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MAN ON FIRE

Cruelly underwritten but wildly overproduced, this latest Hollywood example of the vigilante vengeance movie is a depressing experience, a picture that wants to be about relationships but is rendered so mechanical a contrivance by the director’s glitzily shabby approach that it’s actually dehumanizing. “Man on Fire” is both gritty and slick, in the hyperkinetic style of “City of God” and “21 Grams,” and like them it proves at once sensorily fatiguing and intellectually dispiriting. Think of it as a quasi-retread of the mediocre Taylor Hackford effort “Proof of Life” (which also involved a Latin American kidnapping, but is best remembered for being the picture that got Meg Ryan involved with Russell Crowe and broke up her marriage with Dennis Quaid), told in the style of “Revenge,” Tony Scott’s awful Kevin Costner movie from 1990. The combination is not a pleasant one.

Although there’s no mention of the fact in any of the press materials, the Denzel Washington vehicle is actually a remake. The 1980 A.J. Quinnell novel on which it’s based–about a burnt-out former U.S. agent who takes a job abroad as bodyguard to a businessman’s young daughter, rediscovers his humanity during his brief time with her, and becomes an avenging angel when she’s kidnapped and presumed killed–was filmed in 1987 by Elie Chouraqui, with Scott Glenn as the protagonist and Jade Malle as the child. (Among its other stars were Joe Pesci, Danny Aiello and Jonathan Price.) Perhaps the fact that very few people saw it–or liked it–explains Twentieth Century Fox’s reluctance to admit the paternity.

The main difference in Brian Helgeland’s new adaptation of the book for Scott is that the locale has been changed from Italy–where kidnappings were common in the 1980s but have become much rarer nowadays–to Mexico, and the Mafia villains transformed into a malevolent south-of-the-border gang who snatch rich men’s kids for the profits of ransom. Otherwise much is still made of the way that little Pita (Dakota Fanning) melts the heart of the initially adamantine (and alcoholic) Creasy (Washington) and the lengths to which he’ll go in dispensing a rough form of justice to all those involved in her death, even though the task requires his taking on very powerful forces within a corrupt government. It’s actually a very simple story, with obvious motivations and plot twists that are far less surprising than the makers clearly intended, but Scott inflates the material mercilessly in a failed effort to invest it with some deep meaning and dramatic resonance. Had this essentially pulpish tale been filmed in the spiffy, not-a-moment-wasted style of the studio noirs of the 1940s, it probably wouldn’t have broken the 90-minute mark. Even Chouraqui’s 1987 version lasted only 93. But Scott drags the thing out to two hours and 22 minutes, laying on both the sappiness (in the bonding between Creasy and Pita–he actually teaches her to become a swimming champ, and she gives him a Teddy bear!) and the cruelty (in Creasy’s brutalization of the gang members in the final reels) so heavily that even Washington, in the typically Jim Thompsonesque role of a hard-bitten, driven loner, seems drained of charisma by the close. Though the adaptation is by Brian Helgeland, the script offers dialogue of stunning banality, and the florid, oversaturated approach that Scott brings to it, with jaggedly “artistic” camerawork, desaturated colors, constant overlaps, whiplash edits and even overtitles used not only to translate Spanish colloquies but to emphasize bits of English conversation, proves visually oppressive and exhausting. Washington suffers most from the result, but much of the supporting cast is equally ineffective. Fanning isn’t as obnoxious as she was in the recent “Uptown Girls,” but she’s still more than a little overly cute and precious, while Radha Mitchell and Marc Anthony strike amateurish poses as her parents. The good side of Mexican officialdom (tiny in this bleak portrayal of the country as a cesspool of corruption and vice) is represented none too impressively by Rachel Ticotin, as a crusading newspaperwoman (her contributions are mostly limited to answering endless phonecalls), and Giancarlo Giannini as the solitary honest inspector (whose curious accent is supposed to be explained by an aside that he spent some time in Rome as an Interpol agent). The sleaze factor is somewhat better represented, with Mickey Rourke–looking better than he has in a long while–oozing smug malice as the family’s shady lawyer and Jesus Ochoa reeking of villainy as a crooked, but highly-placed, cop. But the only person who really engages the viewer is Christopher Walken, who brings his patented oddball charm to the thankless role of the old colleague of Creasy’s who suggests that the unhappy agent look into the bodyguard gig in the first place and later helps his pal after he’s seriously injured during Pita’s kidnapping. Technically the film is probably an expensive proposition, but the money has been used to give it that grubby sheen which some mistakenly take for third-world stylishness. Paul Cameron is listed as cinematographer, but appears basically to be implementing Scott’s misguided vision, as does editor Christian Wagner, whose jagged cutting is likely to make your head spin and your eyes tear up. Harry Gregson-Williams’ score is overbearing in the extreme, an appropriate counterpart to all the pointless visual pyrotechnics.

At the beginning of “Man on Fire,” Creasy is depicted as a man having lost the will to live. After suffering through nearly two and a half hours of his dreary, blood-drenched story, especially as rendered in Scott’s flamboyantly ugly style, you may feel a similar angst.

Incidentally, there was yet a third movie titled “Man on Fire”–a minor 1957 Bing Crosby vehicle about a custody battle between a divorced couple. It wasn’t terribly good, but it was still a lot better than this one.

