Rocky Balboa vs. Ivan Drago. Al Pacino vs. Robert De Niro. Alien vs. Predator. The multiplex has played host to countless epic grudge matches. This weekend, a new showdown entered the history books. On the stage of Fast Five, we witnessed a fight between two of the last American beefcake action stars. In one corner — wearing white tank-tops and mouthing saintly baritoned aphorisms about the desperate existential necessity of family — stood Vin Diesel. In the opposite corner — modeling tight black Under Armour T-shirts, a government-issue bulletproof vest, and a beard on loan from Evil Spock — stood Dwayne Johnson, the Once and Future Rock. Both men had shaved their hair to the bone, so in their rare moments onscreen together, they resembled a pair of pugnacious Pachycephalosauruses, the mythic creatures that supposedly impressed their dino-maidens by head-butting rivals into oblivion.
In some ways, the two Fast Five opponents could not have been more different. Diesel was born in New York City, grew up as a stage actor, studied creative writing in college, got his big break in a Spielberg movie. Johnson was born in California but spent his adolescence in the Pacific — New Zealand, and then Hawaii. He was a defensive tackle at the University of Miami, a third-generation professional wrestler, a man who became famous wearing little more than a Speedo, a pair of black boots, and a magnificent eyebrow.
But the two had uncannily similar career trajectories. Both emerged at the dawn of the new millennium. In that cultural moment – when Sylvester Stallone was only direct-to-DVD, when Arnold Schwarzenegger retreated into politics, when the sudden onslaught of nerdy Peter Parkers and troubled Jason Bournes made muscular gym junkies look old-fashioned — Johnson and Diesel seemed like the great hope for badass American cinema. That plan failed. Too many Dooms and A Man Aparts and Walking Talls and Chronicles of Riddickses.
So, Plan B. Like aging rockers who seek country-fied resurrection in Nashville, Diesel and Johnson implemented the Kindergarten Cop protocol and tried to become lovable, child-friendly badasses. Diesel did The Pacifier. Johnson did The Game Plan and Tooth Fairy. It was a living. Johnson did some of his best work in cameo form – as “The Rock Obama” on SNL, as the suicidally heroic cop in The Other Guys. He took a return trip to Wrestlemania, a conquering hero who had perhaps not conquered as much as had been expected. Diesel also returned to the franchise that birthed him, but at the time, that success seemed almost like a back-handed compliment – an indication that, at the tender age of 42, Diesel had already reached the retro-nostalgic phase of his career.
Fast Five, then, was a chance for both men to re-assert their action-film credentials. And, when the big fight finally came, we were not disappointed. Diesel took the stage in the middle of a great train robbery, somehow appearing far more muscular than he did a decade ago, in the first Fast & Furious film. Johnson appeared much later, but he sneakily stole the PG-13 film’s lone F-Bomb, proving himself a man not to be trifled with. The pair first sighted each other in the middle of a foot chase through the favelas of Rio. Diesel leapt from one building to the next, and right behind him, Johnson jumped through a window. (That was the first window casualty of the great Diesel/Johnson war; It would not be the last.) Watching the two huge-muscle men execute Olympic-level leaps from rooftop to rooftop, I recalled the stern warning my camp counselors used to tell us about the brown bears who held sway in the forests of Huntington Lake: They don’t run very often, but when they do, they run fast.
Ultimately, this was a slugfest, nothing strategic about it. Johnson tackled Diesel through one wall; Diesel, responding in kind, tackled Johnson through another one. One window was broken, then another one. (Johnson, who was so drenched in sweat throughout Fast Five that certain members of the audience expressed concern about the man’s health, seemed to be attempting to drown his opponent in perspiration.)
The men jump-wrestled through one window and crushed an innocent table, who had only wanted to humbly serve humanity. Johnson’s Fed cronies tried to break up the fight, but he insisted on taking down Diesel himself. (Pride, that tempestuous wench, had taken hold of him.) Diesel gained the upper hand. He had Johnson on the ropes. He lifted up a wrench, prepared to murder his opponent. At the last moment, he relented. Perhaps he realized that the two men were stronger together. Perhaps he envisioned a new world cinematic order, with Diesel and Johnson standing next to each other, oiled-up biceps gleaming in the spotlight.
It was a split decision, then. Fast Five ends with the implication that the fight will continue in the sequel, which let’s pray will be titled Speedy Six. But there remains the court of public opinion. So tell me, beloved fight fans — Who won this year’s big action-movie showdown? Dwayne Johnson or Vin Diesel? Or are we all winners?
For regular updates on the sweet science of summer blockbusterdom, follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich