Man On Fire

April, 2004, Thriller

With each new film he delivers, British-born Director Tony Scott provides cinematic proof that the English penchant for understatement isn't that country's universal character trait. In a three decade-plus career that includes such highly successful commercial movies as Top Gun, The Last Boy Scout, True Romance and Enemy Of The State, Scott displays a canny ability to blend ear-splitting sound tracks and florid characterizations with a level of screen violence commonly found in teen-age slasher flicks. Whatever elements his films might possess, finesse isn't among them; in this overlong, gory examination of a kidnapping and the revenge that churns in its wake, the director wastes a well-crafted first reel by hurling his audience into a maelstrom of improbably graphic mayhem.

Working from a script by Brian Helgeland, (Mystic River, L.A. Confidential) that's based on the novel by A.J. Qinnell, this star vehicle for Denzel Washington actually re-works a low-budget 1987 thriller from the same source. In both cases, a discredited ex-CIA operative is hired to protect the daughter of wealthy parents. In this version, the action takes place in Mexico City, where the film suggests that kidnapping-for-profit has become a growth industry. Washington plays Creasy, a hard-drinking, cynical soldier-of-fortune who drifts south of the border to visit old friend and former college Rayburn, (Christopher Walker) who soon lines Creasy up with a job protecting 10-year old Pita, (Dakota Fanning) the daughter of Samuel, (Marc Anthony) a financially-troubled Mexican auto executive and Lisa, his rather bubble-headed Yankee wife. 

Pita wants a friend, Lisa a babysitter and Samuel financial protection from the possibility of a ransom demand; Creasy just wants a quiet piece of work that will allow him to read his bible while drinking himself into a stupor to avoid drowning in the cesspool he's made of his life. Despite these differing agendas, Pita and her grim-reaper of a watchdog grow deeply attached to each other as she draws the taciturn bodyguard out of his flinty, marinated shell on their daily trips to and from her school, piano lessons and swim-meets. When she's abducted, (under circumstances suggesting the compliance of local corrupt policemen) Creasy's failure to assure her safety plunges him even deeper into self-loathing; badly wounded in the incident, he becomes enraged when the negotiations for Pita's return fall apart and her parents are informed that she's been murdered by her captors. 

Creasy vows revenge; enlisting the help of Rayburn and an investigative journalist, he methodically gathers evidence and then extracts information from the perpetrators, working up the criminal food-chain from street level thugs to those providing the management of what is obviously an ongoing criminal enterprise. In scenes of appalling brutality, Creasy tortures those implicated, leaving a trail of mutilated corpses in his wake. But as he gets closer and closer to those ultimately responsible, Creasy finds that the obvious becomes ever more obscure and the film ends with in an unsatisfying mixture of death, retribution and salvation. 

Helgeland once again demonstrates his ability in adapting crime novels with great skill and clarity, trimming plot lines down to their essentials and creating dialogue that develops characters with substance while spinning out a story an audience can readily follow. In establishing the growing friendship between Creasy and Pita, Scott takes the time to build their relationship with plausible and affecting scenes, making Pita's abduction frightening despite its anticipation.  In his Oscar-winning turn as a corrupt cop in Training Day, Washington proved that he can deliver dark characters as effectively as any male box-office star currently working, while Ms. Fanning, (who handily stole I Am Sam from co-star Sean Penn) constructs a vibrant personality for Pita, playing this poor-little-rich-girl with aplomb. Christopher Walken, (sounding as though he'd wandered in from a Quintin Tarantino movie) brings his usual freshness to the traditional sidekick role while the venerable Giancarlo Giannani, (Swept Away) effortlessly personifies a randy but incorruptible head of Internal Affairs. Even singer Marc Anthony does a credible turn as the elegantly macho businessman/father whose financial troubles simmer quietly but crucially in this cinematic stew. So far so good…

Having laid the groundwork for a truly exciting thriller, Scott turns the second half of his movie into an obsessive manhunt, with Creasy's increasingly implausible vengeance escalating from crude amputation through shotgun executions to rectally-implanted time bombs. Even an actor as skilled as Washington gets lost in these patently absurd proceedings, telegraphing the story's surprise ending long before it's allowed to limp across the screen. After Pita's effervescent personality departs, Scott's thudding soundtrack and Creasy's display of sadism turns this movie into two and a half hours of painfully inane melodrama, capped by the director's condescending salute to Mexico City and its citizens that initiates the credits. So why is this one a hit at the box office?

The answer may lie in the growing fascination American audiences apparently have with stories that invite approving, cathartic reactions to what are essentially nihilistic heroes. At a time when evening newscasts carry a fresh supply of incidents of global terrorism, (and as the capture and legitimate punishment of those responsible grows ever more attenuated) sitting in the dark and witnessing bad guys quickly get their comeuppance in a manner approximating their own violent methods can provide an emotional gratification that, however invalid, is nevertheless satisfying on an atavistic level. If that's accurate, Scott has simply spent the considerable budget represented by this movie on a project that has its roots in exploitation but its focus on primal, vigilante-style propaganda. The fact that his highly talented cast and the pyrotechnical skills of his crew can grab our attention doesn't excuse the use to which they put it. This one starts well, ends badly, and conveys a putrid justification for its horrific brutality.   


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