STUDIO: Firstlook
MSRP: $14.98
RUNNING TIME: 98 minutes
• Behind-the-scenes featurette
• Trailers

The Pitch

“A drug dealer with a heart of gold falls for the opposite of a prostitute!”

The Humans

Vin Diesel, Mike Epps, Suzanne Lanza.

The Nutshell

Rick (Diesel) is a drug dealer who “doesn’t do [it] for a living.” His life has been a parade of one-night stands, dingy apartments, and friends who probably haven’t earned the term. Right next door to his current dive lives Heather (Lanza), a pretty girl from the right side of the tracks. Seeing her as a step on the path toward setting his life in order, Rick begins a relationship with Heather despite the monstrous differences in how they approach life, and how they’ve lived it so far.

He’s not very good at it.

Mark Steven Johnson? Is that you?

The Lowdown

Written, produced, and directed by Vin Diesel, Strays gives a snapshot of the man’s psyche circa 1997, and it sure as hell doesn’t look like that of the action anti-hero for which he came to be recognized and paid. Just to give you an idea of how different Strays is from the rest of Diesel’s work, the film played Sundance in ’97, alongside Chasing Amy, Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control, and Lost Highway. There are no explosions or chase scenes or badass one-liners. (There are pectoral muscles, though. In spades.) Surface to core, it’s a very simple story, told with a minimum of flair.

I mean for that to damn with faint praise, as the whole project feels lifeless. I don’t mean that Diesel should have shoehorned in an explosion or two, but rather that he should have gone for more than the workmanlike direction employed from beginning to end. A little flair wouldn’t have gone amiss. The pacing progresses like the second hand on the clock at your work, steady and dull, and never really builds an engaging momentum. Only a couple of shots in the whole thing carry any sort of visual interest, mostly holding so tightly to the actors that the rest of the world seems immaterial or empty. As a director, Diesel plays it too safely with Strays.

I wouldn’t have minded so much — after all, safe direction kind of turns invisible after a while — except that Diesel-the-Writer is noticeably sub-par. Simple direction may often be the right choice when filming an engrossing, well-written screenplay. Unfortunately, Diesel’s text is flatter than a chalk outline. Every line of dialogue is descriptive, with zero subtext. To make things worse, no one exists beyond the constraints of their stereotype. Heather is a princess, always painting her nails when we see her alone. She has a teddy bear on her bed and calls her father “daddy.” She abhors violence. Her character has a line-segment instead of an arc.

One of the two visually interesting shots in the film.

Rick gets a little more depth, but again it’s with descriptive voice-over or dialogue rather than by way of action or subtext. Rick is the worst offender when it comes to brain-on-his-sleeve lines. The man has not one secret in his life. He takes great care to explain his emotional state in all the wrong places. “I feel conflicted about my life” he tells anyone who takes two seconds to listen. Strippers, barflies, gay fellows passing on the street… Though it could be an intentional character trait, I suspect not, since the same unsubtle dialogue comes out of everyone’s mouths, betraying either a sophisticated Utopian dream where honesty rules, or a lack of screenwriting skill.

The only places the script succeeds, on a character level, are those times when Rick trades barbs with his friends or targets himself with self-deprecating humor. These are the only times we see Diesel come alive on the screen, and while I wouldn’t go so far as to call it charming I wouldn’t mind calling it disarming.

Other than that, though, the film is a void of charisma. The supporting cast are appropriately without, scumballs to the last, but where Rick and Heather should have some chemistry, some attraction to the audience individually and apart, we get nothing. My favorite misguided attempt at supplying some of that intangible It comes when Rick tries to show Heather his sensitive side by serenading her — in one interminable shot — with the Tin Woodsman’s song from The Wizard of Oz. All of it.

My notes read: Vin Diesel is singing?

Vin Diesel is still singing.

Vin Diesel will not shut up.

“I feel conflicted about these flowers.”

There are a few other minor failures along this line, but most of the time Diesel doesn’t even try. Lanza is no better, partly because of having nothing to work with, and partly because her eyes look as if they have been scavenged from the skull of the recently deceased.

Overall, Strays seems like an earnest but indistinct love story. I have no doubt Diesel’s heart was running with this project, but his skills as a director and writer weren’t quite good enough to keep up. Flashes of Movie Star Diesel shine through in his acting, which is kind of fun to watch, but that’s about all that survives as being worth much twelve years on.

The Package

First off, my review copy came in a 100% recycled steel case. Terrific? When all my other DVDs have returned to the soil, Strays will remain. There’s something philosophical here, about choice of materials reflecting quality of contents, but I’m trying to give up pretension for Lent.

Just you wait until next week.

From all appearances, the content of the disc is identical to that released in January of 2008; only the case has changed. Bonus materials include a brief making-of documentary, which shows more of Diesel’s charisma than you’ll find in the film itself, and a trailer.

5 out of 10