Bittersweet revenge

Man on Fire

Rated 3.0

Revenge films seem to be the flavor of the month, with the excellent Kill Bill: Vol. 2, sucky The Punisher and now Man on Fire currently staining screens with vengeful blood. Denzel Washington throws himself into the vendetta fray as Creasy, an alcoholic ex-professional killer turned bodyguard for a sophisticated, soon-to-be kidnapped youngster (Dakota Fanning). Washington has had a strange career when it comes to his more “commercial” movies, alternating serious work with abysmal attempts at being an action hero (Ricochet and Virtuosity, which both usually cause massive stomach aches for me, come to mind). With Man on Fire, he’s found a decent revenge-action film that gives him a chance to act on a level on par with his talents.

Directed by Tony Scott, who worked with Washington on Crimson Tide (the rare decent Denzel action film), Man on Fire is a bit long (almost two-and-a-half hours). Scott makes some strange musical choices here and there, and his use of shock editing and crazy dissolves can sometimes be hard on the eyes.

No matter because Washington is here, and he’s determined to make up for that lame scene in Ricochet where he shot John Lithgow while wearing nothing but his white drawers.

While child actress Dakota Fanning unintentionally scared the crap out of me in I Am Sam and Uptown Girls, she, Scott and Washington work well together. As Pita, the small girl who melts the heart of her antisocial bodyguard, she is genuinely touching and funny. The first chunk of the film deals with the two characters bonding. The remainder shows Creasy’s bloody campaign after she is kidnapped.

Creasy’s rampaging can often be nasty. He employs methods of torture that would inspire the Marquis de Sade to proclaim, “Oooh, that’s a good one! Creative!” including blowing somebody’s hand off with a shotgun and shoving a C-4 bomb up a bad dude’s ass.

Set in Mexico City, this is two movies in one: the first half being a nice buddy film between a wayward soul and a loving child, the second being an all-out killing party. Put simply, this film might not have worked had it not been for the sensitivity of its initial moments. I won’t go so far as to say all of Creasy’s sick methodologies are justifiable, but it is sort of cool to see bad guys pay for doing bad things to kids. Explosives up the butt of a child abductor suits me just fine.

While he doesn’t have much screen time, Christopher Walken is a welcomed presence as Creasy’s pal, Rayburn. I especially liked a hospital room scene where Rayburn gets a little impatient with his fallen friend and delivers a threat about his comatose state that only Walken could get away with. Mickey Rourke got cast in this movie as well, but you’ll have to look hard to find him. Actually, Rourke’s pretty easy to spot with those big mutha porcelain teeth he’s had installed. Mother of Christ, those choppers would be at home in King Kong’s mouth.

Also on hand is pop star Marc Anthony as Pita’s father, who performs a stunning rendition of his hit single “Ride on the Rhythm” during a botched ransom drop. (Writer’s note: While Anthony is, indeed, in the film, I am lying like a bastard about his singing “Ride on the Rhythm” during “the drop.” Thank you.)

By my count, the 10-year-old Fanning has already starred in three abduction films, Trapped and Taken being the other two. Man on Fire is the best of the Dakota Fanning abduction films. While that’s not supremely high praise, it’s praise nonetheless. (Showing at CPL, CR, CS, NM.)