Previous Story

Place Your Bets!

All Features

Next Story

NFC Power Poll

Scrambled Egos

Vin Diesel plays his spirit animal. Plus: the controversial new J.D. Salinger documentary.

Riddick is the third of these Vin Diesel–in–outer space movies. The first, Pitch Black, was an effectively fun, minor hit in 2000. The Chronicles of Riddick came out four years later. Each dipped a toe in what then had been trending at the megaplex: the trouble-in-space and science fiction fantasies of the late 1990s and early 2000s (Red Planet, Supernova), and the world-building mythos of The Lord of the Rings and The Matrix in the middle of the decade. Riddick hitches a ride on the last-man-alive apocalypse wagon. You watch it fully aware that Diesel would have called it I Am Legend were that title still available. As it is, he’s joined Charlton Heston, Tom Hanks, Will Smith, and Tom Cruise in a genre predicated upon solitude and actor-audience intimacy.

But is Vin Diesel really a star you want to be alone with? If this man is a star, does he shine? Does he shine in a way that makes him worth watching when he’s the only object in the sky? The first 35 minutes of Riddick dare Diesel to hold our attention as he hobbles through the muck of an interstellar outpost, as he flees an assortment of computer-generated predators, as he narrates the movie in funky cookie fortunes. It’s a gamble, and I’m shocked to say that, in this nonsense action-thriller-comedy, it works.

In part, it works because after 15 years of fame, Diesel doesn’t want to change or grow. He remains a slab of racial ambiguity. When he speaks in movies, you taste the stirred-up dust of knuckles dragged across the dirt. Diesel’s persona is both familiar and unknowable, handsome and ugly, a genius and a moron, your protector and your bully. He doesn’t have to try to achieve or maintain this. Charm is an alien concept: If you don’t like what he’s offering, that’s your fault. In nearly every movie he’s made since Saving Private Ryan, he’s performing cool cockiness.

And Riddick wants to make the most of it. Diesel strolls around in tattered haute couture leather pants and, sometimes, a matching, sleeveless top. His character, Richard B. Riddick (or Dick Riddick? Ri’dick?), has been dumped on a junk planet, but he could be headed to the stage at Ozzfest. I can’t say, beyond this, that I know what the movie’s about since it abandons almost all of the space camp of the first two installments, especially the second. All three films were written and directed by David Twohy and, plotwise, this one is by far the most pointless. As he navigates a way back to his home planet, Riddick mopes around, slays amphibious water monsters, and injects himself and a hyena pup with a kind of performance-enhancing serum. At about the 35-minute mark, competing bounty-hunter teams arrive for Riddick’s head. All one can say to that is bwah-ha-ha.

You know this movie exists only as an attempt to test the waters for Diesel’s complete return to non-ensemble action stardom, to his xXx days, because he’s the only halfway-decent actor in it. This wasn’t true of the other two. They had Radha Mitchell and Thandie Newton and Cole Hauser and Karl Urban. They had Keith David and Colm Feore and Linus Roache. They had Judi Dench. Riddick just has Urban for a nanosecond that reeks of “scheduling conflict” and, briefly, the singer Keri Hilson running, not non-symbolically, for her life. I’ve never seen a Vin Diesel movie in which the other performances make his seem as if it were being presented by the Royal Shakespeare Company, but here we are. Jordi Mollà plays Santana, one of the lead mercenaries. It’s the same kind of Latin goon that American movies always ask Mollà to play. His guys have names like Vargas, Diaz, Nunez, and Luna. Some of them die easy. Diaz is played by the former wrestler Dave Bautista, who gets to stay clothed and wear a dread-hawk. Santana’s rival is Boss Johns, who’s played by Matt Nable, an Australian ex–rugby star whose American accent is like a detuned radio station. His is your classic ragtag crew — Bokeem Woodbine, for instance, brings the blackitude, and Katee Sackhoff both ensures the arrival of Battlestar Galactica fans and demands that her butchness be taken seriously. Add dialogue that lets them all overuse variations on the word “fuck,” then season to taste, and you have armed badasses that only Alien vs. Predator could love.

As it is, Riddick turns into just that sort of movie: a pickoff thriller. The creatures descend on the bickering mercenaries, and guess who survives for a fourth installment? Twohy actually never gets you to care. The stakes are so low and the close-ups too close to savor the action. The film does strive to live up to its hero’s name. The late mayhem, the campy assertion that lesbians aren’t Diesel-proof, and all of Riddick’s lines are ridiculous. “There are bad days, and there are legendary bad days,” he says. “This was shaping up to be one of those.” He goes on (“The whole damn planet wanted a piece of me”) and on (“Somewhere along the way, I got sloppy, dulled my own edge”).

If that also sounds like the rueful confessions of a lost star, it probably is. In 13 years, Diesel’s done two movies that were in any way distinct from the Fast & Furious films and this sci-fi series: a family comedy called The Pacifier and the Sidney Lumet courtroom drama Find Me Guilty. He was bored by the former and a courageous embarrassment in the latter. But in both he was experimenting with how to be more than a guy who used to unhook velvet ropes. Diesel is 46, and contrary to what these movies promote, he’s funny, charismatic, and not made of granite.

He’s spent the bulk of his career hiding in franchises, hypermasculinizing himself. We can live with this. But this new movie makes you wonder whether Diesel can. The whole thing is schlocky, but the first quarter is ruminatively so. It’s a star telling us he knows that if he can’t do better, he can at least do bigger, crazier, fiercer, and more original than Riddick, that he might have a Matthew McConaughey about-face in him. It’s Diesel saying that he’s been selling himself way too short. He ought to be playing Riddonk.

Salinger PR photo When the music never stops in a documentary — when the interview subjects keep saying the same things and there’s no clear argument being made, just empty assertions, speculation, and a bogus premise — you know that the movie has lost its mind. That’s Salinger: crazy. It purports to show us the real J.D. Salinger, not so much as the author of The Catcher in the Rye, not as a compelling cultural figure, not as a writer whose short stories lend themselves to close analysis and studious unpacking. The movie has a shallow, paparazzo literalism. It just wants to catch the legendarily reclusive Salinger getting into a Jeep. The film, directed by Shane Salerno, foregoes any pretense of intellectual or journalistic rigor. It’s neither a piece of criticism nor an essay of fandom. It makes talking heads of Tom Wolfe, Gore Vidal, A.E. Hotchner, Robert Towne, John Guare, Martin Sheen, and Philip Seymour Hoffman. It finds Salinger’s biographer, old friends, most notorious lover, and one hyperventilating bookseller. Very few of these people have been called upon to think. Why do that when you can gossip? Who knows what movie Salerno told them he was making. But they’ve signed on to two hours of monotonous narcissism. Salerno attempts to present Jerome David Salinger as a man wrecked by war and heartbreak, to tell the story of his years as a soldier in World War II as his most formative. But he doesn’t care to make sense of that part of his biography. He just skips from one aspect of Salinger’s life to the next and loops back around, until the chronologies become as incoherent as the argument the movie claims to be making about how he came to write The Catcher in the Rye.

The film’s pulse goes up only when the subject involves the pursuit of fame. A great deal of time is spent on Salinger’s obsession with being published in The New Yorker and his unhappy relationship with Oona O’Neill. Occasionally, one of the interview subjects perceives a link between Salinger’s writing and his personal life, about, say, how his actual family had to compete with its fictional counterpart, the Glasses. But the movie doesn’t bear down. It focuses only on the most salacious aspects of those connections. For instance, it uses old Today Show footage of Salinger’s daughter, Margaret, discussing her unhappy childhood and her shocking 2000 memoir with Katie Couric.

Both Margaret’s book, Dream Catcher, and one by Salinger’s notorious lover, Joyce Maynard (At Home in the World, from 1998), aroused the fury of both the book world and those around it. Some of that contempt was a kind of paternalism: How dare these women be so disloyal toward this man? Some of the contempt arose from the possessiveness Salinger awakened in his readers. In four books released in 13 years — he stopped publishing in 1965 — Salinger built a world of sensitivities, a precious place impervious to criticism, a place in which a certain kind of sentient, smart being felt at home. His were the sorts of worlds that gave us emo and a filmmaker like Wes Anderson. Salinger belonged to his fans. Calling him anything less than a hero made heretics of the people he is alleged to have hurt.

Salerno’s best angle isn’t about fame, but obsession — how people stalked Salinger; how people felt Salinger licensed them to stalk (and kill); how Salinger was himself a predator of editors and young women. But no single angle in this movie stays acute for long. It’s looking for dirt, without being interesting in exploring how we got dirty. Look at the scene with Maynard. She goes on about her years with Salinger, who, in 1972, read her cover story in The New York Times Magazine (“An 18-Year-Old Looks Back on Life”) and began to write her letters. She dropped out of Yale and moved into his Cornish, New Hampshire, home. He was 53.

She describes the hell that was living with him, and the movie’s editing turns as breathless. She’s gossiping, too. And yet what she shares goes beyond speculation. It’s empirical. She knew the sides of Salinger he thought he’d hid. It doesn’t hurt that she knows how to appear “on camera” — and her performance emotionally deepens the movie, as much one can give depth to an oil slick.

As a writer, Salerno’s background is in crime (John Singleton’s Shaft), trash (Oliver Stone’s Savages), and schlock (Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem). He loads the soundtrack with thriller strings and Tom Clancy–action-movie drumming. He abuses stock photography and archival footage, grinding them down to filler. They don’t recall a time or place. They bloat the run time. Talking heads fall like dandruff. And some, like one of Salinger’s biographers, Paul Alexander, talk without contributing much insight. (Alexander speaks with a grating whine. It’s his book that provides Salerno his source material.) Worst of all are the tired reenactments of “Jerry” smoking and banging away on a typewriter on a stage in front of a movie screen projected with Important Images.

This is cheap, dishonestly prurient stuff: lube masquerading as polish. Salinger is also, accidentally, very much a movie of a moment — the time in which we think we own our stars and feel compelled to tear them down when they disappoint us or lift them higher up when they’re under public fire. Witness how badly Dave Chappelle was treated last month on a comedy tour or the way fans of Miley Cyrus came defensively to her aid after her performance at the MTV Video Music Awards. Fans’ sense of betrayal as well as their capacity for over-identification are actually as old as modern fame itself. Both are just more vicious now.

Salerno saves his most appalling move for the dismount. He credits two anonymous sources for giving him access to information about Salinger’s yet-to-be-published work. He then floods that onstage movie screen with titles and descriptions. You feel like his dream has come true: He gets to be a predator, too. He gets to be the Geraldo Rivera of the literary world. Salerno is arguing that Salinger owes him and, by extension, us. This movie is him stealing it.

Screen Shot 2014-01-14 at 1.28.25 PM

Wesley Morris is a staff writer for Grantland. He won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for criticism for his work at the Boston Globe.

Archive @ Wesley_Morris