Released in April 2003, merely a week after the release of his other film The Italian Job, F. Gary Gray’s A Man Apart is a shoddily conceived actioneer that makes you yearn for his imperfect but far superior remake of the 1969 classic.
It’s rare when a director sees two of his movies released in the same year. Seeing them both release within a week of one another is the equivalent of having the winning Powerball ticket. Beating more odds is the fact that both films demonstrate some of Gray’s best and worst strengths as a director. When his film is anchored by charismatic leads (Friday, The Italian Job), along with strong writing (although he lacks even one writing credit), it makes for a good time at the movies. When they lack those attributes, you get something like A Man Apart, a derivative slog that is overwhelmed by an uneasy mix of melodrama and brutal violence.
A Man Apart stars Vin Diesel as former-criminal-turned-DEA-agent Sean Vetter, who is tasked to work the California/Mexico border. The border is being overrun with unfathomable amounts of narcotics being trafficked a month (50 tons of cocaine a month, we’re told). Vetter, his partner Hicks (Larenz Tate), and fellow DEA agents conduct a raid on a compound and subsequently arrest a drug baron named Memo (Geno Silva). Soon after, a hit is taken out on Vetter’s home, wounding him and inadvertently killing his wife (Jacqueline Obradors).
Vetter learns that a mysterious man known as “Diablo” has stepped in and orchestrated the attempted assassination. He tries to squeeze info out of Memo with little success. Eventually, he meets “Hollywood” Jack Slayton (Timothy Olyphant), a wealthy drug mogul whose involvements with the cartel are never concretized.
A great deal of A Man Apart begs explanation. Sticking with Olyphant’s abrupt introduction, he’s indeed the biggest strength of the film despite not being well-integrated into the narrative. His scenes provide the film with a burst of energy. It starts when Vetter and Hicks are observing him in front of his salon. Hollywood Jack is immediately suspicious. Attempting to flee in his sports car, he’s stopped by Vetter and the two play verbal games with one another. The scene is hilarious, although that might not have been the intent. More importantly, it shows off a wit the bulk of A Man Apart lacks.
These were also the days of Olyphant showing up about a third of the way through a movie and throwing a monkey-wrench into the lead character’s plans by being a wily loose-cannon. The Girl Next Door was another fine example. Yet again, Olyphant makes the most of his limited screentime simply by being a loudmouth jagoff with a propensity for playing dumb just before getting violent.
Other scenes don’t make logical sense. Prior to the aforementioned raid on Memo’s compound, Vetter mentions the foolishness of going in unarmed before sneaking in his own gun. Moments later, bullets fly from both parties — the drug-pushers, the kingpins, and the DEA agents. The sheer thought of the DEA entering enemy territory without weaponry is absurd, so why that line of dialog exists is an unsolved mystery. A later scene has Vetter interrogating a crook at his home after finding a couple bricks in his trunk. He empties all but one bullet out of his gun, spins the chamber, and plays Russian roulette with the suspect trying to get him to talk. Of course the man cracks and spills the beans after Vetter fires three shots at point-blank range. What would be the benefit had the bullet fired on, say, the second shot? The crook would be dead and Vetter would be no closer to Diablo.
A Man Apart is rife with scenes of senseless combat and head-scratching realizations that overcomplicate what is ultimately a routine shoot-em-up. Interrupting the bone-crunching bloodshed are high-doses of melodrama. The drama itself is overplayed by way of an oft-grieving Vetter washing down a violent altercation with a few moments of solemn reflection set to Anne Dudley’s overbearing score.
Retribution and a violent pursuit of justice is a recurring theme in many Gray films (thoughtfully illustrated in Jason Miller’s “Notebook” piece for the website Mubi). Such themes have never felt more inevitable, as Vetter’s entire sense of purpose is found the moment he takes his injured self back into his home following the initial hit only to find his wife has died. It sets into motion a tired tale of revenge that concludes with an ending so poorly conceived, it comes across as an inside joke by the filmmakers. Certainly they understand what transpired. The audience sure as hell doesn’t.
Starring: Vin Diesel, Larenz Tate, Geno Silva, Timothy Olyphant, and Jacqueline Obradors. Directed by: F. Gary Gray.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!