Vin Diesel, recording in selfie format, announces to his Instagram followers the start of filming on Fast X, the tenth installment of Fast & Furious, scheduled for release in May 2023. Seated on his left is an uncomfortable Justin Lin, director of most of the films in the franchise, who diligently answers the questions that the star fires at him: “What do you think, Justin?” “What are you feeling?” “Could we be facing the best of the saga?” “From the heart, yes,” Lin manages to reply, though his facial expressions and eye movements suggest otherwise.
When Diesel posted the video on April 22, commenters humorously noted the feeling that the Taiwanese filmmaker was being held captive by the actor, whose size could make anyone feel kidnapped. The jokes only grew in intensity when, just four days later, Justin Lin posted a statement on his Instagram profile informing of his decision to leave the shoot.
Lin has been officially replaced by Louis Leterrier, the director of The Incredible Hulk and the first two installments of Transporter. Lin’s departure took the saga’s fans by surprise: he directed five of the nine previous films, and his guidance had turned Fast & Furious into a critical favorite, a previously unimaginable feat: it didn’t receive acclaim until the fifth episode, which boasts an unprecedented 77% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Internal sources leaked that the director had “creative differences” with Vin Diesel, who is also a producer of the tenth film. According to The Hollywood Reporter, despite the fact that filming had already started, Diesel submitted a series of annotations to Lin’s script. The disagreement escalated until the director slammed the door and declared, “This movie is not worth my mental health.”
As The Hollywood Reporter reported, workers from other installments of the franchise spoke of Diesel’s creative control and frequent last-minute changes. “The whole process is like a mosaic that doesn’t stop moving,” declared one of the sources, acknowledging that the actor, who has played the saga’s protagonist Dominic Toretto for 21 years, also supervised the writing and design of the action scenes. But other information from the set, echoed by the New York Daily News, indicated that the alleged “creative differences” could have been just the straw that broke the camel’s back for Lin. In addition to Vin Diesel’s perfectionism and demanding style, the actor repeatedly arrived late for filming, in poor shape and without knowing his lines.
Diesel, in fact, had already had to confront comments in the past by detractors who thought his physique was deteriorating: “For decades I have had the best body in New York City,” he replied in an interview with Complex in 2015. In xXx: Reactivated (2017), the third installment of one of the titles on which he built his fame, a Steven Seagal-like drift was noted in the fight scenes, seemingly to conceal Diesel’s army of stunt doubles. And his supposed issues with professionalism had already caused him to butt heads in Fast & Furious with Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
“Some colleagues are true professionals, but others are not. [...] When you see the movie, if it seems to you that in some scenes I am not acting and my blood really boils, you will be right,” Johnson wrote in a now-deleted Instagram post prior to the 2017 premiere of Fast & Furious 8. As confirmed later, he was talking about Diesel, with whom he shared only one shot in the film. The Rock was bothered by the protagonist’s frequent delays and last-minute cancellations.
That was not the only controversy between Johnson and Diesel around that film. The latter also cut an exchange between Johnson and Jason Statham that served as an advertisement for the spin-off Hobbs & Shaw (2019), a solo film that the star did not approve of. The Rock did not return in the ninth installment, but Vin Diesel has unsuccessfully tried to smooth things over in order for him to return in Fast X. Last summer, he justified his treatment of Jonhson to Indiewire, explaining that it was a technique to extract a better performance from him: “Not Felliniesque, but I would do anything I’d have to do in order to get performances in anything I’m producing.” His counterpart told The Hollywood Reporter that he laughed at his co-star’s statements, ruling out the possibility of returning to the saga.
Reconciliation attempts ended up in disagreement again when, in November, Diesel publicly requested The Rock’s return on Instagram–clearly the Fast & Furious team’s favorite platform. He wrote a post in which he referred to his former colleague as “little brother,” claimed that his children called him “Uncle Dwayne” and invoked a promise to the late Paul Walker, co-star of the franchise until his fatal accident in 2013. Offended, Johnson insisted on CNN that he would not return and called Diesel “manipulative” for involving Walker and his children.
The weight of ambition
“Vin Diesel has been very belligerent on set, and his ego has brought various headaches and schisms, but he has also certainly protected the saga’s integrity,” says the critic Daniel de Partearroyo, who has closely followed the franchise since its beginnings. When Vin Diesel returned in the fourth installment of Fast & Furious as a leading actor and producer, after his absence in the second and a small cameo at the end of the third, he adopted the series’ success “as a personal mission,” Partearroyo says. His success is clear: Fast & Furious is Universal Pictures’ highest-grossing franchise in history, surpassing Jurassic Park, with a total gross of over $6 billion worldwide.
Meanwhile, Diesel has tried to keep active the other two great sagas for which he is known: xXx and Riddick, both now on their fourth film. In recent years, however, Diesel’s ventures outside of those titles have not gone well. The actor’s talent once caught the attention of Steven Spielberg, who gave him a small role in Saving Private Ryan (1998). Sidney Lumet, the director of Twelve Angry Men and Dog Day Afternoon, had also been awed by Diesel’s acting, casting him as the lead in Find Me Guilty (2006) at the request of mobster Jack DiNorscio, who was impressed by the actor’s performance in The Fast and the Furious (Full Throttle).
There was a time when Diesel won his peers’ favor. In her biography Anatomy of a Wild Heart, Asia Argento, who acted in the first installment of xXx (2002), spoke of the action star as a great friend. She noted that he had pressured major studios to stop working with Rob Cohen, director of said film and of the first Fast & Furious, after she told him in confidence that the filmmaker had drugged and raped her, years before many other accusations of sexual abuse by Cohen came to light.
On whether artistic demotivation could have caused a certain apathy in Diesel’s professionalism, Daniel de Partearroyo believes that “in his case there is something of a reflection of the entropy of sagas and IP [intellectual property] in which Hollywood has been immersed for the last two decades.” “Fast & Furious is the only viable saga that he has, and that pressure can lead him to make more visceral and cavalier decisions,” he says. For the critic, though, Justin Lin’s absence from Fast X (announced as the first part of a joint epilogue with Fast & Furious 11, presumably the final episode) is “heartbreaking” news. “He has been the great architect of the saga as we know it. He injected personality, formal robustness and sympathy towards the characters. He liked his vision of the material so much that he resurrected the main saga starting from an appendix!” he recalls, referring to the director’s incorporation of The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006), an independent installment that ended up becoming integrated a posteriori in the canon through an adjustment in the narration timeline.
Much speculation has been made about the “creative differences” capable of dissolving the long partnership between Lin and Diesel. Together, they have shot already iconic sequences of contemporary action cinema: the escape and chase involving a safe dragged through the streets of Rio de Janeiro in Fast & Furious 5 and the mobilization of tanks and military planes from Fast & Furious 6. Some rumors posit that it may have to do with a time-travel plot, taking literally Diesel’s statements of taking the saga “back to where it all began”. Others wonder about a crossover with the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park. After two of the characters traveled to space in the previous delivery, anything is possible in Fast & Furious. Next year’s premiere of Fast X will clear up any doubts about the plot, Louis Leterrier’s directing and the Rock’s absence–unless any more unforeseen events take place.