by Adam Riske and Rob DiCristino
Rob: Welcome back to Reserved Seating. I’m Rob DiCristino.
Adam: And I’m Adam Riske.
Our first entry is a doozie: Vin Diesel stars in 2008’s Babylon A.D., a sci-fi thriller directed by Mathieu Kassovitz, based on Maurice Georges Dantec’s 1999 novel Babylon Babies, and co-starring Michelle Yeoh, Mélanie Thierry, and Mark Strong. Diesel stars as Hugo Toorop, an all-purpose badass braving the post-apocalyptic wastelands of Russia with little more than his wits and a set of handy aphorisms about honor and manliness.
Adam: I like when he says a man only has two things - his balls and his word.
Rob: Though he’s long-since washed-up and out of the game, Toorop is given a chance at redemption when he’s contracted by mobster Gorsky (Gérard Depardieu) to smuggle a mysterious young woman (Thierry as Aurora) from a convent in Eastern Europe to New York City. Toorop doesn’t know anything about the girl or her guardian (Yeoh as Sister Rebeka), but it’s not long into their journey that she begins to display extraordinary mental and physical gifts that, Toorop concludes, could easily become weapons in the wrong hands. He resolves to bring Aurora to safety, discovering his own lost humanity along the way.
Adam, what did you think of Babylon A.D.?
Adam: It’s not good by any means, but I had more fun with Shlock Diesel in Babylon A.D. than I did in something like last year’s Bloodshot. I got The Fifth Element vibes throughout Babylon A.D., with Aurora standing in for Leeloo Dallas Multipass and Toorop as Corbin Dallas. I wasn’t on board with Babylon A.D. for the first half hour, but at that point I paused the movie and read a bit on IMDB about its production history and that made me enjoy the rest of the movie more albeit on a somewhat ironic level.
The released Babylon A.D. was not the movie Mathieu Kassovitz wanted to make and he fought with the studio over everything including their choice of Diesel as the lead. I prefer this outcome to something more self-serious. As you mentioned, there’s quite a bit of great unintentional comedy in Babylon A.D., only enhanced by the fever pitch mania in which this movie was filmed. I described it to you as like watching a kid race through a book report for a book he’s clearly not read. The pacing and character motivations make little to no sense other than if you just accept Diesel’s mantra that you can’t trust anybody.
Rob: Agreed. That’s the stuff I liked. I wish the filmmakers had either been more or less competent so that they could really lean into that.
Rob: Remember in Avengers: Endgame when Gamora looks at Peter Quill and Nebula goes, “Your choices were him or a tree”? Every single Vin Diesel love interest gives him that same look, at one point or another. Their “romance” begins when Aurora sees Toorop shirtless, which, I mean, I guess makes sense if she grew up in a convent? Other than that, it’s Designated Love Interest status, all the way. At least Corbin and Leeloo had chemistry. Still, I’m with you that there’s a certain campy fun to Babylon A.D. when you consider it in the larger context of Vin and his carefully-manicured public image.
Speaking of which. You told me over text that this is a movie only Vin could make, and I completely agree. Since we’re starting a series that will center on individual Fast & Furious actors, I’d like to ask: What makes a great Vin movie?
Adam: From 2002 onward, I’ll say it’s the intangibles. Something happened during xXx where it’s like Vin Diesel’s hourglass of coolness ran out early in the movie and he’s been this stoic-goofy persona for pretty much the rest of his career. Getting back to Babylon A.D., there are certain things that Diesel can sell in a movie that other actors can’t, like when one of the Russian guards is holding up his gun and Diesel just snatches it out of his hands and runs away. It’s silly but it’s awesome because it’s Vin Diesel. Another is when he yells a line like “What is wrong with her?” Not funny in its own right, but bellowed out of Diesel it’s pretty fantastic. Or when the heroes have the fight with all those Agent Smith knockoffs and Diesel (to avoid an explosion) throws his gun at a car windshield and dives into the glass in a full sprint.
Rob: It really does feel as though he approaches each project as if he’s the biggest star on the planet and that everyone knows it. There’s a sincerity to each performance that extends beyond egotism — It’s not just that he thinks he’s great, it’s that he thinks everyone thinks he’s great and he has a responsibility to be great. No one can do what he does, in his mind, and the audience is awaiting his next accomplishment with bated breath. He just loves being a movie star (no matter how far that star falls), and I have to applaud him for that.
Are you a fan of dystopian sci-fi? It feels like a weird fit for Vin Diesel who, at his heart, is a big teddy bear of an action hero. Maybe that’s why stuff like Babylon A.D., his Riddick movies or a little bit of Bloodshot “work” - it’s that odd push & pull.
Rob: I do find myself liking dystopian sci-fi when it’s handled either extremely elegantly or like extreme bonkers-ville nonsense. Everything in-between feels like diet soda. Babylon A.D. is somewhere in the Coke Zero range, for me.
Adam: Now I want a pop.
Rob: Our Bomb Squad series returns next week with a look at Michael Mann’s 2001 biopic, Ali. Until next time…
Adam: These seats are reserved.