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I remember when Vin Diesel first showed up on the action scene, a friend of mine swore by the actor. They had seen Diesel in a short where he showed some fairly decent chops as a thespian. It’s something I’ve not seen through most of his career, so I was excited to get a chance to look at his debut film, which was also written and directed by Diesel. I’m sad to say I’ve still not seen serious acting from Diesel, but I have seen reason why he should stick with acting and not try his hand at writing or directing a feature film ever again.
Strays introduces Vin Diesel to the movie world as Rick, a small time drug dealer surrounded by a worthless crowd, all of whom are lost in life, like stray animals. Rick is trying to turn his life around, however, and is at a crossroad in his life, as we are told repeatedly. In Rick’s mind, his pathway to a better life comes in the form of Heather, a girl who is of greater substance than his typical one night stands. Lucky for him she’s equally attracted to Rick, despite being from different worlds and a complete lack of reason for her interest, other than it helps progress the story.
There are a lot of problems with Strays, so finding a place to begin is incredibly hard. As a low budget movie, I’ll overlook some of the glaring errors with cinematography and sound editing, as well as minor gaffes like doors that don’t close properly and other scenery-based problems low budget movies tend to face. They are present, but are forgivable, not to mention incredibly minor compared to the deeper issues that plague the film.
As you might gather from the plot description above, a lot of the movie follows a philosophy of “tell, don’t show.” I blame this on Diesel as a new screenwriter, who doesn’t seem to know how to move his story forward or give his characters any depth through indirect characterization. We know Rick is at a transitional point because he tells a girl he is, not because we ever see him really transition, and all the Taxi Driver and Raging Bull references in the world don’t make your character tough, although one scene that shows Rick accosting a group of punks without reason does finally accomplish the task. Nothing in the narrative makes the automatic relationship between Heather and Rick work though, which is such a pivotal part of the story, you kind of have to have it work to buy into Rick’s attempt at a transformation.
On the other side, we know Rick’s friends are worthless because we see them do nothing. Lots of the movie is spent watching them do nothing; so much so that the pacing of the movie is absolutely miserable. The first five minutes of the movie sees each of Rick’s three main friends attempt to bum his apartment so they can be alone with a girl, each with no success. One of these would have accomplished the task, but to repeat the gag three times is just painful.
My biggest gripe with Strays, however, is with the movie’s horrid tagline, which is stated several times in the movie, but never explained to any point of satisfaction. Several times throughout the movie, Rick tells a story about getting a book about a bull when he was a kid from one of his mother’s boyfriends, who wrote on the cover, “Life is a matador.” Look, life is not a matador. Life may be a bull, life may be a red cape, or life may even be the sword the matador uses to stab the bull, but life isn’t a matador. It’s a metaphor that makes absolutely no sense and reeks of a desperate attempt to create a catchphrase that clueless teens will think sounds cool and repeat ad nauseam. Thankfully, it didn’t take off, either because the movie isn’t well known or because the metaphor is as transparently stupid as it sounds.
I like Vin Diesel as an action star, and I still think he has some potential as a serious actor if he gets the right part. A storyteller, however, Diesel isn’t. Thankfully, some Strays don’t get adopted, but are mercifully put down at the pound. Despite some initial attention from Sundance, that seems to be the fate of this little known chapter of Diesel’s career.
Strays has been out on DVD for a little while now. The rationale behind this re-release is the popular “steelbook” packaging, which eternalizes the DVD case, featuring that stupid “Life is a Matador” tagline, in metal instead of plastic and paper. The contents within that case are exactly the same as what came out before, which isn’t much. Then again, for a low budget movie, how much can you expect?
The picture and sound are of low quality in the DVD transfer, although I would bet they are just as poor on the original masters of the film as well. This is a case where the DVD can’t be much better than the source material, especially since this isn’t a masterpiece some studio is willing to pour millions into remastering. It represents the film well, grainy in sound and visuals, Normally these are things you want to avoid in a DVD transfer, but here they add more character to the movie than the script and acting do.
The DVD includes a making-of featurette that runs half an hour long (almost a third as long as the movie itself). This is the real gem of this release, providing a rough look behind the scenes, not only of Strays, but also of Diesel’s dream of making a movie. A lot of problems the movie has, such as poor framing of shots, are explained during the course of the featurette, to the point that I’d almost recommend watching this explanation before watching the movie itself. Sure, it may spoil a few points in the story, but they have such a lifeless presentation in the movie, it’s almost better to find out why the film is the way it is first.
The making of Strays is interesting to watch if you want to see what Vin Diesel was like earlier in his career. The movie is considerably less interesting, unless you’re really willing to give up ninety minutes of your life that you won’t get back again to see a movie that really only shows why Diesel should stick with the career Hollywood dealt him than try his hand at making his own movies. See, Diesel, life is a bull, and it knocked that filmmaking down. A good matador would have gotten out of the way. Jumping to action movies is the next best thing, although after The Pacifier and Babylon A.D., it might be time to dodge that bull again.
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