Stop me if you've heard this one: There's a lawman, a hard-bitten sort, who manages to take down a vicious drug kingpin. The vanquished crook, who is of course Latino, utters curses as he's being taken away, vowing revenge. The lawman smiles, goes back to his normal life ... and then the bad guys kill his wife! The lawman goes after the bad guy, but is stymied by the very law he's sworn to uphold. Let's all say it together: "Now it's personal!"
Vin Diesel tried to be James Bond in xXx, and now he's trying to be Dirty Harry in A Man Apart. One might assume that he chose this role in order to stretch his acting muscles, or his tear ducts -- there's a whole lot of boo-hooing about the slain spouse (Jacqueline Obradors), with whom he had zero chemistry anyway. But Vin's no crier, and his character, who goes by the name of Sean Vetter, is -- let's not mince words -- a dumbass.
One never likes to advocate the murder of spouses by drug kingpins, of course, but since this is an action flick and we're supposed to root for death to happen, let's aim that sentiment in the right direction. Kicking off the movie, we've got Sean telling us in voice-over that, essentially, Mexico sucks and is full of drug dealers, but most of their customers live here. This would explain why the DEA, of which Sean is a member, and the Mexican police are teaming up to take down Memo Lucero (Geno Silva of Scarface, one of this movie's explicit inspirations). The lawmen wear masks, but the kind that cover only the lower half of their faces. Thus, Sean's distinctive shaved head and glazed eyes remain exposed to the elements, and easily identified. Ditto the cornrows sported by his partner Demetrius (Larenz Tate). Geniuses. What, they couldn't afford hats?
Sean soon tells us, via voice-over once more, that he's not your typical cop: he doesn't look like one, doesn't act like one, and doesn't even hang out with them. None of which explains why he shows up in plainclothes to high-five his partners at a police press conference, or holds a party at his house to which he invites all his colleagues in their official DEA-logo caps. What it does explain, presumably, is how the bad guys find his house with ease, and bust off some shots. Sean's wife doesn't die immediately -- she gives a final monologue so distracting that it prevents Sean from uttering the simple word "ambulance" to the 911 operator he's just called. Yeah, better listen to your mortally wounded wife ramble on rather than demand medical attention that might just save her.
Sean mourns his wife by smoking (something that's been blatantly established as a pet peeve of his) and drinking from those tiny liquor bottles you might find on airplanes and in minibars. Some tough guy. Meanwhile, a mysterious figure known only as Diablo (the film's original title, until the makers of the unrelated videogame of the same name got wind of it) is going around carving his initials in junkies' backs and starting up a brand new cocaine cartel. This same Diablo is apparently the one behind the death of Sean's wife, and also the wife of the imprisoned Memo. Sean proceeds to meet Memo several times in prison to get cryptic advice, sort of like in The Silence of the Lambs, only not interesting. When he's not trying to be a big, dumb, bald-headed Jodie Foster, Sean keeps busy either by shooting drug dealers, threatening to shoot them, or beating them to bloody pulps. Also by mourning his wife, because if there's anything action-movie audiences love, it's sentimental crap.
There are one or two scenes that are really quite entertaining, but they only serve to needlessly get your hopes up. Vin's version of Clint's "Do you feel lucky?" scene makes for a good (intentional) laugh, and any time he shares the screen with Timothy Olyphant (Dreamcatcher), who plays Diablo's comic relief henchman Hollywood Jack, it's golden. Olyphant brings out the best in Diesel; maybe he should have been the director instead of F. Gary Gray. Not that Gray is a hack -- both The Negotiator and Friday were fully entertaining popcorn flicks -- but he seems to have tried for way too much here, and none of it works. He attempts moral ambiguity, with some claptrap about having to become a monster to catch one, but Diesel's performance undergoes virtually no change. Tate gives the film's only full-fledged performance, and might have even been better in the lead.
Given that Gray was once a video director, the editing here is also fairly inexcusable. Thankfully there are no Gladiator-esque speed shifts, but most of the action sequences are far from coherent. Either Gray forgot how it's done, or he didn't bother to supervise the cutting process. He had enough time; the movie's been on the shelf pending receipt of its current title for a while now, so long that you can clearly tell that Sean's wife's tombstone has been digitally tweaked to read "2003."
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