Man on Fire
Directed by Tony Scott
Written by Brian Helgeland
Starring Denzel Washington, Dakota Fanning


Man on Fire

Director Tony Scott, Ridley Scott's brother, has made his career on the same kinds of action films as Ridley, but as Ridley moves toward quieter films late in his career ("Matchstick Men") Tony seems hell-bent on pouring on the bells and whistles. His latest, "Man on Fire," stars Denzel Washington as what can only be described as the revenge-meister of the New World. The film is set mostly in Mexico City (which gets a thank-you in the end credits as 'a special city', whatever that means), where a burnt-out ex-secret-government assassin, John Creasy (Washington), stops in to visit his old secret-agent pal Rayburn (Christopher Walken). Rayburn gets him a job as bodyguard to young Pita (Dakota Fanning, who played Sean Penn's daughter in "I Am Sam" and is every bit as good here as she was in that film), the daughter of a wealthy couple, Samuel and Lisa Ramos (Marc Anthony and Radha Mitchell).

Creasy wants to keep things on a professional level but Pita worms her way into his heart and soon he's her swimming coach and good friend. We quickly learn that there are kidnappings seemingly on the hour in Mexico, and Creasy had better watch out. But Pita is kidnapped in spite of his work - he kills four of them before they shoot him nearly to death - and from then on to the end of the film Scott has us in a violent choke hold and refuses to let up. His visual style is a compendium of just about every device he seems to have heard of in the filmmaker's encyclopedia: flash cuts, superimposed images just a fraction out of register, jumbled and repeated shots, text messages on screen, and repeated subtitles (part of the dialogue is in Spanish) that pound larger and larger by way of emphasis. In fact Scott's curse is that where he should be cool and minimal he insists on ramping up the montage of images to where they become laughable instead of powerful.

Things begin to go wrong when the ransom is delivered, and now Creasy turns into the kind of killer whose pleasure grows with every death, as he systematically tracks down everyone involved in the kidnapping and tortures them until they reveal the next person up the line. What do I mean by tortures them? If you really want to know you'd do better to see the film for yourself. Rayburn's character says, "Creasy is an artist of death; he's about to paint his masterpiece."

The problem with "Man on Fire" is that Scott has burdened it with so much visual and aural 'style' that the story's power is undercut and the actors have too little room to work. Washington, who commands the screen like no other actor today, and by now has the sardonic, understated line reading that goes with this kind of character down pat, is hampered by the frenetic cutting of every scene. Scott can't let a scene build, can't stand back and give his actors some breathing space, and seems not to trust his screenplay (by Brian Helgeland, who adapted "Mystic River"). What could have been a classic of the genre is instead an ear-splitting, eye-shattering pile of junk. By the way, am I wrong in finding a kind of right-wing fundamentalist Christian message in the film? There's a Bushian certainty to the torments Creasy inflicts without a hint of guilt that seems analogous to some activities we see in the real world today.