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.