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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.

THE ALAMO

Near the close of John Lee Hancock’s elaborate re-enactment of the famous battle of 1836, a heroic defeat which shortly led to the victory at San Jacinto and Texas’ independence from Mexico, Davy Crockett (Billy Bob Thornton), one of the defenders of the old Spanish mission against the forces of Santa Anna, hovers over a fallen comrade who’s been fatally wounded in the latest assault. “They’ve killed me, Davy,” the dying man croaks. And Crockett replies with a line that might well be addressed by the filmmakers to the viewers of their epic. “I’m really sorry about all this,” he says.

It could just be that the tale of the Alamo–like the stories of other military disasters that inspired their sides to later victories–isn’t a suitable subject for films. Certainly there’s never been a great movie about it–John Wayne’s bloated 1960 attempt doesn’t qualify, nor do any of the myriad others. Nor has there ever been a successful film about Masada, the battle in which Jewish rebels committed suicide rather than be captured by the Romans in 73 A.D. (the well-made but dramatically inert 1981 mini-series doesn’t count), or Thermopylae (the 1962 treatment of that famous Greek-Persian battle, “The 300 Spartans,” was simply terrible). The recent “Pearl Harbor” might fall into this gallery of shame, too. But whether it’s a generic problem or mere chance, Hancock’s “The Alamo” ends, as those other films (and the actual battle) did, in defeat. It’s a big, sprawling movie with remarkably little grandeur; what’s worse, it’s emotionally hollow.

On the positive side, the script–credited to three writers (including Hancock), although others (including John Sayles) had a hand in it–has at least some regard for recent revisionist scholarship about the event. But the changes don’t affect the basic plot much. A small band of Texians, headed by William Travis (Patrick Wilson), Jim Bowie (Jason Patric) and new arrival Crockett (Thornton) take up a position at the Alamo, expecting that Mexican general Santa Anna (Emilio Echevarria), against whose government they’re rebelling to create a separate nation, won’t assault their position until spring. Unfortunately, he surprises them by attacking immediately. Meanwhile Sam Houston (Dennis Quaid) is elsewhere, trying to form an independent government while desperately (and, ultimately, futilely) raising enough troops to relieve the defenders.

In presenting this story, Hancock’s film naturally spends most of its time inside the mission/fort, which puts most of the burden for keeping our interest on those ensconced there. Unfortunately, truthfully portrayed or not, two of the three are pretty boring. As played by Wilson, Travis–though shown to be a man who cooly divorces his wife in order to serve the Texian cause–is otherwise a conventional prig, obsessed with others’ respect and obedience. And as played by Patric, Bowie is little more than a bullying drunkard, although we’re shown supposedly profound flashbacks about his late Spanish love; and, true to history, he spends most of his time dying of consumption in a bedroom–which doesn’t give the actor opportunity to do much of anything but groan and sweat. The only figure among the leads who stands out is Thornton’s Crockett, who’s afforded all the best lines and bits of business and a big crowd-pleasing final scene as well. He’s fun, though hardly very credible. Apart from these, the only performers of consequence are Quaid, who looks perpetually dyspeptic and cross-eyed as Houston until he blazes out in the last battle against Santa Anna (the script feels it necessary to add a twenty-minute triumph following the Alamo’s fall, apparently because the makers felt that the audience couldn’t accept a downbeat conclusion–it’s the same tactic that was used to make “Pearl Harbor” palatable to the masses) and Echevarria, who turns the Mexican leader into a swaggering, pompous martinet–a rather typical villain. Curiously enough, virtually nobody else–save for Jordi Molla as Juan Seguin–makes any impression at all. Equally problematical is that the film is completely unsuccessful at establishing any sense of topography or chronology. Events seem to pass by in a cloud, and it’s never really clarified where Houston is, precisely. Nor is the background to the rebellion against Mexico made clear. The Alamo may be famous, but without such details, the film is rather like a boys’ adventure story related in a timeless fog. (It’s impossible to know whether the flaws would have been reduced had Hancock’s original, supposedly longer cut of the picture been released last December, when it was originally scheduled to appear. For example, Marc Blucas is still listed among prominent cast members in the press materials, but his appearance is completely excised in this version And one can only speculate what it might have been like had Ron Howard made it, as he was at first supposed to do, with Russell Crowe in the cast.)

Even physically “The Alamo” is disappointing. It’s not sartorially impressive, of course, but that’s because apart from the Mexican uniforms, the clothes are appropriately nondescript and shoddy. But what’s more surprising is that the huge, expensive set looks no better than okay; visually the film isn’t appreciably stronger than much less costly efforts like “Gettysburg” or “Gods and Generals,” which were made on much smaller budgets. Dean Semler’s widescreen cinematography captures a few nice horizon shots, but overall it’s not remarkable, resorting far too often to extreme closeups, even in crowd scenes. Carter Burwell’s music swells nobly at all the predictable points, a sadly conventional effort from a usually imaginative composer.
So if you’re interested in a Classic Comic Book version of the famous story, complete with cardboard characterizations and wooden dialogue, Hancock’s movie is for you. But if you’re looking for a really rousing re-imaging of the celebrated battle–or just an exciting western in the old Hollywood style–forget “The Alamo.”

One final point: appearing briefly at the beginning of the movie is Lynn Mathis, who plays James Hackett (the actor portraying Crockett on stage). Mathis was a formidable Dallas stage performer who died suddenly last year, just as he was about to open in another local production. Mathis didn’t make many films, but he was an overwhelming presence in person, and it’s good to have a final opportunity to see him at work, even in a movie as inferior as this one. Hail and farewell, Lynn!