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Character Analysis: Dominic Toretto


A dry, lengthy commentary on Vin Diesel's character from the original Fast and the Furious

            One of my favorite film characters is Dominic Toretto. Most people don’t immediately recognize that name. It certainly isn’t iconic or even cultish. But if you give the name of the actor who plays him and the film that he is featured in, suddenly most people at least know of the character. Then, depending on what kind of movies they like, they either roll their eyes or they smile widely. That is because the actor who plays him is Vin Diesel and the movie is The Fast and the Furious.

            A lot of people would scoff at the very idea of analyzing a character played by someone who is more well-known for his muscles than his acting, or a movie that cares more about its fast cars than its fictional people. But this argument is flawed. Yes, since the release of the original Fast and the Furious ten years ago, Vin Diesel has been typcast as an action star and, yes, The Fast and the Furious is not a character study. But that does not mean Vin Diesel never had potential or The Fast and the Furious did not have any good characters within its hyper-stylized thriller framework. His performance as Dominic “Dom” Toretto proves this. 

            The film’s story follows an undercover cop, played by Paul Walker, through the Los Angeles street racing subculture as he tries to find a group of truck hijackers who use customized Japanese import cars. Most of the first act of the movie revolves around the cop trying to impress and befriend Dominic Toretto, the reigning champion of the underground racing circuits, in the hopes that he will have the information he needs.

            The entire movie seems as if it is designed to accomplish two things: to make the audience think that this subculture is really cool and to make them think Toretto is really cool. And it accomplishes this, especially on the character side. Diesel’s physicality separates him from most leading men automatically. His bald head, muscular physique and deep, booming voice are all very distinctive features. But it is his acting that makes you remember him.

            “A mix of Zen-like tranquility with a layer of uncontrollable rage always threatening to burst through,” is how one reviewer described his performance. But the filmmakers remember that there are other sides to tranquil confidence and emotional instability as well. Personal facets such as arrogance and vulnerability. Diesel moves between quiet, controlled execution of social and racing situations, to cocky taunting of his competition, to tortured silence, to blind rage, to genuine fear and vulnerability. Toretto is played, not only as a cool character, but also as an interesting one.

The audience begins to fully realize this after a scene where Toretto reveals what he believes to be his place in the world. He explains how one awful mistake, motivated by a sense love for his father, destroyed all of his dreams. How all he has left now are his friends and his 10-second, quarter mile escape on the black top. It is a strange scene to have in a movie which otherwise seems dedicated to glamorizing a lifestyle that its central character admits is little more than a dead-end street.

            In many ways, this scene is similar to the “I could have been a contender” monologue delivered by Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront. It may sound ridiculous to compare Vin Diesel, an action star, to the man who popularized method acting in Hollywood. But, in many ways, Toretto does resemble a Brando or a James Dean character more than he does, say, a Tom Cruise “Top Gun” character or even the Diesel characters that followed after Toretto. The Dean and Brando characters were innovative and interesting for their time because they were macho tough guys, but played with an undercurrent of tragedy and deep emotional vulnerability that motivated all of their actions. The same could be said of Diesel’s character in this film.

There is another scene that showcases Toretto’s vulnerability and his own tragic self-awareness of the larger world around him. He is asked if he has ever been to prison before. Toretto doesn’t respond immediately. He stares blankly ahead. A shudder of fear goes through his voice as he quietly names the institution that he spent two years inside of. Not fifteen, not ten, not even five. Two years. And that’s all it takes to make the story's most charismatic and most dangerous figure forget how to speak. Even if the movie as a whole presents him as more, Toretto knows he is nothing more than a big fish in a small pond and he can’t even force an ounce of his own very practiced bravado when recollecting whatever painful memories he harbors of a much more menacing world that is always threatening to pull him down again.

Later, when an antagonistic character accuses him of being a “narc,” Toretto beats him mercilessly. As a massive security guard pulls him off of the man, he repeatedly screams “I never narc’d on nobody!” To many viewers, this may have just seemed like an excuse for a visually dynamic moment (or a badass moment, depending on how you choose to word things), but it also makes sense from a character standpoint. The thought of sending anyone to whatever he experienced in prison is worse than death to him. It conflicts with his most basic sense of morality.

The emotional connection between these moments is what makes this character more than just either a “top dog” or “honor among thieves” archetype. He’s an individual whose actions and beliefs are derived from experiences rather than just stock philosophies.

Some people may think I’m just overanalyzing a simple character in a “mindless” car movie. But I believe Vin Diesel, who began his movie career writing, directing and acting in indie dramas, would probably disagree with them. And that is why I like this character. Toretto is definitely an action movie character, but he is an action movie character who is played as a real person.


Review: Taylor, 9/25/2011 

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