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(2003) (Vin Diesel, Larenz Tate) (R)

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Drama/Action: A DEA agent seeks revenge on the drug lord responsible for murdering his wife.
Sean Vetter (VIN DIESEL) and Demetrius Hicks (LARENZ TATE) are undercover DEA agents who've been working for seven years trying to bag Mexican drug lord Guillermo "Memo" Lucero (GENO SILVA). They finally succeed, but not before Lucero tells Vetter that he's made a big and dangerous mistake.

Months later, a new drug lord known only as "Diablo" is staking his claim on the cartels. Unaware of that, Sean has a seaside party with his wife, Stacy (JACQUELINE OBRADORS), Demetrius, boss Ty Frost (STEVE EASTIN), their drug dealer informant, Big Sexy (GEORGE SHARPERSON), and others. That night, gunmen break into the house, seriously injure Sean and mortally wound Stacy.

After recovering from his wounds, Sean not only wants to bring down the latest cartel, but also get revenge on whoever killed his wife. Starting with Big Sexy, he and Demetrius then start working their way up the drug pipeline, including meeting drug dealer Hollywood Jack Slayton (TIMOTHY OLYPHANT). With limited help from Lucero, Sean then sets out to bring down everyone involved in the drug trade, even if it means breaking the law and risking his own life while doing so.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
You'd think that with the business smarts and survival instincts they surely possess, drug lords would know better than ticking off a cop or government agent who's after them. That's particularly true when it comes to attempting to off them and/or kill someone in their family. Don't these people watch such related movies where that occurs and only further pushes the hero (or anti-hero) to get revenge and deliver the much deserved comeuppance to the villain?

Screenwriters Christian Gudegast & Paul T. Scheuring (who make their collective debut) apparently forgot to create such a moviegoing knowledge for their uber drug lord in "A Man Apart." The tale of such a character who orders a hit on a DEA agent and his wife but only succeeds at killing the latter, this is an unimaginative but stylish amalgamation of any number of vindictive spouse or loose cannon cop movies.

Or should I have said lethal weapon ones? Yes, this latest film from director F. Gary Gray ("The Negotiator," "Set it Off") bears more than a passing resemblance to that Mel Gibson/Danny Glover action flick. Both feature a white law enforcement officer partnered with a black family man who are after drug dealers. The protagonists live on the beach, have lost their wives, and then go on a vindictive killing spree to set matters straight and don't care too much about the law while doing so.

Sure, there are differences in the particulars as well as the way in which the story is told. Yet, there are more than enough similarities to that film and others that this one will likely exude the unwanted "been there, seen that" response from viewers. Granted, "Lethal Weapon" wasn't overly novel in plot, but the cast and crew put enough of a unique spin on the material that it came off as fresh.

In this film - that wrapped quite a while ago and has suspiciously been sitting on the shelf - everyone feels like they're only going through the motions. Gray and cinematographer Jack N. Green ("Space Cowboys," "Unforgiven") have given the film a handsome veneer, but the rest of the direction doesn't always work as intended.

While there are plenty of shoot 'em up action scenes, some of them are so sloppily handled that you have no idea who's on whose side. The firepower might be immense and intense, but such scenes aren't as powerful - in a "shock and awe" sort of fashion - as related ones in Michael Mann's far superior "Heat."

Such scenes, however, fare better than the "dramatic" ones. Although they're not as forced or laughable as similar ones in some Sly Stallone flicks or dare I say all Steven Seagal ones, they just don't work that well here. As usual, Vin Diesel ("XXX," "Knockaround Guys") exudes a certain onscreen magnetism and charisma, and his hulking presence works well in the action scenes and moments where he has to intimidate others.

Yet, when he has to exude feelings of grief or earlier tenderness, the actor starts to stretch his luck. Again, it's not as bad as I've seen in other films, but it certainly won't engage the viewer as it precariously walks the line along hokeyness, forced sincerity and melodrama. That's especially true when some bad dialogue starts oozing forth from the production.

Larenz Tate ("Biker Boyz," "Why Do Fools Fall in Love") is okay but pretty much unremarkable embodying a younger version of Glover's Roger Murtaugh character while Jacqueline Obradors ("Tortilla Soup," "Six Days Seven Nights") is alluring as the doomed wife but unfortunately exits the proceedings too soon.

George Sharperson ("Double Take") provides some laughs as a flamboyant bad boy who works with the DEA agents. For a while, the film has some decent comic relief dialogue and moments (including that involve a cute, drug sniffing pooch). Alas, all of that pretty much dries up in the second half.

A film like this is only as good as the villains and they're a disappointing lot here. Geno Silva ("Mulholland Drive," "Amistad") plays the main one, but after he's imprisoned, the agents encounter a number of low-lifes - including one played by Timothy Olyphant ("Dreamcatcher," "Rock Star") -- while we also see the deadly workings of the mysterious "Diablo" character. None of that or them, however, light up the screen.

As a result, all that's left is the notion of watching Vin Diesel bust some heads as he claws his way up the drug pipeline to the top dog. Due to the directorial stumbling and weak villains, however, even that isn't as thrilling in a Dirty Harry/Death Wish sort of way as it could and I suppose should have been.

A bit better than I thought it would be - particularly in the first half - the film is nevertheless just a lackluster but more brutal retreading of "Lethal Weapon" and other such films minus the charm or engaging elements. "A Man Apart" rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed April 1, 2003 / Posted March 4, 2003

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