In his career spanning nearly 30 movies, Vin Diesel has carved out a niche for himself playing macho good guys, macho bad guys, and tiny little tree children who dance in flowerpots. The dude's got a certain look, but he also has range, and has made a bunch of unlikely franchises that improbably keep going for years. Dudes in sports cars who steal a bunch of VCRs? A genetically enhanced criminal warrior who can see in complete darkness? An extreme sports enthusiast recruited by the government to fight crime?
What to do with all these movies and all these gravelly-voiced performances? We do what we do best: pick the greatest ones and rank them, of course. And before all you Saving Private Ryan-heads get all fussy, let me say that this list is not a ranking of movie quality. Rather, it's meant to rank them by their Vin Diesel factor. There's a Vin Diesel movie, and there's a movie that merely has Vin Diesel in it, offering a few lines of voice acting or a single-scene cameo to movies that otherwise don't actually star him. So, my criteria when compiling this list: Is the movie good? Is Vin Diesel good in it? If the answer to both was yes, it made the list. Sadly, this does not apply to his latest, Bloodshot, but diehard Diesel-heads should see it, especially now that it's being released for home viewing far earlier than expected.
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10. The Chronicles of Riddick (2004)
Okay, hear me out. The Chronicles of Riddick was a total bomb and got almost exclusively negative reviews when it came out in theaters, but I am here to say that it's actually kind of cool. Yes, it takes the very simple and elegant bones of Pitch Black (see below) and renders them nearly obsolete in the face of some really, really excessive worldbuilding -- Furians??? Necromongers??? Air Elementals??? What you thought was a future universe kind of like Alien turns out to be more like Dune, with aliens and intergalactic conquerors and cool looking costumes. It's a weird movie, but once you get past the fact that this is not the Pitch Black sequel you were expecting, it ends up being kind of fun. Judi Dench plays a white-robed all-powerful character named Aereon. Listen to me: it rules.
9. Boiler Room (2000)
Before The Wolf of Wall Street, there was Boiler Room, a quick, choppy little movie about a bunch of young dudes recruited to join an illegal "chop stock" brokerage firm and make a deal to get so rich even Gordon Gekko would be disgusted. There's a lot in this movie that sits it firmly at the turn of the millennium as a pre-Big Short crime drama movie where the good guy wins and the bad guys get what's theirs. Diesel isn't in a ton of this movie, but he is the star of arguably its best scene, in which, as senior broker Chris Varick, he slickly persuades a poor schmuck to buy a bunch of useless stocks for a ridiculous amount of money while his fellow stockbrokers cheer him on. (Watch the trailer)
8. Find Me Guilty (2006)
This otherwise loooooong legal dramedy shows Diesel in a role we hadn't seen him in before, or since. As real-life mobster Jackie DiNorscio, Diesel charms a court full of jurors and members of the New York mafia, refusing to rat out his buddies after being arrested on a drug charge, and opting to defend himself instead of hiring a lawyer. "The movie where Vin Diesel has hair" is remarkably funny, made no less bizarre by the fact that every scene in the courtroom was lifted from actual transcripts of the longest Mafia trial in American history. It's kind of like when comedians do a full 180 and star in a drama -- seeing action star Vin Diesel as a smooth-talking mobster who simply paces around a courtroom and wears an ill-fitting suit is funny in and of itself, and it's made even better by the fact that Diesel is, actually, unexpectedly great at it.
7. xXx (2002)
A movie about an exxxtreme sports enthusiast who gets sucked into the world of crimefighting when he's recruited by the NSA to stop a group of Russian terrorists from using a deadly biochemical weapon. Yes please, and thank you very much! It's crazy how great this movie is, given how dumb the plot summary sounds to anyone with a brain, but xXx, which, of course, stars Diesel as aforementioned thrill-seeker Xander Cage, is actually kind of fantastic. The best thing about this movie is that it understands that Diesel is, probably, the only actor anyone would believe could actually accomplish stuff like chasing down a battle drone with only a car and a harpoon, or survive parachuting out of a plane and immediately snowboarding down a mountain in front of an avalanche. If Vin Diesel isn't a secret government agent who jumps out of airplanes and fights bad guys for the government, I'd be surprised.
6. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Diesel only says one simple, three-word sentence in this entire movie, and yet it's a testament to him that his line-readings are, often, the best part of a movie that injected some much-needed gonzo energy into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As sentient Flora colossus Groot, Diesel shambles around with a crew of deadbeat bounty hunters and space criminals, using his bulk and his arboreal superpowers to help out his found family while only replying "I am Groot" to any question or statement posed to him. Diesel uses body language and many different inflections to translate Groot's real message across, and he's helped along by talking trigger-happy raccoon Rocket (Bradley Cooper), who's the only creature aboard the Milano that can actually understand him. No idea how that works, but it sure works.
5. The Fast and the Furious (2001)
You knew we'd get here, of course, and here we are, finally touching on the action film that launched a thousand racecar bromances and the best ongoing modern film franchise. You can quote me on that. The Fast and the Furious is so low-stakes compared to the off-brand Mission: Impossible copycat the series has become (and I say that with love), that it feels almost silly to watch it today, when its band of lawless roadsters are shuttling stolen VCRs around Los Angeles instead of going undercover to stop an infamous cyberterrorist from unleashing nuclear war. And yet, it never feels boring or dumb, which is entirely thanks to Diesel's intense performance as street racer Dominic Toretto, playing off Paul Walker's undercover FBI agent Brian O'Connor. Toretto is the heart of the whole series, which is why any movie that doesn't have him in it (looking at you, 2 Fast 2 Furious) feels like there's something missing.
4. Pitch Black (2000)
Despite breakouts like Alien and The Thing, the sneaky subgenre of sci-fi horror remains pretty underutilized and underrated, which makes movies like Pitch Black feel like such a gift. One of Diesel's few villain-ish roles finds him playing murderous convict Richard B. Riddick, whose crimes have sentenced him to life in "the slam." But, before he gets there, his transport ship crash-lands on a desert planet full of bloodthirsty aliens, and Riddick is forced to band together with the surviving crew and passengers to get out alive. It's a good thing Riddick can see in the dark: they've managed to crash right as the planet experiences a total solar eclipse, plunging the surface into darkness while the aliens fly free. The low-budget, aggressively color-filtered aesthetic of Pitch Black lends the movie a certain gritty charm, and Diesel's often monosyllabic performance as Riddick makes him an intimidating yet fun antihero who, despite his unfashionable taste in eyewear, you feel good rooting for.
3. Fast Five (2011)
The big draw of Fast Five, if you recall (I sure do), was the tease of seeing Vin Diesel and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson face off in a Fast & Furious movie, two barrel-chested, meaty-armed alpha males crashing together like two rhinoceroses on the savannah. And boy, does Fast Five deliver, not just with over-the-top macho fights, but also with drawing the Fast & Furious series further into the world of international espionage. Their mission, if they choose to accept it, is to steal $100 million from a corrupt businessman while pursued by an agent of the Diplomatic Security Service, Luke Hobbs (Johnson), who is trying to put Toretto's crew behind bars once and for all. For purists, it's hardly a Fast & Furious film -- it features only one actual street race, focusing instead on action-y setpieces and international heists. But it makes up for all that with the fistfight between Diesel and Johnson, in which they nearly dismantle an underground warehouse.
2. Furious 7 (2015)
Furious 7 did something that, with another cast, another director, another franchise, would have never been possible when it altered its entire third act in the middle of production to send off Paul Walker, one of the stars who had been with the series from the beginning, who died tragically and suddenly in a car crash before the movie had finished filming. What would have simply been the seventh installment in a long-running franchise became something more than that, with a final, dreamy driving sequence that turns a movie about a bunch of dudes in fast cars into a genuinely heartbreaking love letter and a final farewell. Even aside from all that, the movie's action-adventure plot is a ton of fun introducing Kurt Russell's top-secret special ops agent Mr. Nobody, who recruits Toretto and his team on a globetrotting adventure to stop terrorist Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) from obtaining a computer program that uses cell phone signals and other electronics to track down anyone in the world. For some fans, this film marks a dark period in the franchise, as it coldly kills off fan-favorite character Han Lue, a.k.a. Han Seoul-oh (Sung Kang), but if you've been keeping up with the news, that's… uhh… been fixed.
1. The Iron Giant (1999)
As we've seen in a certain series of Marvel movies, Diesel's voice performances often steal the scene, and sometimes the entire movie, away from its actual main characters. But in The Iron Giant, Brad Bird's directorial debut (you'll also know him from Ratatouille and The Incredibles), Diesel's voice acting gets to be the star as he brings to life the title character, an enormous metal robot from outer space that crash-lands on Earth, befriends a small boy, and hides from the military in the middle of an eccentric artist's junkyard. Styled like a 1950s monster movie, The Iron Giant is the most luminous offering of traditionally animated cinema's last gasp, having been completed with an understaffed animation crew in the final years of hand-drawn kids' movies. Diesel's voice, which normally sounds like he's chewing on a handful of metal bolts, was the perfect choice for the Giant, whose vocabulary is limited, but effective: "You stay. I go. No following." I'm not crying, there's just some grease in my eye.
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Emma Stefansky is a staff entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @stefabsky.