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A MAN APART

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C

Vin Diesel tries to stretch in “A Man Apart,” and it’s not a pretty sight. The gruff, buff, booming-voiced fellow who strode through “Pitch Black,” “The Fast and the Furious” and “XXX” without moving a facial muscle or modulating his vocal delivery a whit is here thrust into a role in which he must not only run, shout and threaten but also suffer, weep and throw tantrums of pain and anger–as well as acting the part of a loving, sensitive husband and a soulful friend. Let’s just say that the effort strains his thespian capabilities.

But even a more experienced leading man would have had difficulty selling this old-fashioned revenge tale about a guy who’s determined to track down the people responsible for killing his wife. This scenario has been played out on screen innumerable times before, both in modern settings and in period dress; to name but one instance, which springs to mind because the lead actor was similarly impassive, there’s Henry King’s 1958 western “The Bravados,” in which Gregory Peck played a dour rancher who doggedly seeks those who made him a widower. Despite the fact that he’s supposed to be “A Man Apart,” the fact is that the hero of this movie has far too much cinematic company.

Of course, in the present case the familiar plot has been gussied up with contemporary flash and color. Diesel plays Sean Vetter, who, along with his long-time partner Demetrius Hicks (Larenz Tate), is a crack member of an L.A.-based DEA squad, successful because they literally rose from the streets together and still have the feel of the territory. As the picture begins, the duo is largely responsible for capturing Memo Lucero (Geno Silva), the head of a powerful drug cartel. In the wake of the arrest, though, a mysterious figure calling himself El Diablo emerges to take over the business, and when the guys move to expose him, he orders Vetter killed–an attempt which instead results in the death of Sean’s wife Stacy (Jacqueline Obradors). Upon recovering from his wounds, the inconsolable lawman will stop at nothing, as the saying goes, to avenge his wife’s death, even endangering his friends with his recklessness and entering an alliance with the jailed Lucero. (By the end–as was the case in “The Bravados”–it’s become unclear whether the hero has gone so far over the line that he’s no better than his adversaries.) But when the truth is revealed about El Diablo (no, it doesn’t turn out to be Keyser Soze), you just might find yourself wondering whether the convolutions of the plot made much sense. (You might also find yourself questioning the narrative’s chronology. At one point Vetter, just recovered from his wounds, visits his dead spouse’s grave, which is not only covered with luxurious grass but adorned with a huge headstone. Yet when he returns home, the seaside structure is still riddled with bullet-holes and surrounded with crime-scene tape, its doors wide open.)

Logic, if course, might not matter much while you’re watching the many gun battles and other physical face-offs. There’s lots of action in “A Man Apart,” and Diesel, Tate and director F. Gary Gray pull them off with gritty aplomb. (And occasionally with a touch of real gruesomeness: a sequence in which Sean and Demetrius investigate a drug house filled with corpses is unsettling as well as modestly suspenseful.) The team is, unhappily, much less successful with the intimate portions of the picture–by far the majority of the running-time. Diesel’s scenes with Obradors are totally unconvincing, and while his quieter moments with Tate, when the pair’s loyalty is tested, go better, that’s only comparative (and largely due to Tate’s more developed technique). Timothy Olyphant, who’s become rather ubiquitous of late, also outdoes the star in his flashily empty turn as a drug middle-man, and Silva is quietly authoritative, dominating his conversations with Diesel as well. In the last analysis, it’s the Big Guy’s inability to breathe dramatic life into the stock figure of Vetter that dooms “A Man Apart” to B-movie mediocrity.

AGENT CODY BANKS

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C

You can probably blame Robert Rodriguez for this pint-sized version of a James Bond flick. The Austin auteur isn’t involved with “Agent Cody Banks,” of course, but it was undoubtedly the success of his “Spy Kids” movies that got this one a studio green light.

But “Banks” doesn’t really resemble Rodriguez’s flamboyantly anarchic movies. It’s more like the relatively staid live action pictures that Disney churned out in the 1960s and 1970s starring Kurt Russell or Jan-Michael Vincent–in this case, a fairly straightforward teen transplant of the typical Bond formula, in spirit more akin to the recent “Clockstoppers” than the “Spy Kids” franchise. Here the eponymous Cody, a nerdy highschool student who also happens to be a CIA trainee, is assigned by the agency to get close to Natalie, a girl his age and the daughter of a scientist who’s under the thumb of one of those madmen aiming to conquer the world. The switch on the Bond recipe is that young Mr. Banks is hopelessly tongue-tied and inept around members of the opposite sex. But with the help of Ronica Miles, a sultry CIA handler, he overcomes his shyness and successfully foils the plot to dismantle the US missile fleet by an invasion of nasty metal-eating “nano-bots” encased in ice cubes. (Yes, you read that right.)

This is pretty silly standard-issue stuff (with, it should be noted, the apparently obligatory smattering of potty, vomit and flatulence gags), and it’s not even enlivened by much technological pizzazz–the glitziest gizmos on hand are a hovercraft that looks like a plastic model and some rocket skis. About all that it has going for it is Frankie Muniz in the lead role. The “Malcolm in the Middle” star, who also enlivened last year’s “Big Fat Liar,” remains a charmingly goofy kid who gets viewers on his side even when the material is weak, as in this case. Unfortunately Hilary Duff (from the “Lizzie McGuire” series) has little to do besides smiling and playing the damsel awaiting rescue, and Angie Harmon (late of “Law and Order”) not much beyond acting the hard-bitten professional. Continuing the bad news, Martin Donovan is typically bland as Natalie’s naive dad, while Keith David embarrasses himself badly as the volcanic Agency director. It may come as a surprise, though, that the villains don’t fare much better. A puffy Ian McShane is simply dull as the wicked Brinkman–even the moniker is a bad joke–and little is required of Arnold Vosloo (from “The Mummy”) but a scowl. Apart from Muniz, the only saving grace is SNL’s Darrell Hammond, who puts a good deal of his Bill Clinton imitation into the small role of the CIA’s invention-happy “Q.”

“Agent Cody Banks” has received a fairly spiffy production, and director Harald Zwart keeps things moving along smartly, with some well-choreographed action sequences. In the end, though, it’s just too familiar and unimaginative to be anything more than a forgettable time-waster for undemanding family audiences. The only thing remarkable about it is that it boasts a roster of no fewer than fourteen producers, co-producers and executive producers (including, among others, Jason Alexander and Madonna). At roughly one for every seven minutes of movie, that’s got to be some sort of record. And unhappily, they far outnumber the movie’s virtues.