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.