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Man on Fire   C+

20th Century Fox

Year Released: 2004
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Tony Scott
Writer: Brian Helgeland (based on the novel by A.J. Quinnell)
Cast: Denzel Washington, Dakota Fanning, Christopher Walken, Giancarlo Giannini, Radha Mitchell, Marc Anthony, Rachel Ticotin, Mickey Rourke.

Review by Rob Vaux

The sudden glut of revenge pictures crowding theaters (three in eight days, four in under a month) gives us a unique opportunity to consider the nuances of trash. We've had trash as art (Kill Bill: Vol. 2), trash as... as trash (The Punisher), and with Man on Fire, trash as exploitative popcorn. It's a classic A-list B picture, featuring some of the sharpest talents around telling a story straight out of the reject bin. We're engaged because of the filmmakers' sheer willpower, dazzling us with their skill and defying us to notice the dank sleaze beneath.

Director Tony Scott certainly has the visual juice to make it work, and with Brian Helgeland's script sticking to the simplest possible concepts, the look is free to run rampant. Man on Fire presents Mexico City as an oversaturated chop-block of freeze-frames, whip-pans, and jump cuts, which rapidly reduce our senses to a puddle of mush. All the better to appreciate the film's raison d'etre: primal emotional button-pushing, stabbing at the most basic desires to punish the unrighteous. Our tour guide through it all is John Creasy (Denzel Washington), a down-on-his luck ex-assassin who descends into this universe like Lucifer falling from heaven. Washington is perfect for the role, underplaying Creasy's barely contained alcoholism and flirtations with suicide to devastating effect. Naturally, he finally finds a reason to live again when he becomes bodyguard to an adorable little moppet named Pita (Dakota Fanning)... and naturally his ray of light is snuffed out when some Very Bad People do Something Really Horrible to his beloved charge. As the thugs will learn, this is not a man whose hope you want to destroy.

Remarkably, the strongest elements are the earliest, as Fanning and Washington work marvels with their characters' blooming rapport. The young actress has languished in a series of risible ain't-she-cute roles, but here she gives Pita personality and charm. Her fascination with the stoic protector by her side plays well against Washington's passivity, delivering an emotional truth that has to work in order to give weight to the second act. As if unwilling to relinquish a good thing, Man on Fire draws the early bonding scenes out longer than they need to be, waiting almost an hour before releasing the other shoe.

From there, things descend into knee-jerk stimulus response: callous, brutal, and pathologically satisfying. Creasy works his way through the Mexican underworld, using various unsavory means to elicit information and pronounce judgment. The callous violence is tempered by Washington's irresistible presence -- there's no one else I'd rather watch jamming C-4 up a corrupt cop's rectum -- and while the material is distasteful, it's delivered with thundering expertise. Scott knows how to milk our expectations for all they're worth, even as film itself stretches on well past its appropriate stopping point. It's rarely pleasant, but it certainly delivers on its Bronsonesque promise.

The problem mainly comes when Man on Fire's vindictive rush starts to fade, leaving time to think about what's on-screen. Though well-handled, Scott's camera tricks have no weight behind them. They're just empty stylistic exercises, largely enjoyable, but occasionally irritating (as with the array of dancing subtitles that wear out their welcome distressingly soon). That Man on Fire is manipulative goes without saying -- manipulation is a staple of the genre -- but its efforts to delve into redemptive spirituality can't compete with the sheer glee it takes at making the bad guys suffer. There's also something troubling about its stereotyping: vile, corrupt Latinos menacing an angelic blue-eyed blonde. Certainly, such broadness is to be expected, and we're given a few crumbs for the PC crowd (Rachel Ticotin's crusading reporter, Giancarlo Giannini's soft-spoken Federales), but that doesn't make it any easier to swallow. The final-credits thank you to Mexico City becomes a grim joke, for rarely has a locale seemed seamier, dirtier, or so full of hateful people.

Man on Fire's final, damning evidence, however, comes in the high caliber of the production and the brilliant names who lent their creativity to it. The cast sports multiple Oscar winners (Christopher Walken is on hand as Creasy's only buddy), while Helgeland won the trophy for penning L.A. Confidential. Scott has proven himself rugged and durable, and the care with which the production was assembled displays a noticeable pride in one's work. Is this really what they all wanted to devote themselves to? Severed fingers and slow walks away from explosions? Man on Fire belongs to a different class of filmmaking -- cheap, brazen, and a big step down from the pedigree on the marquee. They make the film effective, but you're left wondering what else they could have done with their time... and why even they can't entirely remove the stench.

Review published 04.22.2004.

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