Antiheroes swipe the spotlight

By , Film critic of The Christian Science Monitor

Antiheroes have been around as long as fiction itself - some almost as virtuous as regular heroes, others putting more emphasis on the "anti" aspect. Two of this week's releases have antiheroes as their title characters, portrayed with enough ambiguity to allow diverse opinions about their ethics and morality.

A Man Apart is a vehicle for Vin Diesel, himself a sort of anticelebrity, at once hugely famous and doggedly guarded about the real-life facts behind his star image. He plays a narcotics cop who prospers in his dangerous profession by deploying the tricks he learned as a streetwise hustler in his early life.

When his job turns personal - after criminals kill his beloved wife in an effort to murder him - the lust for vengeance brings out a side of his personality as ugly as the bad guys he wants to bring down.

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But where I see a brute with a badge, others may see a decent man who realizes that a guy's gotta do what a guy's gotta do. It will be interesting to see whether audiences embrace Mr. Diesel's barely controlled vigilante as warmly as they embraced Clint Eastwood's swaggering Dirty Harry and Charles Bronson's nasty "Death Wish" characters a few decades ago.

If so, we may be seeing a turn away from the complexity of recent drug-trade dramas like "Traffic" and back toward the less-modulated violence of Brian De Palma's grim "Scarface," one of "Man Apart" director F. Gary Gray's favorite films.

The Good Thief has higher ambitions. It stars Nick Nolte, an actor with more creativity in every wrinkle of his lived-in face than Diesel has in his entire buffed-up bod. It was written and directed by Neil Jordan, an art-minded filmmaker who occasionally takes artistic gambles ("The Crying Game," "The End of the Affair") risky enough to impress the casino high-roller played by Mr. Nolte here.

"The Good Thief" is Mr. Jordan's remake of "Bob le Flambeur," the Jean-Pierre Melville classic that helped redefine the crime-drama genre in the '50s with its portrait of a cosmopolitan crook bearing an inner burden of existential angst. Hoping to give the old yarn a new spin, Jordan adds a subplot about forged paintings. This dovetails with the main story, about a scheme to confuse the police by pulling off two heists - a real one and a decoy - at the same time.

Like the good thief himself, Jordan turns out to be too clever by half, organizing a caper that's noisy and flashy where subtlety and moodiness would be far more effective. The result is yet another remake that should send viewers scurrying to video stores for the original.

Both films, rated R, contain violence, nudity, and vulgar language.

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