In the last decade or so, a few stars have risen to become the next generation of big-screen action heroes. Jason Statham and Dwayne Johnson are certainly among them, but their Fate of the Furious co-star Vin Diesel has more than proved himself worthy of inclusion as well. With an unmistakable voice, an imposing physical presence and a devoted fanbase, Diesel has collected several blockbuster franchises since bursting onto the scene in the late 1990s and has proved himself to be capable in dramatic films like Saving Private Ryan and Find Me Guilty. However, today we’re looking at some of his more front-and-center roles, whether as a lead or standout ensemble player. For the record, we’re limiting this list to one entry per franchise.
1. The Iron Giant (1999)
The directorial debut of Brad Bird (The Incredibles), this late-era hand-drawn animated gem has developed a monstrous cult following since its disappointing theatrical run. The Iron Giant follows young Hogarth (Eli Marienthal) and his discovery of the titular robot (Diesel), as the pair develop a friendship and attempt to hide from government officials convinced that Hogarth’s new pal is a deadly weapon. Its themes of self-discovery and choosing one’s own destiny are beautifully explored, and a good deal of the eponymous character’s heart derives from Diesel’s appropriately gruff but soulful performance.
2. Boiler Room (2000)
Just before the sci-fi thriller that gave Diesel his first franchise (more on that in a moment), the actor delivered a standout performance in this ensemble crime drama. He doesn’t have nearly as much screen time as star Giovanni Ribisi, but whenever Diesel’s Chris Varick shows up, the charisma is palpable. The very fact that the actor is able to make such an impression in a cast that also includes Ben Affleck, Nia Long, Nicky Katt, Tom Everett Scott, Ron Rifkin, and Scott Caan is an achievement in and of itself.
3. Pitch Black (2000)
In notorious criminal Richard B. Riddick, Diesel found his first signature role, and the relative simplicity in this sleek action thriller from director and co-writer David Twohy kept the focus strong enough to deliver what could be considered Diesel’s breakthrough role. Moreover, its box office success led Twohy and Diesel to collaborate on two sequels, 2004 release The Chronicles of Riddick and 2013 film Riddick. Plans are underway to make a fourth film as well.
4. The Fast and the Furious (2001)
The film that kicked off a multi-billion dollar franchise, The Fast and the Furious introduced moviegoers to Diesel’s most famous role in family-oriented street racer and all-around criminal kingpin Dominic Toretto. While the first film centered on the core “bromance” between Toretto and Paul Walker’s Brian O’Conner, the franchise has since expanded out to include an entire ensemble of popular characters, notably Michelle Rodriguez as Toretto’s longtime love Letty. With Furious 7 bringing in more than $1.5 billion, expect to see the eighth entry hit theaters in 2017.
5. xXx (2002)
Unlike the Riddick and Fast and Furious series, this Diesel-fronted franchise — which centers on an extreme sports fanatic who is recruited into a life of espionage — hasn’t exactly remained active. The first film won over action fans, despite mixed reviews, but when Diesel was unable to return for the 2005 sequel, he was replaced in the lead by Ice Cube. Now finally Diesel’s Xander Cage is set to return to the series for a third xXx film, set for release in 2017.
6. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Although Marvel Studios had successfully given Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor their own film franchises and created the mega-successful Marvel Cinematic Universe as a result, no one expected Guardians of the Galaxy to perform like it did. Based on the relatively obscure comic book, the film transformed its titular team into cinematic icons and became one of the the MCU’s most beloved entries to date. Much of that has to do with Diesel’s performance as Groot, who — despite a vastly limited vocabulary — emerged as the most beloved character in the film. Clearly Marvel was inspired by Diesel’s work in The Iron Giant 15 years earlier.
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