Diesel movies, named, naturally, after four D&D character attributes.
“It is the art of storytelling, it is the art of imagination, and it is the training ground, in some ways, for one’s imagination and, in many ways, influenced the way that I produced film.”
— Vin Diesel on Dungeons & Dragons, interview with Andy Bush
Films: “Saving Private Ryan” (1998); “The Iron Giant” (1999); “Guardians of the Galaxy” (2014).
These are Diesel’s most critically successful and conventional acting roles, and it’s not a shock that they’re in other people’s movies. Some of Diesel’s finest work has come when he was in the employ of others, particularly when he was behind the mic. None of these are “Vin Diesel movies”; they’re films in which he is an essential part of a larger whole and his character offers an emotional parable or is the glue that holds the team together. His roles in the two early films in this group opened the door to larger work, to telling the stories he wants to the way he wants to, an opportunity to take the storytelling cues from tabletop roleplaying games and apply them to the summer blockbuster.
“I played very, very religiously. It was my favorite thing to do growing up.”
— Vin Diesel on Dungeons & Dragons, interview with Jimmy Kimmel
Films: “Boiler Room” (2000); “Knockaround Guys” (2002); “A Man Apart” (2003); “The Pacifier” (2005); “Find Me Guilty” (2006); “Babylon A.D.” (2008); “The Last Witch Hunter” (2015); “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk” (2016).
These are the films that show Vin Diesel’s range as an actor, his raw talent (despite their lack of box office revenue or critical acclaim). But you don’t have to watch any of these movies to get that. You just need to watch the first movie he had total creative control over, a film that isn’t in this analysis because it apparently didn’t make a dime or catch the eye of a single critic.
In the mid-1990s, as a struggling actor, Diesel made a 20-minute film called “Multi-Facial” that is an extremely personal look at the difficulties faced by mixed-race actors. It’s a fascinating little film that made its way to Cannes. It has problems, sure, but as a piece that was written, directed, acted and, hell, even scored by Diesel, it’s an incredible artifact. The attention that film received helped him make his first feature, “Strays.” And Steven Spielberg’s admiration of those two films got him the custom-written part in “Saving Private Ryan,” and that part got him to the next level.
But in this category of critical or financial flops lurks the cornerstone of my theory of Diesel-as-Dungeon-Master-auteur: “The Last Witch Hunter,” a film that Diesel produced and has said is based on one of his D&D characters — Melkor, a witch hunter. Here is Diesel playing a round of Dungeons & Dragons as the witch hunter Dungeons & Dragons character that he made a movie about:
That film was — for now — a one-off, and there’s a better example of how Diesel’s devotion to D&D-style storytelling looks when it’s given more than one campaign to run.
“If you would’ve told that 17-year-old kid playing Dungeons & Dragons that one day that piece of graph paper with chicken scratch on it and a really pathetic portrait of a — take your pick, a ranger or a magic user or whatever — was going to have a movie like this made, I would’ve thought you were crazy. It’s kind of crazy. It’s kind of insane.”
— Vin Diesel, interview with Screen Rant’s Ben Moore
Films: “Pitch Black” (2000); “The Chronicles of Riddick” (2004); “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift” (2006); “Riddick” (2013); “xXx: Return of Xander Cage” (2017).
These are films that were hobbled critically because of Diesel’s Dungeons & Dragons storytelling strategy. I’m looking specifically at the Riddick movies, the series he has kept alive through One Race Films. To understand Diesel’s rejection of the contemporary style of franchise-making, consider this question: What would the Riddick movies look like if they had come from a creator who made sequels the normal way?
The first film, “Pitch Black,” introduces Riddick as a strong and morally gray mercenary leading a fight to get his group of crash-landed spacecraft survivors off a world that is trying to destroy them. It’s tight and visually compelling, and all the survivors have a story behind them — traders, bounty hunters, pilgrims, orphans — even the ones who are swiftly killed! So after Riddick successfully escapes the hell planet with two others, what would make sense for a sequel? Maybe Riddick has to deal with the company behind the crash? What if the fauna spreads to other worlds? Maybe he has to shake the people who captured him to begin with? Or goes back to the planet to save a new batch of survivors?
