Then I watched Strays and Diesel offered me something very different, and something very surprising. The first thing that surprised me about Strays before I even slid the disc in the player was that he wrote, co-produced, directed and starred in the film.
The story is pretty simple, Diesel plays Rick, a man who is starting to find a little discontent with his life which amounts to supplying his friends with recreational drugs, keeping fit, and heading out at night to get drunk and sleep with good looking women.
He's determined to move on and do something with his life and is tired of his friends taking him for granted and using him for somewhere to crash and his supply, and yet he doesn't want to lose them or forget his past.
Next door is a woman whom he's attracted to but she is definitely a class above him. Can he change his life and make something work with her, or is he destined to remain where he is?
The film isn't as bad as you might at first suspect, especially as you hear that it's Vin Diesel's first film as writer and as director, never mind taking the lead role.
It is indeed surprising, and more so because of the writing which is pretty good within the relationships, both in the straight dialogue and the character development. It's particularly strong in the main relationship between Rick and Heather, playted by Suzanne Lanza, which has some rather poignant moments that made a connection with me and felt pretty real, as well as opening up the character of Heather.
I was also surprised by the ending which was stronger than a lot of Hollywood films that look on relationships. It doesn't wrap things up in black and white as you'd expect, and actually gives a very realistic feeling to the end of the film and the characters.
What makes that ending even more impressive is hearing what pressure Diesel was under to deliver it. Although this is mentioned in the extras it's more relevant to be told here. There was a much more traditional ending for the film, but with a weeks worth of shooting to be done the producer told him they had enough money for one more day. So he went home and stayed up all night to write an entirely new ending considering the lost shooting schedule, and this is the film he came up with, and it seems all the better for it.
The acting isn't half bad either. Although there are a few moments where Diesel relies on his presence, he does deliver some strong moments, and in the scenes with the new relationship he gives a pretty believable performance with some moments that open up his character.
Suzanne Lanza is good too. She's a very natural actress that seems totally at ease on screen, and is gorgeous to boot. Some of the supporting characters aren't so strong, and you can hear faltering moments hanging in mid air, but for an independent film with some relatively new actors in it, we get some surprising moments.
Dolby Digital 5.1
The audio is good enough to hear the characters and get the ambient sounds of the city, but again there's nothing overly special to task your home cinema system since there's no xXx style action here and the film is all about the dialogue and characters.
There isn't anything particularly special about the picture as it is filmed on a low budget, in fact in a few places the framing is downright atrocious. This is explained later on in the extras when the first Director of Photography had the wrong film in the camera and resulted in some crucial scenes being ruined. However because of budget issues they had to crop them and save what they could, and they do a pretty good job of recovering some of the scenes.
Making of Featurette
The featurette is rather good and reveals some interesting facts about the production and the work that Vin Diesel put into the film. It also reveals a lot about Diesel himself, his stage background, his understanding of direction, and his strong writing. This is far from the action star that he is considered to be.
It also looks to his work on the film as co-producer, writer and director and shows just how much passion and time he invested in the project, something that really pays off when you hear of his tale of Sundance Film Festival.
The story of the ending is perhaps the most amazing, and how he stayed up all night rewriting a week's worth of shooting into one final day and creating a stronger ending for the film.
I enjoyed the film, and again with any independent film you have to take into account the limited budget and resources, and with Strays Vin Diesel has shown something different to his name. He writes well, and creates strong characters and relationships, and he's obviously shown a flair for producing. As for the direction, well I'd really like to see him on something else with a little more budget and time to really see what talent he has.
Strays comes out as a strong independent film with some good scenes between the two leads, and the work behind the scenes by Diesel and the crew is impressive to hear about on the lone featurette.
I would have liked to have seen more on the DVD, but then there doesn't appear to be that much more to put on it.
A good offering, and a great eye opener for those who are Diesel fans and those who aren't.