Diesel vs. Johnson: Who Do You Take?

By  · Published on August 11th, 2016

It’s Swift / Perry for the action movie crowd and everyone has to take a side.

Word on the street is Vin Diesel is a candy ass.

Maybe you need a little backstory on that. Earlier this week, actor Dwayne Johnson took to Facebook to celebrate the end of his Fast 8 shoot. While Johnson had nothing but kind words for most of the cast and crew, he managed to send the internet into overdrive when he also suggested that a few of his costars were “chicken shit” and “candy asses.” For the next day, anyone with a modicum of interest in Dwayne Johnson speculated wildly as to who could possibly have pissed off Hollywood’s gentle giant. It wasn’t long before that holy bastion of journalistic integrity TMZ revealed that Johnson was likely referring to Fast and the Furious star Vin Diesel; the two men had apparently been struggling for creative control of the next film for quite some time before the whole thing boiled over.

Do Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson have beef? Is it possible that the whole thing is a tongue-in-cheek media stunt meant to drum up interest for Fast 8? Who the hell knows? For the sake of argument, though, let’s pretend that these news stories are 100% accurate and that Hollywood really isn’t big enough for the both of them. In fact, let’s up the stakes a little bit and say that only one of Diesel or Johnson gets to be a movie star going forward. When it’s all said and done, which actor do you keep and which actor gets kicked off the island?

If you’re a studio executive, you have to take Dwayne Johnson, no questions asked. Johnson was recently named as Hollywood’s highest-paid actor by Forbes magazine, earning more over the last calendar year than anyone else in the business. And while Vin Diesel was near the top of the list as recently as last year, his projects outside of the Fast and the Furious franchise – in particular, 2015’s The Last Witch Hunter and 2013’s Riddick — shouldn’t exactly convince studio heads that Diesel can open a new movie based on his star power alone. If you have the license for an action movie franchise burning a hole in your back pocket, Johnson should be the first name on your list in 2017 and beyond. Advantage: Dwayne Johnson.

Then again, if Diesel’s sudden drop from the Forbes 100 list is any indication, box office success is fleeting. Maybe it’s better to look at quality of the overall body of work. Although neither actor has ever been nominated for a major film award, both have dabbled with more complex characters and roles outside of their major franchise roles. Diesel broke onto the scene in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan as the doomed Private Caparzo; Diesel has also stepped outside of his comfort zone for movies like Boiler Room, where he plays a high-profile Wall Street shark, and Find Me Guilty, where Diesel plays the only defendant in a Rico trial who represents himself at trial. Johnson, for his part, has never been more adventurous than in the convoluted 2006 thriller Southland Tales and never been better, period, than in his manic role in Michael Bay’s 2013 thriller Pain & Gain. Johnson has made better movies, Diesel has been better in the movies he has made. This seems like a pretty solid push.

Then how about passion projects? In 2014, Johnson was pretty upfront about the fact that his upcoming role in Hercules was the part he had been waiting fifteen years to play. “Understand, for me when I was a kid, Hercules was always a hero of mine,” Johnson told MTV News. Meanwhile, Diesel was such a fan of the struggling Riddick franchise that he traded a cameo appearance in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift for the exclusive rights to the character. As if that weren’t enough, Diesel has admitted that the entire premise behind The Last Witch Hunter came from Diesel’s own beloved Dungeons & Dragons character. In a 2015 interview with HitFix, Diesel described being introduced to screenwriter Cory Goodman by someone who knew they were both D&D fans and their conversations about Melkor, a non-canon witch hunter that Diesel had played for years. While it’s great that Johnson was able to turn a life-long passion into a starring role in Hollywood, it’s hard to turn down the financial risks that Diesel took with projects he loved. Advantage: Diesel.

Pitch Black and the Unexpected Genius of Vin Diesel

Honestly, we could discuss Johnson and Diesel for hours and probably come to the same general conclusions. Seminal animated classic works? Diesel has The Iron Giant, Johnson looks to match him with this winter’s Moana. Major superhero franchises? Diesel provides voice-over for the monosyllabic Groot in the Marvel Cinematic Universe while Johnson may (eventually) play Shazam antagonist Black Adam in the DC Extended Universe. Unnecessary sequels to a franchise that probably should’ve stayed dead? Diesel may be bringing xXx back from the grave, but Johnson has two – two! – sequels to Journey to the Center of the Earth planned for the next three years.

So let’s make a deal. I may be a bigger fan of Vin Diesel than Dwayne Johnson, but I can also admit that Johnson has earned his ranking as the biggest Hollywood star through grit, determination, and more than just a little charm. Therefore, I’ll concede Johnson’s supremacy in Hollywood if you’ll promise me that you’ll watch Diesel’s 1995 short film Multi-Facial, a movie about a young actor trying to make his way in an industry that has a very narrow view of what type of roles people of color should play. As much as I may love Riddick, and as much as I may love Find Me Guilty, it’s this labor of love from a twenty-eight year old Vin Diesel that I will remember long after all those fasts and furious have turned over to slows and slightly cantankerous. Candy ass or not, Diesel’s career is far more valuable than we often give him credit for. If we can at least agree on that much, then my work here is done.

Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)