Best served as leftovers
Characters and action deliver but dialogue drags in vengeance tale Man on Fire
As a seeming requiem to the recent passing of Charles Bronson (who, as Paul Kersey in Death Wish, pretty much instigated the vigilante-justice sub-genre), the payback flicks continue to arrive at a furious pace, keeping the screens drenched in the blood of furious vengeance. On the heels of Kill Bill, Vol. II and The Punisher arrives the latest attempt by Denzel Washington to discard his nice-guy image.
Suffering spiritual miasma (and a predilection for draining a bottle of Jack Daniels by bedtime), professional assassin John Creasy (Washington) takes the advice of his mentor (Christopher Walken) and decides to settle down, in a way. He contracts out to a wealthy Mexican family to bodyguard their young daughter Pita (Dakota Fanning). Seems that of late, Mexico City has suffered a plague of kidnappings; the victims rarely being returned in one piece.
Soon, Creasy settles into the routine of the day-by-day, shuttling Pita to school and music lessons, one eye on the rearview mirror at all times. Meanwhile, Pita works to overcome his emotional constipation, and of course she succeeds—unfortunately: Creasy has let down his defenses a little too much, and Pita gets ‘napped. Now, it’s Killer Time.
The good news here is that this is a Tony Scott (The Hunger, Top Gun) movie, which means no matter how absurd the proceedings, they are at least never boring. Unfortunately, the bad news is that this is a Tony Scott movie, in that the ex-commercial and video director is way too camera-happy. Every day in Scott’s cinematic world is A.D.D. Day. Even in the quiet moments leading up to the imminent mayhem, the images stutter across the screen in a staccato flurry. And, of course, once the mayhem starts to fly, Scott really cuts loose when his cinema vàrità goes eMpTyV stylized, at times seeming literally to wrestle with his cinematographer over control of the camera, as strobe lights pulse and the techno pounds. If you had issues with the jerky-cam action of The Blair Witch Project, here you’re liable to suffer an epileptic seizure, like those Japanese kids exposed to the Pokemon cartoon a few years back.
It’s not that Man on Fire is a bad movie; there is a fairly good movie in there. Admittedly, any surprises in the narrative are telegraphed early on, and some of the twists are a bit contrived (and in one case, completely illogical). And at times the dialogue is lazy (at one point, Creasy is compelled to quote that “Vengeance is a dish best-served cold” chestnut, but at least he doesn’t attribute it to a Klingon).
Despite this, the actors imbue their characters with a proper gravitas. As the killer seeking redemption, Washington manages taciturn without seeming one-note, and 9 year-old Fanning pulls off the no mean feat of a child actor creating a character who is worldly beyond her years without succumbing to precociousness.
The trouble is that the good movie is padded out with needless exposition. Once the character development has been suitably established, more is added on—and on, and on. Over an hour passes before Creasy is given the catalyst to get his vengeance going. But when he gets it on, he really rolls.
Man on Fire is unexpectedly grisly for a mainstream movie, the garish acid-washed photography lending a near snuff-like gritty realism to the images of severed fingers and ripped-off ears.
Also, what is it with American filmmakers and their seeming obligation to film Mexico as if through a hand-held 16mm camera? Most egregious was Traffic, in which, when the action was set in the States, everything looked normal, but when the action moved south of the border, it was if the film was ripped from the camera and kicked around in the dirt.