The grimmer side of Vin Diesel is shown in “A Man Apart,” a drug crime drama that makes you think it’s going to go into social and psychological issues typical of the genre, but winds up skirting them. As an undercover cop bent on revenge who breaks all the rules, Diesel makes a violent bid to align himself with the Clint Eastwood-Charles Bronson-Steve McQueen tradition, but his perf here doesn’t measure up to those icons. This underserving of the stuff that has made Diesel one of Hollywood’s major rising stars will cut into domestic B.O. take, but New Line will likely make up for it with rich overseas and ancillary returns.
Hints of a troubled pic, underlined by several release postponements and fiddlings with the ending (which still doesn’t work), prove a bit overstated, since helmer F. Gary Gray’s actioner is extremely good-looking and generally efficient. The cool surfaces and suggestive psychological undercurrents of Michael Mann’s best crime drama for the screen are plentifully in evidence, from periodic contemplative breaks from the action and glimpses of cops’ private lives to the crystalline widescreen lensing by Eastwood’s vet d.p. Jack N. Green.
All of the building blocks for an unusually strong look at the drug war appear to be in place, and the press kit’s observation that writers Christian Gudegast and Paul Scheuring researched the subject for four years appears to be more than hype. But once thoughts of revenge fill the head of Diesel’s Sean Vetter, the direction of the story unfortunately goes south.
Sean’s intro voiceover about how the Mexican cartels “flood our streets” with cocaine isn’t nearly as interesting as the colorful manner in which he single-handedly arrests cartel lord Memo Lucero (the elegantly gray-bearded Geno Silva, looking as dapper as Fernando Rey) after a major bust of his Tijuana nightclub.
Hip cop lives happily with wife Stacy (Jacqueline Obradors) at what looks like a SoCal beach house that no cop could afford. He and his friend Demetrius Hicks (Larenz Tate) both switched careers from gangbanging to cartel banging.
South of the border, Lucero’s operation — thought by DEA officials to be dead and buried — has apparently been revived and is being controlled by a shadowy figure known portentously as El Diablo.
The new kingpin delivers a message to Sean by sending henchmen to his beach pad, where they kill Stacy and wound Sean. When Demetrius comforts an almost uncontrollably grieving Sean in his hospital bed, the emotions are raw but brief, as the movie then shifts gears into pure revenge mode.
The sniffing down the trail toward El Diablo — whose actual identity turns out not to be nearly as shocking as the filmmakers suppose — has its interest, and the trail includes a physically impressive, very Mann-influenced shootout. But pic fails to explore or justify Sean’s unprofessional and vicious behavior. This is the “Dirty Harry” problem redux, and pic’s refusal to ponder what it is suggesting — that for cops to win in the drug war they must act like the criminals — is perhaps a bigger problem politically than it is dramatically.
Diesel slips from normalcy into bloody-mindedness without investing Sean with any more than the slightest touches of an interesting, flawed and human cop. Since Sean’s marriage comes across as superficially pleasant as the great ocean view, the motivating action plays equally on the surface. While Eastwood finessed this same dilemma with his star power, Diesel seems not to have the touch for a similar kind of massaging.
Tate leads the supporting cast as the voice of reason but, can’t make Demetrius’ eventual, extralegal actions convincing.
The bad guys range from Silva’s completely commanding presence to Timothy Olyphant’s cartoonish drug supplier, Hollywood Jack, who seems to be a refugee from the “Beverly Hills Cop” franchise.
Production package is extremely sleek and ultrapro, starting with Green’s fine way with light and including production’s capacity to re-create several North American settings in the L.A. area and composer Anne Dudley’s expansive electronic score — itself another Mann echo.