Who knew Vin Diesel was such a good actor? After his breakout role in “Pitch Black,” his blockbuster (and shamefully generic) turn in “Fast and the Furious,” and this year’s hit “XXX”, who could have guessed that underneath all that coolness and guttural voice was an actual actor?
Vin Diesel stars in “A Man Apart” as Sean Vetter, a street smart DEA agent who, along with his partner and former gangbanger brother Demetrius Hicks (Larenz Tate), are the DEA’s top crimefighters. They’re smart, they know the streets like the back of their hand, and they can get into crevices of the underworld where regular DEA agents can’t. After the duo, working in conjunction with the Mexican government, busts the continent’s top drug dealer (Geno Silva), it leaves a wide gap in the drug business for a new boss. Someone calling himself Diablo (that’s “devil” in English) steps up to the plate and asserts himself, leaving a bloody trail of dead drug dealers and gangbangers in his wake. When Diablo orders Vetter’s death, Vetter’s wife Stacy (Jacqueline Obradors) is killed instead, sending Vetter and Hicks on a crusade to end Diablo’s burgeoning reign no matter what it takes.
By every account, “A Man Apart” is a pretty straightforward cop-revenge drama. Cop’s wife is killed and cop wants revenge, even if it means going beyond the scope of the law. What’s most intriguing about Christian Gudegast and Paul Scheuring’s screenplay is that there is great restraint going on — at least until the obligatory ending. The screenwriters and director F. Gary Gray (“The Negotiator”) tries to keep the movie and its plotlines in the realm of possibilities. As a result, much of “A Man Apart” plays out as realistic and gritty except for the final, inevitable confrontation between Vetter and Diablo, the mysterious mastermind whose identity has remained hidden until the very end.
Until that unfortunate climax, “A Man Apart” is an intense crime drama about one man’s obsession and his continuing deterioration into his former self — that is, the gangbanger who breaks all the rules before finding salvation in the law. Most important of all, “A Man Apart” gives Diesel a chance to flex his acting muscles. The film proves that Diesel is a real actor and not just an action star or a “movie star.” Diesel gives an intense performance as the cop on the precipice of a great fall. It takes a lot — and a massive gunbattle — to finally push him over the edge, but until then, Diesel’s Vetter is forever walking the tightrope.
Luckily for Vetter, he has Hicks to watch his back. Larenz Tate has done some of his best works in gritty crime dramas (“Menace II Society” and “Dead Presidents”). Here, Hicks is not only Vetter’s partner, but also his brother by trials of fire. Not only do the two watch each other’s backs, but also they’re willing to risk it all, and credit goes to Tate and Diesel for convincing us of their mutual dedication. As Vetter dives deeper and deeper into the abyss, Hicks is always there to pull him back — and when he can’t, to jump headfirst into the abyss right alongside him. Diesel and Tate’s chemistry is exemplary and you believe every second of it.
“A Man Apart” is of course a crime drama first, and as a result there’s a lot of violence. Although there isn’t nearly as much violence as I had anticipated, with the film spending much of its time on Vetter’s investigation of Diablo’s connections in the States before finally going down south to take on the man himself. Gray and his screenwriters also take the time to build up Vetter’s relationship with Jacqueline Obradors (TV’s “NYPD Blue”), and as a result we feel Vetter’s lost when masked gunmen take her away from him in a late-night raid on his house. Diesel is so understated at her loss that we know he’s just brimming with fury and waiting to explode — the question is just how much will it take before he finally does.
There are actually only two major gunbattles in “A Man Apart”. One toward the end of the second act, during a DEA operation that goes bad and ends in total carnage. (Think Michael Mann’s post-bank robbery gunbattle in “Heat.”) The second one happens at the end, in that clich’ of all cop-revenge films, where all the parties involve converge on one location to have it out. Besides a chaotic gunfight that is not all that exciting, the ending sequence reeks of generic action. Vetter’s much anticipated confrontation with Diablo also proves to be rather weak. Why did I suddenly not care that Vetter was about to get his revenge at last? Maybe it’s because the whole ending sequence is a bust, and will leave audiences with a “blah” feeling. Why suddenly make everything so generic at the end? It doesn’t make any sense.
In a way, “A Man Apart” reminds me of Tom Hanks’ “Road to Perdition.” Both movies have powerful performances by their leads, but both movies also have a weak premise that leads to an inevitable conclusion. And when that conclusion finally does show up, we’re not all that surprise — or all that interested, for that matter.
F. Gary Gray (director) / Christian Gudegast, Paul Scheuring (screenplay)
CAST: Vin Diesel …. Sean Vetter
Larenz Tate …. Demetrius Hicks
Timothy Olyphant …. Hollywood Jack Slayton
Jacqueline Obradors …. Stacy Vetter