A Man Apart (2002)

Cynthia Fuchs

It's sad that the wife is dead, of course. More painful is the death scene per se, as Vin Diesel has to play something approximating tragedy.

A Man Apart

Director: F. Gary Gray
Cast: Vin Diesel, Larenz Tate, Steve Eastin, Timothy Olyphant, Jacqueline Obradors, George Sharperson, Geno Silva, Jeff Kober
MPAA rating: PG-13
Studio: New Line Cinema
First date: 2002
US Release Date: 2003-04-04

Plots don't come more worn out than this one. Ex-L.A. banger and current undercover DEA agent Sean (Vin Diesel) takes down the biggest dealer in Mexico (you know he's wicked because he's introduced dancing with a slithery girl in an underground club). Sean's first words following this difficult bust (he literally runs down the villain's car on foot) are a request for time to see his wife. Can you guess what will happen next?

A Man Apart isn't much for suspense. Following a few aren't-they-great-friends party scenes and dreamy sunset-salsa-dancing shots, cartel henchmen arrive at Sean's gorgeous beachfront home, shadows in the window, large weapons drawn. Before you can say Mad Max, or Lethal Weapon, or maybe Hard To Kill, they've shot up Sean's exquisite wife (Jacqueline Obradors).

It's sad that the wife is dead, of course. More painful is the death scene per se, as Vin Diesel has to play something approximating tragedy: he cradles her bloodied face, mumbles on his cell phone to a 911 operator, and cries, all at the same time. Ouch.

The rest of the film -- originally slated to open in November 2002 --concerns Sean's vengeance plot, pedestrian in its conception (written by Christian Gudegast and Paul Scheuring), and darkly operatic in its execution. Director F. Gary Gray knows how to convey drama through composition, as evidenced by his terrific work on Set It Off, The Negotiator, and the splendid video for OutKast's "Ms. Jackson." Here, he has his work cut out for him.

Among the hurdles: making Sean, whose plot path is so clearly marked from the start, even remotely compelling. Toward this end, he comes equipped with a nominal support system, in his DEA "family," as well as his longtime partner (in banging and policing), Demetrius, a.k.a. D (Larenz Tate). These male bonds grant Sean a standard means to vent: he'll get angry at his captain (Steve Eastin) and he'll mourn with his partner, as D holds his head and says, "I got you, I got you."

This is about the extent of the guys' articulation of their "feelings." For the most part, Sean's internal states are revealed through a mundane voiceover, rowdy action scenes, and occasional close-ups of his ravaged, increasingly scruffy face, as he downs little airplane bottles of liquor and smokes endless cigarettes. A mournful soundtrack underlines his grief in these moments, as he gazes on his home, still broken and bound with police tape, even after his own gunshot wounds have healed (which suggests weeks if not months have passed). Through the still open glass doors, pocked with bullet holes, you see the remains of the party. Sean says he can't stand to go inside, so apparently, he lives on the porch. Lucky it doesn't rain much in southern California.

The initial focus of Sean's wrath is, of course, the now incarcerated cartel boss, Memo Lucero (Geno Silva). For reasons unknowable, he's allowed access to his sworn enemy in prison, repeatedly. Unsurprisingly, Lucero insists he's not responsible for the hit, that indeed, there's a new sheriff in town, called "El Diablo." Mmm-hmmm. Sean buys this story, and heads off into the fray, his voiceover informing us that in order to get guys at the top of the drug trade, "you have to work your way up from the bottom." This ensures that he and his team -- namely, D and their buddy from banger days, Big Sexy (George Sharperson) -- will pursue a series of violent encounters with assorted skuzzy characters, granting the film a familiar boom-boom-boom trajectory.

Among these characters is the redoubtable Pomona Joe (Jeff Kober), whom Sean meets, needless to say, at a strip club. Undercover as a heroin dealer with "major weight" to move, Sean plays cool until he tells a half-naked girl to "get the fuck off my lap." Here, Joe surmises that maybe Sean's a "faggot," at which point Mr. Tough Guy Undercover gets stupid and nearly blows the transaction.

This bad behavior is not enough to clue his teammates that Sean's "on the edge," though his haunted face and red eyes certainly suggest this much. And so, a few scenes later, Sean wreaks havoc during a supposed buy. When the mark boasts that he was the one assigned to shoot some DEA agent's "stupid bitch wife," Sean beats him to death, ferociously, initiating a horrific shootout that leaves three agents and several bad guys dead -- a calamity emphasized by the camera craning out to show the pavement mural on which they all stand, a huge, colorful face. Surrounded by bodies, Sean stands in an eye's pupil, at once target and shooter, victim and psycho killer.

Such extravagant imagery makes the film look more exciting than it is. The human equivalent of this hyperbole is Timothy Olyphant's Hollywood Jack. Ostensibly the owner of a Beverly Hills tanning salon, Jack is really a dealer and remarkably ruthless killer ("remarkably" even in this crowd). Especially helpful to the film, Jack has style to burn. He first appears in a slick powder blue ensemble, right down to his blue suede loafers, featured in portentous close-up as he steps from his silver Porsche.

Jack brings a bit of welcome speed and pizzazz to the proceedings, fragments of buzzy antidote to Sean's ponderous sense of purpose. When Sean announces that he's been fingered by a junkie named Overdose (Malieek Straughter), Jack waits a perfect beat before he sniggers, "There's a human being called Overdose?" Or again, when he's getting off a plane and must explain the results of a severe beating (courtesy of Sean) to his Mexican connections, Jack shrugs and says, "Turbulencia!"

Sean doesn't get these jokes. He's so wrapped up in his blood frenzy that he can't see the absurdity of the world into which he's plunged so wholeheartedly. This makes him too familiar, a cop who can only clean up the underworld by turning as damned and dirty as the culprits he pursues. Indeed, Lucero, who would know, tells him he must become "a monster." And so, when Sean's suspended (so he can take "time to grieve"), he doesn't go much for that idea, and shows up at D's door, insisting that he's put together a squad from the neighborhood. D is stunned; with a wife and child of his own, he's got reservations about running off into battle with a crazy man.

No matter. Sean deems his cause "just," even if it's obviously delusional to everyone else. And that rage for justice is the most tedious aspect of A Man Apart. While it occasionally suggests that maybe Sean's not the healthiest of rampagers, it mostly just tries to stay out of his way.





'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.


Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".


PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.


Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.


Arcade Fire's Will Butler Personalizes History on 'Generations'

Arcade Fire's Will Butler creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present on Generations.


Thelonious Monk's Recently Unearthed 'Palo Alto' Is a Stellar Posthumous Live Set

With a backstory as exhilarating as the music itself, a Thelonious Monk concert recorded at a California high school in 1968 is a rare treat for jazz fans.


Jonnine's 'Blue Hills' Is an Intimate Collection of Half-Awake Pop Songs

What sets experimental pop's Jonnine apart on Blue Hills is her attention to detail, her poetic lyricism, and the indelibly personal touch her sound bears.


Renegade Connection's Gary Asquith Indulges in Creative Tension

From Renegade Soundwave to Renegade Connection, electronic legend Gary Asquith talks about how he continues to produce infectiously innovative music.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.


Colombia's Simón Mejía Plugs Into the Natural World on 'Mirla'

Bomba Estéreo founder Simón Mejía electrifies nature for a different kind of jungle music on his debut solo album, Mirla.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.