Film Reviews: Wednesday, March 27, 2003
Next Action Hero

Vin Diesel plays down the macho and plays up the grief (sort of) in A Man Apart.


I donít want to hate Vin Diesel, but itís so easy to do that. After his big break as the doomed Pvt. Caparzo in Saving Private Ryan, he played a crooked stockbroker in Boiler Room and did the voice of The Iron Giant. His best performance came in the sci-fi thriller Pitch Black, in which he played a convicted murderer with complicated, conscientious layers.

Even during this stretch of little-seen pictures, it was inevitable that Hollywood would pick up on him. The Stallone/Schwarzenegger generation of action heroes is now way past its prime, and the studios have had to fill the void with the likes of Russell Crowe, who always looks uncomfortable carrying a blockbuster, or Ben Affleck, who turns bland in heroic parts. Diesel, with his bald head, enormous biceps, and speaking voice capable of severely testing the subwoofers in any movie theater sound system, would seem to be the answer to studio executivesí prayers.

The trouble is that his first two blockbusters were The Fast and the Furious and XXX, movies whose special effects and stuntwork were matched by ear-meltingly bad dialogue. These films were directed by Rob Cohen, who (now that Jerry Bruckheimer has turned to creating well-crafted tv dramas) has emerged as the new peddler of loud, mindless, explosion-laden adventure pics that make you feel like youíve just drunk a gallon of artificial butter flavoring. These vehicles, coupled with the Hollywood publicity machineís desperate rush to crown Diesel the new action hero, have cost him quite a bit of credibility.

A Man Apart is a chance to see him away from that environment, doing something slightly different from what he normally does. Here, he plays Sean Vetter, a narcotics cop specializing in undercover work. His professional attitude toward his job changes the night a new cartel, headed by a shady figure called ďDiablo,Ē sends murderers to his house. They only succeed in wounding him, but they kill his beloved wife (Jacqueline Obradors).

Thereafter, Sean becomes a man motivated by grief and revenge, but Diesel doesnít play those emotions in every scene. (This may be because he canít summon up those emotions at all. Weíll have to see more work from him to really find out, but while he puts forth the necessary effort during his big emotional moments here, they donít come off as they should.) Instead, he plays Sean as a guy who keeps it together while heís on the trail of Diablo and his cartel, but is liable to unravel when he gets close to his prey. The choice demonstrates some cleverness on Dieselís part, and it generally keeps the pathos from overwhelming the action.

F. Gary Gray (Set It Off, The Negotiator) is a director whose willingness to explore odd tangents redeems his occasionally ramshackle plot construction and hackneyed choice of story material. He throws some good material to Larenz Tate as Seanís partner, and he introduces a few funny touches, like a 300-pound gangsta named Sexy (George Sharperson) who uses a Chihuahua as his drug-sniffing dog. Mostly, his intelligent approach to this genre piece makes A Man Apart a Vin Diesel action film that you donít have to feel guilty about enjoying.

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