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Vin Diesel is the preeminent star of—and driving creative force behind—one of global cinema’s all-time-successful franchises: Fast and the Furious. And that will continue to be the case when the star-studded F9 (featuring John Cena and Charlize Theron) arrives in theaters on April 2, 2021 (after a year-long delay due to the novel coronavirus). Yet more than two decades into his lucrative career, that’s about all Diesel has. Unlike his fellow blockbuster-shouldering A-listers, the 52-year-old actor is known, almost exclusively, for a single role, in a single series: that of famed street racer turned world-saver Dominic Toretto. Having exhibited only minor interest in branching out in different directions over the past 20 years, Diesel has become the most bankable one-trick pony in modern movie history.
That reputation won’t be altered by Bloodshot (in theaters Friday), an adaptation of a Valiant Comics title that’s most notable for the many ways it has its marquee draw go through the motions. Like the underwhelming Riddick and xXx sagas that came and went before it, it’s a second-rate genre endeavor that feels like it’s been constructed from the spare parts of superior predecessors. Diesel brings his usual brand of gruff tough-guy menace to the part of Ray Garrison, a Marine rebuilt with nanotechnology into a superhero—albeit one at the manipulative mercy of Dr. Emil Harting (Guy Pearce). But director David S.F. Wilson’s film is a been-here, done-that affair, and thus destined to reside alongside the likes of Babylon A.D. and The Last Witch Hunter in the Diesel canon as a botched attempt to provide an alternate vehicle for the bald actor’s badass baritone charisma.
To be sure, Diesel’s career has had its share of non-Fast and Furious achievements. Those, however, have either been modest (xXx) or somewhat divorced from his participation (namely, the Guardians of the Galaxy and attendant Avengers films, in which his voice work as Groot amounts to saying the same word over and over again). He’s allowed himself to be defined by Dominic Toretto, whose mixture of barking-dog toughness and loving loyalty to friends and family—the latter of which he celebrates ad nauseam, to the point of self-parody—is inextricably tied up with the public’s conception of him. It’s no wonder that the only two characters he’s returned to multiple times on screen—the seeing-in-the-dark antihero Riddick, and the extreme-sports secret agent xXx—resemble minor variations on the rule-breaking, risk-taking Toretto.
Diesel has barely ventured outside that comfort zone since his early days of stealing scenes in Saving Private Ryan and Boiler Room; the last truly adventurous part he took was Find Me Guilty, a Sidney Lumet-directed courtroom dramedy that premiered in 2006 and provided a modest glimpse at a more fascinating, against-type path never taken (in a truly spectacular wig). Certainly, Bloodshot is of a piece with his more recent output, as evidenced by an introductory warzone sequence that ends with the hulking headliner taking off his jacket to reveal a white undershirt—the standard-issue Diesel/Dom uniform. From there, his Garrison is executed by Toby Kebbell’s bad guy, resurrected as an unstoppable nanite-powered assassin, and then thrown for a psychological loop when he discovers that he’s the pawn of his maker Harting. At first driven by a personal desire to avenge his wife’s death, Garrison soon discovers that his family-first motivations are a fabrication—thereby giving him a new personal reason to kill.
Those hackneyed twists might qualify as spoilers if not for the fact that Bloodshot barely tries to conceal them. Wholesale derivation abounds, with Diesel’s protagonist coming across as part Spawn (slain and reborn military man bent on revenge), part Wolverine (regenerative-healing rageaholic), part Jason Bourne (amnesiac government operative), and part Robocop (resurrected-by-technology do-gooder plagued by traumatic visions of a lost marital life). Garrison also boasts trace elements of The Terminator (he’s an online-enabled murder borg), and his story is depicted with flourishes straight out of The Matrix (oh, the incessant slow-mo bullet-time and virtual-reality effects!) and Spider-Man 2 (one baddie employs Doctor Octopus-style mecha-arms during the finale). And naturally, Garrison is also a close relative of Fast and the Furious’ Toretto, thanks to his quest for both a clan he can call his own, and independence from The Man’s authoritarian control.
“You don’t need a history to have a future,” is the lesson Garrison learns on his way to becoming the glowing-chested Bloodshot—a fitting mantra for a character, and film, that would rather viewers not think about the many, many ancestors being ripped off here. More frustrating than the proceedings’ lack of conceptual originality, however, is Diesel’s own refusal to push himself to try new things. Everyone has seen the star growl, bludgeon, strut and pose like this before, and though such sights are occasionally gussied up by CGI flourishes, they’re of a tacky sort. There’s a sense throughout that we’re watching a third-generation photocopy of prior Diesel turns, and that impression is exacerbated by a final fight in which hero and villain are wholly replaced by computer-rendered approximations of themselves.
For all of Bloodshot’s talk about enhanced warriors, Diesel’s latest suggests that the star believes he’s already reached his peak form via Fast and the Furious, and consequently that the only avenue available to him is toward projects that play off his established persona, and lean into that franchise’s set-in-stone formula of sexy and fierce women (here, Baby Driver’s Eiza González), varied global locales, and lunkheaded brooding about the value of autonomy and the preeminent place loved ones hold in a real man’s heart. Trying to graft that template onto other films that themselves are knock-offs of better genre properties (xXx and James Bond; The Last Witch Hunter and Dungeons & Dragons; Bloodshot and innumerable comic books) is the sort of misguided tack that’s left Diesel with one reliably popular tentpole series to his name, and a host of misfires the average moviegoer has already forgotten—if they ever knew existed in the first place.
Given the actor’s larger-than-life magnetism, discarding his current creative strategy and veering completely off-brand remains an option if he wants his legacy to be more than simply Dom Toretto. Until he figures out how to effectively course correct, however, he might—in the interest of maintaining his cinematic relevance—want to strongly consider following through on that rumored plan to make the forthcoming franchise-capping Fast and Furious 10 a two-movie event.