Man on Fire (2004) Movie Review

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An overstuffed, pricey, and smashingly gorgeous bag for a variety pack of clichés, Man on Fire represents director Tony Scott taking somewhat of a step backwards after fun, spry thrillers Spy Game and Enemy of the State; but damn if he doesn't try his hardest to make it all mean something.

In the film (a remake of a 1987 flick of the same name) Denzel Washington coasts through his role as John Creasy, your average ex-undercover operative now saddled with a drinking problem and a yen for his own death. His buddy from the bad old days, Rayburn (Christopher Walken), now a wealthy Mexican businessman of ill repute, gets Creasy a job as bodyguard for the nine-year-old daughter of Mexico City industrialist Samuel Ramos (Marc Anthony). The average parent might have noticed that Creasy might not have been the best man for the job, seeing as he drinks, is temperamental with the daughter, and tries to off himself one lonely night. But the girl herself, Pita (Dakota Fanning), takes to crusty old Creasy anyway, saying to her mother (Radha Mitchell) that "he's like a big, sad bear" and filling her notebook with moony scribblings about how much she loves him. Creasy finally warms up to Pita, an irresistibly personable ball of energy as played by Fanning, who also brings a powerfully adult presence to her scenes with Washington, complementing his character's world-weariness: they're like the only two adults in a world full of corrupt, venal teenagers.

Given that the film is called Man on Fire and not My Bodyguard II: Pita's Happy Adventure, it's inevitable that Pita is going to be taken away from Creasy. And when that happens, it's like the roof of hell got ripped open as Creasy extracts vengeance from anybody even remotely attached to Pita's kidnapping. Although it's pretty standard stuff plot-wise, the depths to which the film will send Creasy on his rampage through a network of petty crooks and powerful, corrupt policemen are darker and queasier than one would expect. Fortunately, the filmmakers knew that to justify this volcanic rage, they'd have to provide a pretty good reason for it, which they did early on with the segments with Creasy and Pita that hover over the rest of the film like a haunting melody.

It's a testament to the strength of the film's actors (a uniformly excellent bunch, with the exception of Anthony, who's sleepwalking) and Scott's powerful visuals that they are able to at all transcend the limitations of the schlocky screenplay by Brian Helgeland (Mystic River), who appears to have made himself a purveyor of Catholic-tinged revenge flicks. Scott ups Helgeland's aura of doomed religiosity - already pretty thick, what with all the Bible quotes, references to St. Jude, and discussions of God's forgiveness floating around - by shooting much of the film in cavernous, cathedral-like interiors. Crucial exchanges are criminally underwritten, though, making several stretches of this overlong film feel like a slog. Helgeland has a tendency to fall back on the hoariest old standards ("she taught him to love again") when he's not making up embarrassing new lows. One scene in particular stands out in its ineptitude: Rayburn is discussing Creasy's vendetta with a Mexican federal agent (Hannibal's engagingly rumpled Giancarlo Giannini) and says, "His art is death, and he's about to paint his masterpiece." It's a laughable line, but at least Walken is there to give it his trademark snap.

Man on Fire is never less than sumptuous visually, Scott having made full use of his fecund Mexico City locations, mixing painterly shots of decayed beauty that recall Amores Perros with his own trademark stuttery expressionism. Although the film's impressive look, the undeniable power of its cast, and Scott's laudable attempt to push the envelope emotionally can't quite overcome the screenplay's limitations, it provides a welcome dose of heart in a month of gimmicky revenge fantasies like Kill Bill: Volume 2 and The Punisher.

The DVD includes two audio commentaries from Scott, Fanning, and various cohorts.

Liar, liar, man on fire.

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Man on Fire (2004) Rating

" OK "

Rating: R, 2004

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