Vin Diesel driving on a tankful of cool

USA Today

Los Angeles :

At first, Diesel stumbles through an answer when asked why he wanted to again play his anti-hero from 2000’s ‘Pitch Black’, an escaped convict with a healthy disregard for all intergalactic authority, in ‘The Chronicles of Riddick’. “This character is so content with being indifferent. This character is going through a whole act, a phase in his life. Just to understand heroism, the need for heroism is interesting…” Then he gets rolling. “Riddick is so misrepresented. He is always described in the first act as evil by other people. In ‘Pitch Black’, we never heard what he thought. He never defended himself.” And he throws a curveball. “Like Joan Allen in ‘The Contender’.”

You laugh and he giggles over the fact that he has compared his tough-as-cheap-meat killer to Allen’s vice presidential candidate who refuses to refute allegations of sexual misconduct. “I told another reporter he was like Bogart in ‘Casablanca’,” he says, trying to make amends. No matter. That he watches feminist political potboilers and is actually somewhat endearing. Diesel, an overgrown 36-year-old kid so hooked on video games he owns his own company, probably wouldn’t bother to deny the accusation that he is full of himself. Not when he makes such declarations such as “I’m the most ambitious person you ever met.”

But his enlarged ego is matched by ample reserves of warmth and charm. That side got early exposure with small roles in 2000’s ‘Boiler Room’ (about Wall Street hustlers) and 2001’s ‘The Fast and the Furious’ (about illegal street racers). But it went undercover in 2002’s ‘XXX’, a misguided update on spy intrigue that was expected to give Diesel’s career a high-octane boost. Instead, it turned him into a poster child for hype overdrive. So it’s brutish Riddick to the rescue as the actor tries to reinvent a cult success into a franchise-igniting blockbuster and restore his momentum. That is, if the estimated $125 million sci-fi thriller does reasonably well at the box office this weekend.

Not that Diesel, who also is a producer on ‘Riddick’, worries about such matters. Or at least he says he doesn’t. For him, it’s about pleasing the public and striking a common chord.

“I felt a great sense of anxiety at the premiere because it was so close to home,” he says of ‘Riddick’ unveiled last week in Los Angeles. “It’s been five years of dreaming. Because I just wanted people to understand, to like it, love it, enjoy it. What is different about this is enough. That was the reward. I don’t get caught up in the numbers thing. That makes it about something else, too corporate.” Don’t be too fooled by Diesel’s nonchalance, though. David Twohy, ‘Riddick’ writer and director, says his star knows full well what is at stake. “He’s very hip to what his place is in the industry and what people think. He has his finger in the wind.” In an attempt to restore his cool factor, he says, “he very wisely chose to do an anti-hero like Riddick over other opportunities. On one hand, it’s calculated. But it’s driven by heart as well.”

Diesel cares about maintaining the integrity of his work. Perhaps too much. “He hasn’t changed a lot,” says Twohy, who also directed Diesel in ‘Pitch Black’. “He was a handful back then, and he’s a handful now. He has a lot of ideas and that can frustrate a director. But there were some good ones in there. I’ve adapted to him and he sometimes with me.”

Meanwhile, the actor and Twohy already have plotted the next two ‘Riddick’ chapters just in case their dream of a trilogy gets the go-ahead. The actor also might re-explore his drag-racing Dominic Toretto from ‘The Fast and the Furious’. Not in a sequel, but in a movie spin-off, but only if the story captures Toretto’s need “to be competitive and victorious,” Diesel says. Striving for diversity in his projects, Diesel is in talks with Spike Lee to star in a bio of boxing champ Joe Louis that will focus on his fights with German Max Schmeling in the ‘30s and their effect on World War II’. And he is now shooting an action comedy in Toronto titled ‘The Pacifier’. The premise: A disgraced Navy SEAL ends up protecting five youngsters whose assassinated father was a government scientist. “The kids really shine,” he says. “In the third act, my character directs them in ‘The Sound of Music’.” And, yes, musicals are one of Diesel’s favorite things. Although Nicole Kidman turned him down to play his missionary love interest, he would still like to step into Marlon Brando’s fancy shoes and tackle the role of dapper gambler Sky Masterson in a remake of 1955’s ‘Guys and Dolls’.

So, can he sing?

After a momentary pause, he launches into a pleasantly gruff rendition of Jacques Brel’s forlorn love song “Ne Me Quitte Pas” (Do Not Leave Me). In French, no less. Oui, Monsieur Diesel might be tough, but he’s tender, too.