Political Film Society - Newsletter #166 - April 20, 2003

April 20, 2003


A Man ApartWhen A Man Apart begins, Sean Vetter (played by Vin Diesel) informs us that the border between México and the United States is 5,000 miles long, separated by a 15 foot fence, yet an average of 20 tons of cocaine goes across monthly into the world's largest market of cocaine consumers. Vetter not only ignores the Río Grande in his voiceover but also the larger context as the story unfolds. Instead, we first observe his group of "gangbangers" aiding the Mexican police in arresting Memo Lucero (played by Geno Silva) and his entourage after tracking them down for seven years. Lucero (who resembles Fernando Rey in the 1971 film The French Connection) is whisked across the border and convicted, and then is incarcerated for two life sentences at a federal prison. The gangbangers evidently were petty drug dealers at one time, served their time, and now work undercover for the Drug Enforcement Administration as a hardened and muscular "mod squad." While in prison, Lucero sends a hired gun to kill Vetter and/or his wife Stacy (played by Jacqueline Obradors), and she dies in Vetter's arms at their Zuma Beach pad. Continuing as an undercover agent, Vetter arranges to buy a large shipment of cocaine through Jack Slayton (played by Timothy Olyphant), a Hollywood hairdresser. A time for the buy is set up; the location is a pier at San Pedro harbor. During the transaction, one of the hairdresser's assistants boasts that he killed a cop's wife, whereupon Vetter begins to pound him, thereby losing sight of the drug transaction scam. As a result, several officials die and DEA suspends Vetter for six months. Without a DEA assignment, his quest for revenge has no distraction. The imprisonment of Lucero means that someone will inevitably arise to take his place; Mateo Santos (played by Juan Fernandez), Lucero's second or third in command, accordingly emerges, using the name "El Diablo." To headline his arrival as the new top druglord, El Diablo ruthlessly kills Lucero's wife and son. Lucero now wants revenge and puts Vetter on the trail of El Diablo in exchange for having Vetter request a transfer to another prison. El Diablo indeed is put out of business, but Lucero escapes during the transfer, returning to his home at the headquarters of the cocaine cartel in Colombia.

Vetter tracks again Lucero down, and he presumably is arrested for the second time after a display of gunfire. Or is he? At the end of the film, Vetter is at the grave of his former wife. While filmviewers should draw the obvious conclusion that the drug trade cannot be stopped so long as there is an enormous market in the United States, the hero of the film cannot get over his personal loss, all because he insisted on playing the role of macho DEA agent instead of choosing an occupation with more security for his family. Directed by F. Gary Gray, A Man Apart exploits themes from much more profound films, notably Traffic (2000) and Blow (2001), and then loses track of them by developing the character of an egocentric fool who is consumed with guilt, revenge, and self-pity. MH

BasicGun battles in the rainy Panamanian jungle bewilder the filmviewer in Basic, directed by John McTiernan. Who is fighting whom over what? Perhaps a second screening will be required to answer the puzzle over the plot, but lost is an excellent opportunity to present a contemporary version of the 1950 classic Rashomon. Instead, the ending is such a variation on U Turn (1977) that few in the audience will care what is true or false about all the corrupt, insincere, cover-your-ass characters. Anyway, something went wrong in the jungle. Ranger Sergeant Nathan West (played by Samuel L. Jackson), who commands his recruits in impossible weather, presumably dies along with some members of his squad, while the rest shoot at each other for no apparent reason. Accordingly, base commander Colonel Bill Styles (played by Tim Daly) assigns two persons the task of debriefing the surviving participants and then providing a coherent report on what happened. They are Tom Hardy (played by John Travolta), an alcoholic former Ranger and current Drug Enforcement Agency official in Panamá City, and Captain Julia Osborne (played by Connie Nielsen), head of the base's military police. Flashbacks to the battle by the survivors further confuse the narrative, as those interrogated have differing versions of the events. Since there is plenty of money to be made in the drug trade, filmviewers may suspect that there is an obvious motive behind the mystery--greed. The only one who is left out of the cabal is Osborne, and she is neutralized at the end of the film. But so is the audience, which will feel duped when big stars are unable to shine in a cinematic black hole. MH