There’s something about Vin Diesel. Though he may not be classically trained as an actor, and half the time you’re not even sure he understands the words coming out of his own mouth, he remains a captivating physical force — you can’t take your eyes off him. “A Man Apart,” Diesel’s latest film, is very similar to the man himself.ÊDespite its clumsiness, lack of originality and stupid name, it’s still fun to watch.
Diesel plays Sean Vetter, a hotshot cop whose ties with “the street” make him a star at the Drug Enforcement Agency. He seems to have everything going for him. He’s got a loyal partner (Larenz Tate), a gorgeous wife who lives only to pleasure and nurture him and the nicest piece of beachfront property a cop’s salary can buy. Things look even better after he finally apprehends Guilermo “Memo” Lucero, a Mexican drug baron he’s been chasing for seven years, in an action-packed shootout at a strip club in Tijuana.
But Vetter’s idyllic existence is shattered after a mysterious new kingpin known only as “Diablo” sends out his assassins to seize control of the cartel and kill Vetter. The gunmen fail at their primary target but do murder Vetter’s wife Stacy, forcing Vetter to question and ultimately transgress his moral and professional values in order to find Diablo and seek vengeance.
Hollywood loves this kind of tortured cop, the sort who breaks the rules and practices his own special brand of law enforcement to get the job done. From Clint Eastwood’s title role in “Dirty Harry” to Russell Crowe’s Bud White in “L.A. Confidential,” this character is part of a tried-and-true formula that this film imitates. Unfortunately for Vin Diesel, he lacks the versatility to truly capture the contradictions and darkness requisite for the role. Though his acting has improved — at one point I noticed at least two new veins that bulge out of his face to express anger — the biggest change his character undergoes after his wife’s death is to develop a nasty smoking habit.
At least the casting directors had the sense to surround Vin Diesel with better actors, like Larenz Tate. Tate and Diesel have a comfortable good-cop-bad-cop routine that also evokes “L.A. Confidential.” Good cop Tate tells a low-level drug dealer about how he became a police officer because (gag) “I made a choice. I’m trying to help,” while bad cop Diesel gets the guy to talk by playing a sadistic game of Russian roulette. Timothy Olyphant (“Go”) is another standout as “Hollywood” Jack, a wildly entertaining if unrealistic drug dealer who enters the movie decked out in powder blue, down to his Gucci loafers. “Hollywood” Jack also provokes the film’s best line when Vetter demands that Jack’s customer’s “Get back in the f—ing salon!”
Ultimately, the movie works because of style rather than substance. Director F. Gary Gray, who has a background in rap music videos, captures the immediacy and energy of that medium through handheld cameras and fast-paced editing that distracts you from insipid dialogue and Diesel’s bad acting. Shot on location in Mexico and California, the film is visually compelling even if it doesn’t make any groundbreaking statements about the border drug trade.
Plus, it has other elements to save it from being just a poor man’s “Traffic.” Fourteen-year-old boys everywhere will be pleased with the excessively gory action sequences. Several adolescents (and my 24-year-old boyfriend) made exclamations of pleasure at the trail of butchered bodies Diablo leaves behind during the movie. They really liked it when one of Diablo’s more surprising assassins, a very attractive but very nasty young woman, walks up to a guy at a fountain and unexpectedly shoots him in the face. I confess to enjoying that part as well — after Vetter’s one-dimensional doormat wife, it was refreshing to see that the film had at least one empowered female character. Of course, any possible feminist statement is undercut by writers who would have us believe that all drug dealers operate out of strip clubs. For every body Diablo’s agents splice up, we must also see a naked female body gyrating on a stage.
Feminism aside, this movie remains a guilty pleasure.