23, 2004 | Revenge
is sour and Denzel Washington is dour in Man on Fire,
a grimly efficient but distractingly pretentious revenge
thriller about a burnt-out CIA operative who gets a shot
at redemption – and
takes many shots at other people – while working as a
bodyguard for a button-cute 9-year-old girl.
It’s a relatively simple guy-meets-girl, guy-loses-girl,
guy-kills-almost-everyone-but-the-girl story, adapted from
a novel by A.J. Quinnell that previously was filmed in 1987
with Scott Glenn in the lead role. (The earlier version wasn’t
terrible, just numbingly ordinary.) The lead actors – especially
Washington and co-star Dakota Fanning (I Am Sam) – do
an admirable job of infusing the clichés and stereotypes
with some resemblance of emotional resonance. But it’s
hard to concentrate fully on the action and interaction while
director Tony Scott (Crimson Tide, Enemy of the
State) glazes the pulpy plot with mannered visual flourishes – flash
cuts, smoky interiors, varying film stocks, slo-mo and fast-forward,
etc. – that call entirely too much attention to themselves.
Scott devotes nearly an hour to
slowly fashioning close ties between John Creasy (Washington),
a boozy retired assassin who’s mired in a suicidal funk, and Pita Ramos (Fanning),
the chipper daughter of a Mexico City couple – an industrialist
(Marc Anthony) and his American wife (Radha Mitchell) – who
fear their child may attract kidnappers.
Creasy takes the job of Pita’s bodyguard at the urging
Rayburn (Christopher Walken), an old friend and fellow ex-spook.
Truth to tell, however, he’d rather spend his time swilling
Jack Daniel’s while wallowing in guilt, playing Linda
Ronstadt CDs and -- no kidding -- paging through the Bible.
Early on, Creasy asks Rayburn: “Do you think God will
forgive us for what we’ve done?” Rayburn is nothing
if not succinct in his reply: “No.”
But the audience is meant to forgive
anything Creasy does while wreaking havoc in the wake of
abduction. The bond formed between bodyguard and guarded youngster
is such that, after the ransom drop is botched and the little
girl is presumed dead, Creasy vows to annihilate “anyone
involved… anyone who profited from it… anyone
who opens his eyes at me.” He more or less makes good
on his promise by resorting to extreme measures – torture,
firebombs, anal-suppository explosives – with the tacit
approval of a crusading reporter (Rachel Ticotin) and a cynical
yet honest Mexico City cop (played, in a bold stroke of casting,
by Italian actor Giancarlo Giannini) who wisely avert their
eyes while Creasy smites the wicked.
Scott has no shame: He sets us
up for the kill -- for many kills, actually -- by meticulously
establishing, then ruthlessly exploiting, the genuinely affecting
relationship between a surrogate father and his lost daughter.
You very likely will find yourself cheering Creasy as he
cuts a bloody swath through the ugly thugs and corrupt cops
who dared to prey on Pita. But you just as likely will hate
yourself in the morning for succumbing to Scott’s crafty