HELLBOY

Yet another movie made from a dark comic book (sorry, “graphic novel”) hardly seems likely to afford much pleasure, but Guillermo Del Toro shows how it should be done; Mike Mignola’s Dark House series is reportedly one of the director’s favorites, and his adaptation proves the rare labor of love that should both satisfy die-hard fans and excite newcomers as well. “Hellboy” is about a horned, red-faced son of Satan (Ron Perlman, looking as though he’s wearing garb left over from Tim Curry’s demonic turn in Ridley Scott’s “Legend,” though this demon grinds down his antler-like horns to mere nubs in an effort to “fit in”) who’s gone good and fights Evil under the tutelage of a grizzled, professorial type (John Hurt), the head of a secret FBI appendage called the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense. Just think of “X-Men” with a different sort of mutant or “Angel” with an ugly anti-hero instead of a pretty one and you’ll have some idea of the template that’s being followed here.

But “Hellboy” is hardly a simple copy of anything, and Del Toro’s filmization of it is happily different from the run-of-the-mill comic movies that have proliferated of late. It’s hardly a serious piece; rather, like the best comics, it combines amusing absurdities with a world just real enough to be recognizable, and adds to the mix plenty of good jokes in the dialogue and situations to brighten the dark ambience. Thus we find a plethora of disparate elements that include not only a scarlet demon but a repeatedly resurrected Rasputin, a clique of Nazi officers involved in the occult, a near-immortal faceless Gestapo ghoul equipped with long knives that are wielded in kung-fu style, a good-natured version of the gill man from “The Creature from the Black Lagoon,” some squishy lion-like monsters spawned from a bottle of salt long concealed in a statue of Dionysius the Areopagite (!), a doorway to hell, and what appears to be a giant, drooling land squid sent from Hades to begin the apocalypse. As if all this weren’t enough, there’s a romantic triangle involving Hellboy, a young FBI agent named Myers (the likable Rupert Evans), and a pyrokinetic young woman (Selma Blair), in which Hellboy’s jealousy is played (quite successfully) for comic relief; a typically officious FBI head (Jeffrey Tambor, who makes the fellow’s preening self-importance amusing); and even a skeletal Russian corpse that’s disinterred by Hellboy to provide information on the location of a mausoleum in a Moscow cemetery–a character that, contrary to all expectations, is very funny in a haunted horse sort of way. And, as topping to it all, there are plenty of big, elaborately staged fight scenes, done up in true comic-book fashion, with pulverizing blows, collapsing walls and long, humorously extended reactions from the unfortunate recipients of the punches.

With all of this going on, it’s nearly impossible to summarize the narrative (or, perhaps, even to understand it all, unless you’ve an aficionado of the books). After a 1944 prologue in which the young Professor Broom (played by Kevin Trainor at this stage), President Roosevelt’s paranormal advisor, foils an effort by Rasputin and the Nazis to open a portal to hell, he discovers that the impish hellboy has passed into the world in the process. Broom adopts the demon tyke and raises him to become the chief agent of the FBI’s B.P.R.D., a Sasquatch-like figure sent out to deal with unexplained phenomena using both his fists (his oversized right hand looks like a big red mallet) and huge guns when necessary, always quipping along the way (and occasionally glimpsed by civilians, to the delight of supermarket tabloids). He’s accompanied by gill-man Abe Sapien (acted in heavy makeup by Doug Jones, but voiced with impeccable comic timing by David Hyde Pierce) whenever necessary, and pines away for Liz Sherman (Blair), who’s locked herself up in a mental hospital to deal with her unwanted powers. At the very moment when Broom has discovered he’s terminally ill and chosen Myers as his replacement, a dangerous challenge emerges, in the form of monsters unleashed by the revived Rasputin to serve as bait to lure Hellboy, after a whole series of encounters and fights, to an underground Russian cavern where the Mad Monk needs him to unlock the door that will unleash the destruction of the earth.

The cast plays this material with precisely the right blend of tongue-in-cheek seriousness. Perlman, who’s always looked good in heavy monster makeup, is hilariously hard-boiled as Hellboy, and he pulls off some charming change-of-pace scenes (watch the one where he spies on Liz and Myers from a rooftop, in the company of an advice-giving young boy). Hurt uses his Shakespearean tones to excellent effect as the eccentric Broom, Evans is surprisingly pleasant as the fumbling young hero, and Blair brings both strength and vulnerability to Liz. And while Roden is pretty much standard-issue villainy, the Jones/Hyde Pierce combo makes Abe a touching and funny creature, and Tambor seethes with stupidity as the self-important FBI head (he also enjoys a nice final scene with Hellboy, in which they come warily to respect one another).

But the real heroes of “Hellboy” are the strip’s creator, Mignola, who’s served as a visual consultant and helped to insure the picture’s faithful recreation of the comic’s world, and Del Toro, who captures the zest, adolescent spirit and sheer panache of the original. The movie doesn’t have the profundity of the director’s smaller efforts (“Cronos” or “The Devil’s Backbone”), and in the final reel it does tend to go on a bit too long. But it’s better that his “Blade II,” and especially in comparison to the many failed adaptations of comics (just think “Daredevil”), it’s a triumph, and lots of fun besides.