Vin Diesel just keeps making me madder and madder. Despite his hulking hugeness and the fact that he once worked as a bouncer (or so we’re told — maybe that’s just a good story to tell on Leno), he’s clearly not the thug he’s been playing onscreen for the last few years. He’s written, produced, and directed films — Multi-Facial and Strays — that have played in competition at Sundance and screened at Cannes. How can someone like that possibly be satisfied playing the grunting, amoral Neanderthal, the one who communicates primarily with his fists?
Yeah, I know: That’s where the money is (and that’s an angry rant for another day). Sure, plenty of good actors do the big, dumb action movies to pay for the little, interesting ones… but even then, they do badasses who are not entirely irredeemable — think Bruce Willis’s John McClane, a charmer of a lunatic. We’ve seen that Diesel is perfectly capable of that, too: his Boiler Room con artist was way more brains than muscle, and he gave a destroyer-robot real heart as the voice of the Iron Giant. But a quick look at Diesel’s schedule shows him stuck in XXX and Pitch Black sequels for the rest of his life, an unending campaign of portraying two of the most detestable and dissolute movie characters in recent memory.
He’s at it again in Knockaround Guys, a wannabe mob movie about wannabe mobsters that doesn’t know whether it’s a comedy or a drama, but does very definitely know that either way, it’s about Vin Diesel beating the living crap out of people.
The writing/directing team of Brian Koppelman and David Levien gave us the far more knowing Rounders a few years back, about how being a professional gambler isn’t as glamorous as it sounds, and now they try to do the same thing here for professional criminals. But the bar was already placed pretty darn high by GoodFellas and has been raised even higher by The Sopranos, and so Knockaround Guys, which wouldn’t have looked so hot standing in an open field all on its lonesome, finds itself embarrassed by the august company in which it places itself. And also by the fact that Koppelman and Levien think they can get themselves out of corners by having Vin Diesel growl at some hapless soul.
A bunch of poor little rich mafia kids, whom their daddies don’t take seriously, decided to carve out their own little niche in the family business. Matty Demaret (Barry Pepper: Battlefield Earth, The Green Mile) hires his cousin Johnny Marbles (Seth Green: Austin Powers in Goldmember, America’s Sweethearts) to squire a bag of mob money across the country from Washington State to Brooklyn, but Johnny flubs the job, losing the bag — he had to, or there’d be no movie. So Matty, smarting from his father’s rejection of his goombah potential, takes muscly Taylor Reese (Diesel, natch) and Chris Scarpa (Andrew Davoli) with him to Middle of Nowhere, Wyoming, to find the money, a cool half a mill. But the sheriff (Tom Noonan: Eight Legged Freaks, The Pledge) isn’t quite the dumbshit they expected him to be, so Vin Diesel has to beat the crap out of some locals to get respect — the violence is always about low self-esteem, isn’t it? — which kinda sorta doesn’t even make any sense. But so what? With Seth Green along to do his goofball thing and Vin Diesel to bust some hineys, it should at least be big dumb fun.
But it isn’t. It’s not even little dumb fun. It’s just dumb. I’m not sure why Green is here at all, except to be such a good sport about playing such a thoroughly stupid character that he’s hard to even like. Dennis Hopper (Jesus’ Son, EDtv) and John Malkovich (Shadow of the Vampire, The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc), as, respectively, Matt’s underboss old man and his lieutenant, show up eventually to berate the boys and perform impersonations of Dennis Hopper and John Malkovich, which should be funny, if unintentionally so, but isn’t. Malkovich’s kvetch about everything being about everybody’s feelings these days is funny in the trailer and TV ads for the film, because they’re taken out of context. In context, there’s no context: no one says boo about feelings, though I guess we’re meant to understand that the boys just want their daddies to love them and that none of this would have even happened if the dads had just spent some quality time. Which contributes to the forced attempt at drama, too, and boy, does the rationale for that come way outta left field. You know, the betrayal and the broken honor and all your standard mob stuff? It’s here, of course, but not in any way that makes any kind of logical sense.
So, with no comedy and drama that is laughable but far from amusing, what’s left? Don’t let Diesel know I said this, cuz it’ll only encourage him, but the most dynamic scene in the film is, alas, his punchfest in the honky-tonk. But honestly, that’s only in comparison to all the other scenes surrounding it.