A Man Apart (2003) isn’t perfect, but F. Gary Gray and Vin Diesel do deliver intense and brutal action without complications…

Vin Diesel carved out a big niche for himself in the action movie world with the Fast & Furious franchise. This film series and most of his other productions in the last 20 years featured a rather comical and light-hearted approach to action cinema, including the Riddick films. It looks like that these are the type of roles he prefers to take, but his physique and charisma could also have turned his career towards grittier and more violent action flicks.

There is exactly one film in his filmography where Diesel got the opportunity to be an old-school action hero and to put his own spin on the classic Death Wish revenge theme. This film is a A Man Apart, for which Diesel teamed up with director F. Gary Gray who already left a mark in the 1990s with the excellent action thrillers Set it Off and The Negotiator. In this article, we’ll have a look if Diesel’s and Gray’s collaboration for A Man Apart was equally successful.

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Sean Vetter and his team of DEA agents capture a drug baron during a raid in Mexico. The cartel sends its henchmen to take out Vetter as retaliation, but during the attack on his home Vetter’s wife Stacy is killed instead. He craves for revenge and sets out on a violent vendetta against every member of the cartel who had a hand in the murder of his wife. His rampage takes him all the way up to the top of the organization, where the reclusive Diablo has taken charge.

This is one of the archetypal revenge stories, and A Man Apart brings zero novelty to the table in the plot department. Even despite this simplicity, some of the story elements are handled kind of sloppy, and don’t connect very well to each other. The backdrop of cross-border drug trade and crime-ridden LA neighborhoods is also not explored in depth. Not much effort is made either to work out the characters, and the especially the villains are walking cliches.

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Sounds lame? It could be, but this is the type of setup that can work if your ambition is to create a straightforward action flick. If you take time to flesh out characters and add complications to the story, you have to dial back the action, there’s no way around it. And despite its lack of depth, A Man Apart manages to grab viewer’s attention through its energetic direction, killer action sequences and intense performances of everyone showing up on screen, first and foremost Diesel.

As with many vigilante movies, Vetter undergoes an almost almost instantaneous transformation from a decent guy and loving husband into a remorseless killing machine. His performance is nowhere near as iconic as that of a Bronson or Eastwood in the classics but then what is. Yet when Vetter goes loose, Diesel gives him an intimidating and intense presence that explodes into raw brutality in some scenes and into a gruffly charm in some of the film’s calmer moments. It’s quite easy to identify with Vetter’s killing spree, as all the villain characters are delightfully sleazy, with a breakout performance by Timothy Olyphant as flamboyant hair salon owner and drug distributor, who seemed to have walked over from a Miami Vice set. 

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The action sequences, just like the rest of the movie, are devoid of originality, but still have a lot going for them, and after the death of Vetter’s wife they keep coming almost non-stop. Vetter knocks down one door after another, sometimes alone, sometimes with his old buddies from the hood, and beats up the culprits or kills them right away. It’s really not more than that, but this simple approach works incredibly well thanks to some great adrenaline-charged verbal exchanges and the various shootouts and fights with some of them being exceptionally brutal. 

A Man Apart could have been a great start for Diesel to establish himself as a go-to actor for other gritty action productions. It tanked at the box office, though, and that may have put a hold on this avenue for him. The film is not perfect, and doesn’t excel at anything in particular, but delivers intense and brutal action without complications. I think it’s one of the best films Diesel made so far, a highly entertaining venture into unrestrained old-school action cinema.

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