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Wednesday, January 2, 2013

STRAYS -- movie review by porfle

(NOTE: This review originally appeared online at in 2007.)

I didn't know what to expect when I started watching STRAYS, Vin Diesel's 1997 writing, directing, and acting debut (aside from an unbilled appearance in AWAKENINGS), but I was hoping that it would surprise me by being an unpolished gem.  As it turned out, the only surprise was that I was able to make it through the whole thing without toppling over backwards.

Vin plays Rick, a lower-class New Yorker who deals weed (not for a living, you understand, but just to make money) and spends most of his time cruising for tail with his bros, three preening hard-ons named Fred, Tony, and Mike.  They really are a bunch of meatheads, and so much time is devoted to endless scenes of them hustling airheaded chicks or hanging around engaging in largely improvised and pointlessly stupid conversations that the story, as it is, often advances at a snail's pace. 

Rick is becoming disillusioned with the hump 'em and dump 'em lifestyle, however, and wonders if he shouldn't try to grow up and find a real relationship.  So he starts courting a pretty young country girl named Heather (Suzanne Lanza) who's just moved into the building next door.  At first he manages to attract her by concealing his more subhuman qualities.  But whenever he seems to have won her over, his hostile and violent nature reveals itself and she flees in revulsion. 

In the early scenes, the movie plays like a bad teen comedy in which the extreme crudeness of the characters is the joke.  But unlike ANIMAL HOUSE, which has a veneer of fantasy that allows us to find guys like Bluto and D-Day endearing, STRAYS shoves us into cramped quarters with this group of utter dickheads and makes us listen to them spout posturing, semi-coherent inner city nonsense at each other until we're screaming to get away.

Later, when the movie's troubled love story begins to emerge, writer-director Vin follows the basic pattern but has trouble filling in the blanks.  In one scene, after Rick and Heather first meet at a party (which is thrown by some incredibly stereotypical gay guys from the neighborhood), Rick shows his tender side by telling Heather to close her eyes and then croaking "If I Only Had a Heart", the Tin Man's theme from THE WIZARD OF OZ. 

One verse would've been enough to give her and us the message, but he sings the whole damn song.  When he's done, and "cutely serenade her" has been checked off the "romantic things to do" list, they just start talking about something else as though it never happened.

Subsequent scenes alternate between Rick and Heather's clumsy love affair and more quality time with the morons.  Whenever the plot really needs to advance, Vin drops another five-minute bullshit session with these slobs right on top of it like an anvil.  A lot of independent films may overcome their budgetary limitations by being showcases for delightfully witty and/or insightful dialogue, but this isn't one of them. 

Of course, we're supposed to feel for the guys in Rick's posse because they're all "strays" who grew up without fathers, and thus have formed a tight bond of brotherhood against life's adversities.  Rick is the only character who comes close to deserving our empathy, but when he finally blows up at his friends for being such selfish, immature bastards, and for having no ambition or desire to better themselves, Vin just doesn't have the skill (not in '97, anyway) to convincingly pull off the big, weepy emotional scene he's concocted for himself.

The only thing I really liked about STRAYS was the ending.  In the last minute or so, the story resolves itself in a way that's unexpectedly mature and thought-provoking, instead of just by-the-numbers.  If only everything leading up to it weren't so unpleasantly dull.  I've gotta hand it to the Vin Man for managing to write, direct, and star in his own debut, but I found it to be all rough and no diamond.

Buy it at

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