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Two Stars Enter. One Star Leaves. Vin Diesel vs. Dwayne Johnson

Vin Diesel and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson are arguably the two biggest action stars on the planet right now. That title doesn’t carry the weight it did in the ’80s, when Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone ruled the action domain, but such is life in 2015. Both were anointed the next great action stars at the beginning of their careers, but it hasn’t completely worked out that way. Questionable career decisions and the changing movie landscape, which is less and less about actors and more about CGI robots wreaking CGI havoc on CGI cities. With Furious 7, the third collaboration between the two, it’s time to settle this, Thunderdome style. Two action stars enter, but only one will leave with the crown.

Before diving in, it should be noted that Jason Statham, who also appears in Furious 7, is disqualified from the conversation. He’s a level below Diesel and Johnson, like the Steven Seagal to Schwarzenegger and Stallone. Bruce Willis made action films, but he’s more of an everyman … or at least used to be. Now, he just seems bored. Plus, whomever holds the championship belt has to be ripped. That’s not Willis. Liam Neeson deserves honorable mention, but let’s be real here. Neeson is an actor who just happens to have discovered people love seeing him crack skulls. Sorry, Liam.

Aside from huge muscles and a general aura of bad-assery, there’s only one major criteria for being the biggest action star on the planet; they have to star in something like Predator, survive to become the Final Girl and kill the seven foot tall alien and make it believable. Only Diesel and Johnson could pull off that feat.

Rise to Fame

Diesel got his start in the indie film world, writing, directing and starring in 1997’s Strays, which led to a bit role in Saving Private Ryan (he’s the one who gets killed by the sniper near the beginning). After garnering more acclaim with 2000’s Boiler Room, Diesel starred in the surprise hit Pitch Black, then completed his one-two-three punch with The Fast and the Furious and xXx. Diesel was so big at this time, he had a friggin nipple tatto in xXx and nobody cared. That’s how awesome Vin Diesel was, circa 2002.

Vin Diesel

Johnson earned his stripes in the WWE, becoming the face of the organization as The Rock, who is not to be confused with his previous wrestling personality, Rocky Maivia.

Rocky Maivia

His first film role was essentially a cameo in The Mummy Returns, where he wound up as a horrific CGI monster thing.

Scorpion King

Johnson’s role as, erm, the Scorpion King in Mummy Returns was designed to lead to a spin-off, and it did with a film titled, you guessed it, The Scorpion King.

Stumbling Blocks

Diesel was a mega-star after xXx. With sequels planned for both The Fast and The Furious and xXx, Diesel had two franchises going at once. For all intents and purposes, he was untouchable. So what if A Man Apart stunk, Vin Diesel was the man … until he threw it all away. He passed on both sequels, leaving Paul Walker to carry 2 Fast 2 Furious with Tyrese Gibson and Ice Cube (!!!) wound up starring in xXx: State of the Union. Granted, both of those sequels stunk, but that wasn’t the point. Diesel had two golden tickets and threw them both away.

Instead, Diesel used his clout to make The Chronicles of Riddick, a bloated sequel to Pitch Black. Armed with a budget over $100 million, the film barely made half of its budget back domestically. The hit was so bad, Diesel had to go on and star in the action hero’s trademark “comedy,” The Pacifier, where this happened.

Even with the one and only Dominic Toretto doing the Peter Panda dance, The Pacifier was a hit, though Diesel’s action hero status went down more than a few notches. With Sidney Lumet’s Find Me Guilty, Diesel “returned to his indie roots,” but soon found himself back in action territory with Babylon A.D.

Vin Diesel

No. Just … no. Babylon A.D. was a disaster of epic proportions. Diesel clashed with director Mathieu Kassovitz, and rumor had it the two even got into a fist fight on set. Babylon A.D. was so bad, the studio refused to screen it for critics. In 2008, that was bad. Nobody was surprised when the movie tanked. Diesel’s star had never been dimmer.

The Scorpion King, Johnson’s first starring role, made over $90 million. It’s a respectable number, but not enough to justify a sequel (at least one that wasn’t direct-to-DVD). Johnson also just wasn’t that good of an actor. His physique and charisma carried him as a wrestler, but it took more than that to make it in the film world. Just ask John Cena. The Scorpion King was followed by The Rundown and Walking Tall, neither of which were big hits. The Rundown even prematurely anointed Johnson the new action king with this sort of passing of the baton:

Embracing Their Inner Bad-Ass

Between Find Me Guilty and Babylon A.D., Diesel made a cameo in the third Fast and Furious film, the Paul Walker-less Tokyo Drift. The film pretty much killed the franchise , but Diesel’s appearance left a glimmer of hope. Lo and behold, Diesel and Walker returned for 2009’s Fast & Furious. It only took eight years for Diesel to embrace the series that made him a star, and the world couldn’t have been more relieved. The franchise was reborn with a $155 million domestic gross, as was Diesel’s career. After eight years of making films that were various consistencies of crap, Diesel was back in the driver’s seat. He used his influence to get a third Riddick film made. With a smaller budget, Riddick stripped away the nonsense of Chronicles and returned the series to its Pitch Black roots. Apart from that, all Diesel’s done in the past six years is star in three Furious sequels and voice everyone’s favorite talking tree, Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Groot.


As for Johnson, a supporting role in the Get Shorty sequel Be Cool was an eye-opener, showing off real, actual acting ability. He quickly dove back into action with the 2005 video game adaptation Doom, which tanked. Like Diesel, Johnson went into an ill-advised period of avoiding action films. His “comedy” film, The Game Plan, did decent enough business, and he was spared from doing the Peter Panda dance, but the next few years saw Johnson either co-starring in hit comedies like Get Smart and The Other Guys or headlining family fare, like Race to Witch Mountain and, gasp, Tooth Fairy. The Peter Panda dance would’ve been preferable to Tooth Fairy.

Tooth Fairy

The 2010 revenge flick Faster served as homecoming to the action genre. for Johnson. The man finally seemed ready to resume kicking ass and taking names. The decision didn’t just prove to be a pick-me-up for Johnson, but he literally became, in his own words, Franchise Viagra. The man saved the G.I. Joe series, for Pete’s sake. Turns in Snitch, Pain and Gain, and Hercules did little to up his action hero status, but at least he was trying. Then came Fast Five. Finally, finally, Johnson had a vehicle (phrasing) that knew how to use his talents. He strutted around looking huge, busted heads, had fantastic one-liners, and even beat the hell out of Diesel … though, since Johnson was technically an antagonist, the movie Gods forced him to lose the fight. Nonetheless, the fight is pretty sweet.

His apperances in the two Furious sequels since have only cemented the potential Johnson has to be the greatest action star in the world. Anyone who’s seen the Furious 7 trailer knows that Johnson’s character brakes a cast off his arm by flexing his muscle. He does some other impressive stuff in the movie, but they won’t be spoiled here.

Final verdict

Based on track record alone, Diesel is the runaway winner. Johnson’s resume just doesn’t stack up. That’s what happens when you star in Journey 2: The Mysterious Island. Personally, Johnson seems tailor made to be the hero we deserve, and maybe May’s disaster epic San Andreas will help get him there. Until then, let’s all bow down to Vin Diesel, king of the action stars.

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The Author

Ryan Hill

Ryan Hill

Ryan Hill used to spend his time writing screenplays into a notebook instead of doing homework. That love of film and all things storytelling led him to spend most of his time writing. He's been a film critic in North Carolina for over five years, and his debut novel, THE BOOK OF BART, is out now. Please buy it. Ryan also feels odd about referring to himself in the third person.