After the largely tongue-in-cheek XXX, Vin Diesel tries a new tack with A Man Apart, a moody, downbeat story about drug smuggling on the California-Mexico border. He may show a more sensitive side in some of the scenes here, but it isn't long before the macho posturing and cartoon action kick back in. About two-thirds fun and one-third ghastly, the film will keep Diesel's fans satisfied without forming many new ones.

Diesel plays Sean Vetter, who, judging from his beachfront home in San Pedro, is one of the best-paid DEA agents in the country. Sean has just helped apprehend dangerous druglord Memo Lucero (Geno Silva) in Tijuana, and is now ready to relax with his wife Stacy (Jacqueline Obradors). But a new drug dealer known only as Diablo steps into the vacuum left by Memo. Diablo and his men take violence to new levels, eliminating most of Memo's old operation as well as his rivals.

When Sean's home is attacked, he vows to get Diablo. The prime suspects are Hollywood Jack (Timothy Olyphant), who uses a hair salon as a front for dealing drugs, and Pomona Joe (Jeff Kober), who works from a strip joint. With his partner Demetrius (Larenz Tate), Sean plans a major drug buy to flush Diablo out into the open. But Sean loses his cool during the bust, causing a shootout that leaves three DEA agents dead. Cut off from the force, Sean must switch tactics and make his vendetta even more personal. As the imprisoned Memo tells him, 'To bring down a monster, you must become a monster.'

But to become an actor instead of a star, Vin Diesel must get beyond the melodramatic excesses that mar A Man Apart. He is superb at projecting a gruff menace, and his one-on-one confrontation with Olyphant has an almost giddy energy. For now, at least, scenes in which he is compelled to grieve or mourn or otherwise show emotion feel hollow. It might not hurt to see how he can do with more challenging actors than those cast here. Apart from Olyphant and an expertly sleazy Jeff Kober, no one makes much of an impression.

Director F. Gary Gray (The Negotiator) stages two blistering shootouts and a pounding chase through the streets of Tijuana, giving parts of the film a strikingly hard-edged realism. But too much of the action here resorts to outlandish pyrotechnics and comic-book heroics. A cynic might think that the filmmakers are playing down to an audience that Vin Diesel has already conquered.

--Daniel Eagan