Strays (Vin Diesel, 1997)
I have a strong suspicion, though I’ve never explicitly read this, that Strays was originally a short script, like Diesel’s excellent first effort, Multi-Facial, that he extended to feature-length. It certainly feels that way while watching it, and given that Diesel hasn’t picked up a camera in the intervening sixteen years—despite having prepared another script with the intention of directing it himself while Strays was in production—I think he may have learned some valuable lessons from that process, which is always fraught with peril for an inexperienced screenwriter.
Plot: Rick (Diesel) is a layabout, a sometime drug dealer who has seen the error of his previous womanizing, hedonistic ways and is trying to straighten himself out while still dealing the occasional quarter of pot and still hanging out with the same band of stoners and no-goodniks from the bad old days: Freddie (Bomb the System‘s Joey Dedio), Mike (the screen debut of Next Friday‘s Mike Epps), and Tony (F. Valentino Morales, a partner of Diesel’s from Multi-Facial all the way up through 2005’s The Pacifier), among others. He’s sick of the cruising scene, sick of the people he hangs out with, sick of life in general until Heather (The Night We Never Met‘s Suzanne Lanza in her final big-screen appearance, as of this writing), a small-town Girl Next Door(TM), moves into the brownstone next door. Rick and Heather hit it off after being introduced at a neighborhood party, but Rick’s lifestyle, and the violence he is forced to display because of it, alienate her just as much as his softer side attracts.
The good parts about this movie mirror the good parts of Multi-Facial; there’s even that climactic monologue, though the piece here is far more pedestrian than the “A Raisin in the Sun” monologue Diesel delivers at the end of that film. And for me, that’s ultimately why Strays falls flat; Diesel isn’t really trying to do anything new here. It all still works, it’s just working in identical ways, and it’s stretched out to over four times the length. Some of the filler is good stuff; a subplot featuring Tony was lifted pretty much verbatim from Larry Clark’s Kids, but it works (and honestly, it works a helluva lot better here than it did in that mess of a movie), and most of the scenes where Rick and the gang are just hanging out talking in the basketball court are good stuff; Diesel knows how to write dialogue, which may come as a surprise to those who only know him as a brainless-action-movie star. On the other hand, the rest of the filler doesn’t work nearly as well—including the main romance plot. There’s way too much expository stuff, people saying things that sound like they’re coming out of psych 101 textbooks rather than off the tops of heads. Heather’s conversation on the rooftop with the guy who introduced them? Good pebbles, that scene was a bust. (It didn’t help that the male character there, whose name I have completely forgotten despite watching the movie less than twelve hours ago, is so flamboyantly gay as to be the same kind of brainless stereotype Diesel has, ironically, found himself shoehorned into since about xXx.) I think I actually cringed a couple of times while watching it. It’s hard to believe that the same guy who penned the scenes about Ferdinand, the Munro Leaf kidlit classic about a bull who just wants to be loved, wrote that rooftop dialogue. (Not that the Ferdinand bits are any less heavy-handed, but at least they work within the context of the film in a way that scene never could.)
Strays is a movie that wants to be so much more than it turned out to be. And to be fair, as much of a fan of Multi-Facial as I am, I wanted it to be that much more as well. So maybe I’m a touch more disappointed than the average film viewer who comes into this knowing the softer, earlier side of Vin Diesel will be. (The reaction on the IMDB boards from those who only know him as an action star, on the other hand, is uniformly rotten, so be warned.) I can’t tell you not to see it; if you’re a Vin Diesel fan (or a Mike Epps fan; his career exploded not long after this in exactly the same way Diesel’s did), of course you’re going to hunt it down, and you should. But gird your loins. **
No trailer on Youtube. Have a clip instead.