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Posts Tagged ‘A Man Apart’

So here we are, with the world seemingly on pause for the foreseeable future, and the main challenge of each day being how to fill it. I could be learning another language, or practising the ukulele; maybe writing another terrible, unpublishable novel, or working on my long-mooted guide to running Lovecraftian role-playing games, Terror Without Tentacles. But I’m not. Instead I find myself watching obscure Vin Diesel movies that I happen to have missed the first time around.

I’ll be honest with you, for all that I occasionally refer to him as ‘the great Vin Diesel’ (it is meant with affection if not complete seriousness) I have never been a completist when it comes to the artist formerly known as Mark Sinclair. Didn’t see Pitch Black at the cinema, nor the first four Fast & Furious movies, nor xXx – I think you’re getting the point. In the circumstances it’s not really surprising that a minor film like F Gary Gray’s A Man Apart slipped through the net.

This movie was originally released in 2003 (but more on this later) and opens with a brief sequence describing the vast quantities of narcotics smuggled over the US-Mexican border every week by the drug cartels. This is narrated by a tranquilised-sounding Diesel and it’s hard to tell whether it’s more like a Trump campaign video or an advert for cocaine. As a means of establishing the mise en scene, though, it is reasonably effective.

When Vin eventually pops up, he is playing Sean Vetter, member of a cool, unorthodox squad within the DEA. After seven years they are about to finally collar senior drug lord Lucero (Geno Silva) inside a rather peculiar club or nightclub (Lucero seems to have no problem with groping various scantily-clad dancers in front of a crowd of his cheering employees and their families). The bust goes down, and Lucero is successfully nicked, but not before Vin has to chase down his getaway car on foot (heavy traffic congestion in Mexico City, plus the fact that Diesel was carrying a lot less bulk twenty years ago, mean this is slightly less ludicrous than it sounds). Cheerful Vin repeatedly asks his boss if he can go home and see his wife.

Yes, Vin has a lovely wife (played by Jacqueline Obradors) who is a maker of scented candles, and a cat (played by a cat) who is not. Various scenes ensue making it quite clear just what a devoted and loving husband Vin is, and the general effect is as if they had painted a large bullseye on Mrs Diesel’s forehead. So it proves, for it seems that with Lucero in jail, a lethal new drugs kingpin known only as ‘Diablo’ is taking over the business, and (I know this doesn’t make a great deal of sense) Diablo decides to take out the man responsible for disposing of his predecessor. In the ensuing hit, Vin is shot and wounded and his wife killed (their cat vanishes out of the movie at this point, but I fear the worst).

Vin wakes up in hospital to discover that his wife has not just carked it, but been buried while he was in a coma. This upsets him a bit, and his performance of distraught grief is such that the audience will probably find it quite gruelling too. A preposterous scene ensues in which Vin is let out of hospital (his serious bullet wound disappears from the movie along with his cat) and driven to the cemetery after dark by his long-suffering partner (Larenz Tate) to visit the grave. Well, item number one on Vin’s agenda is now to get his revenge on Diablo for making his cat disappear (and killing his wife too, probably), but can he keep his volcanic vengeful fury under control long enough to do it?

The first thing that strikes you about A Man Apart is just how young and slim Vin Diesel looks in it: positively baby-faced and whippet-like. (For much of the film he wears a goatee, which is a pretty good look for him.) The reason for this is that while the film was released in 2003, it was actually made a couple of years earlier (it’s hard to find out for sure exactly when, but apparently a court case concerning the film’s original title of Diablo was in progress in 2001) and then sat on the shelf, only earning a run in theatres after The Fast and the Furious and xXx confirmed Diesel as a genuine star. The thinking seems to have been that this film would have vanished without trace without a star name on the poster, and I can see where they were coming from, because A Man Apart is not much cop.

I very rarely bail out of a movie part-way through, even at home, but in this case I did come close, about half an hour in. By this point it was clear that A Man Apart was not going to be any good, but neither was it going to be bad in a particularly interesting or entertaining way. It’s just mediocre in virtually every department. At the heart of the film there seems to be a distinct lack of certainty as to just what it’s supposed to be – a tough action thriller about the battle with the Mexican drug cartels, or a more introspective character piece about a man driven half-mad by grief and the desire for revenge. It just about hangs together, but it’s a near thing.

There’s a phenomenon known as ‘fridging’, which refers to the tendency of female characters in films and other media to exist only so they can be murdered or otherwise brutalised by the bad guys in order to motivate the hero for the rest of the story (the title comes from a mid-90s issue of Green Lantern in which the title character comes home to find his girlfriend’s corpse stuffed in the refrigerator). It’s a trope we seem to be moving on from, but it is very noticeable that the main plot function of most of the women in A Man Apart (maybe not the scantily-clad dancers) is to be fridged. It’s that kind of movie – driven by the protagonist’s need for revenge – but Jacqueline Obradrors’ character is so obviously just there to be offed that you never really buy into their relationship, so it all feels very formulaic.

I’ve discussed in the past the difference between Escapist and Reminder forms of entertainment and the problems which can ensue when film-makers get the balance between them wrong or otherwise mix them up. In the end, most of the problems with A Man Apart arise from the fact that the film’s tone and setting are inescapably quite grim and depressing, and concerns serious social problems and issues, while the plot itself is shallow and simplistic, a-man’s-gotta-do stuff. The conclusion of the film attempts to subvert expectations and suggest some kind of moral victory for Diesel, but you just end up thinking what a weak climax it is after all that has gone before.

Now, having said all this, and bearing in mind I come here to praise Vin Diesel, not bury him, he is still very watchable in this movie: he passes the test of a genuine movie star by still having genuine presence and charisma, even in a bad film. One wonders exactly why it is that he has struggled so badly so sustain a career outside of one or two franchises (you know the ones I mean): is it simply that he really is as limited in his range as his choice of movies would suggest, or just that there’s something about him which has led to his being typed so badly? Whatever the answer, A Man Apart is not going to change anyone’s mind about Diesel and his career: this is a thorough-going dud.

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