For the past decade, Hollywood has been desperately trying to pump some testosterone into the lucrative but enervated action genre. With Stallone and Schwarzenegger approaching 60, the studios have actually taught skinny guys like Keanu Reeves and Tobey Maguire how to fight. They've even taken the drastic measure of coming up with some really interesting action ideas, like The Matrix.
But Hollywood sees an unlikely savior on the horizon: Vin Diesel. Tough, stoic and tawny, with muscles like Adonis and a voice so deep only Bea Arthur can imitate it, Diesel became a star last summer in the surprise street-racing hit The Fast and the Furious. At the moment in Hollywood, Diesel is the very model of the new action hero.
Although their parents may not have heard of him, members of the hip-hop generation have embraced Diesel so enthusiastically that his per-picture fee is rapidly rising into the $20 million territory. Teens are so excited about seeing him in XXX, a spy movie opening Aug. 9, you have to wonder if they think the title refers to something besides extreme sports. Like The Rock, whose Scorpion King grossed more than $90 million earlier this year, Diesel is also part of a nascent constellation of stars whose melting-pot backgrounds and features seem to be resonating deeply with young moviegoers of all colors. Hollywood has seen the future of the action hero, and it's multiethnic.
With his exotic looks--olive skin and full lips--he's widely assumed to be of Italian and African heritage, but Diesel resolutely refrains from identifying his ethnicity. One Race is the name of his production company, and he refers to himself simply as "multicultural." "I support the idea of being multicultural primarily for all the invisible kids, the ones who don't fit into one ethnic category and then find themselves lost in some limbo," says Diesel, 35, as he dips into a bowl of hummus on the patio of Los Angeles' gothic Chateau Marmont hotel.
In XXX--a high-camp, high-concept, highly stylized adrenaline rush of a movie--Diesel stars as Xander Cage, the ripped and tattooed un-James Bond. Like Diesel himself, who admits that when he was a child his "appetite for attention was insatiable," Xander is a self-starting, self-promoting charmer who is presumably unfit for any occupation other than star. Obsessed with dangerous exploits that require extreme athleticism, Xander sells black-market films of himself performing such stunts as stealing the Corvette of a right-wing Senator, driving it off a cliff and parachuting to safety. He's recruited by a U.S. security official (a scar-faced Samuel L. Jackson) to save the world from an East European anarchist.
In preview screenings, men cheer the stunts (see Vin outpace an avalanche on a snowboard!) while young women whoop and holler every time Diesel reveals his tattooed chest--which is frequently. The film explicitly sets up Diesel as the new postmodern Bond by killing off a nameless spy wearing a tux in the first scene. A sequel is already in the works.