"What I really want to do is direct" - words seemingly spoken by anyone who's ever stood in front of a movie camera. In the case of action star Vin Diesel, directing features was the reason he got into movies in the first place. You might think it was always his ambition to star in so-so movies like xXx but no, the man we'd come to know as Richard Riddick dreamed of making pictures about his hometown like his heroes and fellow New Yorkers Sidney Lumet and Martin Scorsese.
Strays is Diesel's stab at independent cinema. Indeed, if you tweaked the setting a little, the picture would be indistinguishable from those other indie hits of the time, Doug Liman's Swingers and Edward Burns's The Brothers McMullen. The 'Strays' of the title are a band of young streetwise Manhattanites - they deal drugs, they drink beer, they chase women, they wear wife-beaters. But then their leader Rick (Diesel) meets a woman from a different background and his life is turned upside down.
Even if you didn't know Strays was an independent picture made in the late 1990s, you could identify it as such within minutes of the opening credits. From the slightly degraded filmstock to the fuzzy sound and the heavy emphasis on guys sitting around talking, it looks and feels like just about every other movie that premiered at Sundance circa 1997 (the picture premiered at Robert Redford's film festival where it found favour with both the founder and the jury who shortlisted Diesel for the Grand Prize).
Like many of its contemporaries, time hasn't been particularly kind to Strays. Clearly interested in saying something profound about a certain group of people at a particular time, Diesel winds up with a film that's anything but the Alfie of its age. That film - a personal favourite of Diesel's - was a fascinating study of manhood centering on a bore. Strays, alas, is just boring.
It's not all bad, mind. Besides bringing a wonderful performance out of the exquisite Suzanna Lanza, Diesel is very good as Rick, a man who knows all the angles but has no idea how to control his mood. His best work outside of his charismatic turn in Boiler Room, there's a real sadness that the talented young man we see here has been lost to action movies. The disappointment is further heightened by the excellent featurette that accompanies the film's UK DVD debut - a nice snapshot of a happy time in Diesel's life when the possibilities seemed endless and The Pacifier was someone else's bad dream.