Review :: 'A Man Apart'

Friday, April 4, 2003

When Vin Diesel plays the hero and the super-evil bad guy is known as "Diablo," you know the movie is not going to be an exercise in finesse and subtlety. On that score, "A Man Apart" doesn't disappoint and that's pretty much the only one.

Diesel is Sean Vetter, a mad-dog DEA agent. He's part of an elite squad of hard-core cops who work the streets because they grew up on the streets. We've heard all this New Jack/Mod Squad hype before; the only difference here is in style, not substance -- more guns, bigger explosions.

If "A Man Apart" would have just gone ahead and been the lunk-headed action film it is, it might have, at least, been more fun. But director F. Gary Gray and first-time screenwriters Christian Gudegast and Paul T. Scheuring throw a wet blanket of artsy-intellectual pretensions over the proceedings.

So we get a ponderous prelude that shows exploited laborers toiling in a third-world cocaine factory while a narrator solemnly delivers the sobering statistics of the global drug market. Between cutting back and forth between the streets of Mexico and the streets of Los Angeles -- and all the throwaway gambits such as having subtitles translate the drug-runners' code-filled conversations -- it's obvious the filmmakers were trying to make something along the lines of "Traffic."


Man Apart **


The latest Vin Diesel-powered vehicle is among his weakest. The muscle-bound action star follows up "Triple X" with a revenge thriller about a DEA agent who wages war with a mysterious crime lord named (gulp) El Diablo. Occasional moments of humor (like a drug-sniffing chihuahua) help blunt the film's ridiculously narcissistic edge.

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The problem is that they also wanted to make a big, beefy action film long on macho bravado and cool-tech toys and short on believable characters, revealing interplay, striking details or any of the other things that make up a movie like "Traffic." The results are the worst of both worlds -- the pointless, predictable mayhem of an action film and the leaden pretensions of an art-house wanna-be.

The story kicks off with Sean, his partner (Larenz Tate) and the rest of the team capturing the king of Mexico's biggest drug cartel, Memo Lucero (Geno Silva). When Memo menacingly warns Sean that things are only going to get worse, it's a moment of foreshadowing so obvious you expect a cartoon exclamation point to dance across the screen. Soon after, bodies start piling up as the mysterious Diablo initiates a hostile takeover of the cartel's drug business. About this time we meet "Hollywood" Jack Slayton (Timothy Oliphant), the dandy drug-dealer.

Feel free to think he's Diablo -- the movie certainly expends a great deal of its energy and your time trying to convince you. Meanwhile, Sean -- in need of some tragic motivation -- loses his beloved wife (Jacqueline Obradors) to a bullet meant for him. Like Popeye on a spinach binge, the enraged Sean goes after Diablo.

Since any viewer who remains awake will figure out who Diablo is at least an hour before the movie intends to reveal him/her/it, the coil of suspenseful tension that is supposed to be twisting through the climax isn't. Oh well, at least if you listen carefully, in the background you can hear the timer on Diesel's He-Man/It-Guy celebrity going off.