Sundance Film Festival 1997 (Dramatic Competition)–Though amiable and intermittently engaging, Strays, Vin Diesel's feature directorial debut, is a derivative film, a “hanging-out” yarn that charts the familiar territory of such classic American movies as Mean Streets, Saturday Night Fever and Diner. Marred by Diesel's narcissistic central performance, and amateurish thesping from the rest of the cast, Strays may still warrant a limited theatrical release in major cities as a showcase for a filmmaker who directs with more dexterity than he writes or acts.
Yet another offshoot of Mean Streets, Scorsese's landmark 1973 film, Strays provides an exploration of male camaraderie and the price one pays for belonging to a closely-knit group of losers, that while fulfilling some vital psychological functions for some also arrests emotional maturation and personal growth for those who wish to move beyond their immediate lives in the 'hood.
The leader of a wild bunch of youngsters, Rick (Diesel) is a bright, handsome man, who can't tear himself apart from his buddies, a group of harmless comrades who lack focus and ambition. Rick serves as a big brother to the clueless Fred (Joey Dedio) and a source of drugs for his other friends, Rodney (T.K. Kirkland), Mike (Mike Epps) and Tony (F. Valentino Morales).
Rick's friends are using his Lower East Side apartment for their sexual escapades with hookers and strippers, women they had just met at the local bar. In the opening, rather charming sequence, one by one they arrive at Rick's flat, only to find out that the single bed is already being occupied. Always on the look for quick sex and small-time adventures, they're basically young men afraid to grow up and face the harsh reality that prevails outside Rick's shelter.
In contrast, tired of one-night stands and impersonal sex, Rick struggles to become a responsible man, but he's consistently dragged down by his chums. Things change when Rick meets Heather (Suzanne Lanza), a gentle, beautiful woman, who seems to be above his class and outside his milieu.
Switching gears from the cinema-verite style that characterized the first part of the picture, second half turns into a most conventional romance, reminiscent of John Travolta's in Saturday Night Fever: sporadic dates, passionate sex, misunderstandings and reconciliations. In his scenes with Heather, Rick reveals his tormented identity, torn between his macho bravado and street-smart sensibility and a more hidden generosity of spirit and kindness.
The narrative's few novel dimensions concern racial prejudice, as Rick's clique is multi-cultural, going beyond the Italian-American contingency that prevailed in former American movies. Regrettably, like many other first-time efforts, with all the exterior roughness and edge of Strays, deep inside the movie lies a rather conventional, earnest and soft story about misunderstood men who are products of broken families (hence the title) and the harsh circumstances of a working-class life.
As helmer, Diesel shows a keen eye for the mobile camera and style of pic's early sequences is spontaneous and realistic as befits the material. For a while, this kind of cinema-verite succeeds in disguising the routine narrative. Nonetheless, once Rick and Heather's relationship takes center stage, dwelling on their problems with their respective families (she has a “secret” child; he's alienated from his mom), Strays assumes a sentimental mode, containing quite a few moralistic speeches. Rick's big scene, in which he tries once and for all to break away from his pals is particularly poorly scripted and executed.
It's hard to gauge Diesel's acting talents, for his performance here consists of a series of attitudes and postures, flaunting his impressive basso voice and muscled body in tight outfits. As Heather, Suzanne Lanza looks and moves like a model, which indeed is her previous career track. Rest of the ensemble also lacks distinction.
As he demonstrated in his striking short, “Multi-Facial,” which was shown in Cannes, Diesel is a potentially gifted filmmaker, one particularly adroit in establishing an authentic sense of time and place. In evoking a credible mood for Strays, Diesel is greatly assisted by his lenser, Andrew Dunn, who fills the screen with exciting compositions that reflect the changing psychological dynamics of Rick's circle of friends.
A Vin Diesel production. Produced by Vin Diesel, George Zakk, John Sale. Executive producer, Robert M. Bigalow, Bobby Panaro, Jean Claude Nedelec. Directed, written by Diesel. Camera (color), Andrew Dunn; music supervisor, Pilar McCurry; production design, Zeljka Pavlinovic; sound (Dolby), Andrew Edelman; line producer, Stephen Schmidt; assistant director, Julie Noll. Reviewed at the Sundance Film Festival (competing), Park City, Jan. 23, 1997. Running time: 105 min.
Tony…E. Valentino Morales