None of that remotely happens! Instead, he spends the bulk of “The Chronicles of Riddick” trying to break out of a prison planet he was entombed in by a nihilist space military cult and then eventually becomes king of the nihilist space military cult. Solid pivot. So where does the franchise take those tantalizing threads in the third film? Does Riddick try to reform the nihilist space military cult? Maybe he gets some juicy adversarial moments with Karl Urban’s character, the guy set up to be a frenemy or rival to him throughout “Chronicles.” Maybe he uses the nihilist space military cult to take down his rivals and enemies?
Nope! In “Riddick,” the title character is bored of running the nihilist space military cult and gets marooned on a deserted planet and has to kill two bands of mercenaries to survive.
Each of these movies has a different genre, for chrissakes. When you view them from the perspective of someone who expects, you know, coherent contemporary trilogy story structure from their franchises, it’s not a huge shock that critics said a collective “I don’t know how the hell to make sense of any of this crap” and gave them a resounding 59, 29 and 58 on Rotten Tomatoes.
But when you view the Riddick franchise as a huge Dungeons & Dragons campaign — with a self-styled main character who levels up against challenges with a revolving group of party members working to conquer individual and self-contained quests against environmental enemies as well as Big Bad Evil Guy villains in a world that has little general plot but is lousy with compelling aesthetic choices and general strife — the movies emerge as a brilliant character study and world-building experiment that Vin Diesel wants to tell you about and that (evidently) some people will clamor to see. This franchise may not have a crawl telling you “IT IS A PERIOD OF CIVIL WAR,” but after viewing it, you will have a fundamental grasp on what Diesel envisioned for his original character, Riddick.
That franchise is what happens when only a dedicated fan base turns up and critics and wide audiences don’t understand a filmmaker’s approach to storytelling. What happens when they do?
“Playing D&D was a training ground for our imaginations and an opportunity to explore our own identities. I started acting when I was seven, and this game was a constant exercise in developing voices and characters. I believe now, but probably did not realize then, that I was attracted to the artistic outlet the game provided. My D&D journey paralleled my search for identity in those growing years.”
— “30 Years of Adventure: A Celebration of Dungeons & Dragons,” foreword by Vin Diesel.
Films: “The Fast and the Furious” (2001); “xXx” (2002); “Fast & Furious” (2009); “Fast Five” (2011); “Fast and Furious 6” (2013); “Furious 7” (2015); “The Fate of the Furious” (2017).
The reason we have The Fast and the Furious franchise, one of the most popular international movie franchises, is because Vin Diesel wanted to make more Riddick movies. More importantly, though, the only reason these movies got good was that Diesel obtained creative control over the franchise after the third movie and turned it into an expertly managed Dungeons & Dragons campaign. Vin Diesel is now our dungeon master. The synopses of the movies read as an ongoing campaign with no overarching pre-ordained plot to be foiled, just a series of escalating challenges for an evolving party. Drag racers become thieves, thieves become secret agents, enemies becoming friends, secret agents repeatedly save the world. People enter and leave the party. The stakes rise with the abilities of the party. The world is saved, until next week! It’s classic tabletop gaming, and suddenly our society has a series where every sequel isn’t trying to be “The Empire Strikes Back.” And we remunerate them generously for it.
The two highest-grossing non-Star Wars films of 2015 were “Jurassic World” and “Furious 7.” “Furious 7” is made in Diesel’s signature style; “Jurassic World” is the poster boy for a shitty film that imitates its predecessors cheaply by ripping off the plot of a movie from decades ago. Two years out, I couldn’t describe a single character from “Jurassic World” to any degree of emotional depth. Similarly, if you put me on the spot, I couldn’t deliver an accurate plot synopsis for the film “Furious 7.” But I could tell you everything about the characters and their relationships and their journeys! That’s because in Dungeons & Dragons, it’s all about the characters and their growth and relationships and interactions, not the barely believable world around them. Screw the MacGuffins; you know these people.
And that’s what makes Diesel so interesting as a filmmaker and why I’m willing to wait 10 more years for news about his biopic saga on Carthaginian legend Hannibal Barca. Diesel knows how to do two things in movies: build a great character and run him through a great campaign. That makes him one of the most compelling people making movies now.