MAN ON FIRE puts Denzel Washington into avenging angel harness for director Tony Scott’s flashbang 2004 action thriller. Dealing with a brazen kidnapping and its merciless payback, it was shot, with a good deal of difficulty, in Mexico (Mexico City, Puebla, Juarez) with a host of bodyguards on hand to protect the star playing one. Done up for $70,000,000, it didn’t break even at theaters, taking $77,912,000 in the States and Canada, $52,923,000 elsewhere. Then subsequent rentals and DVD sales racked another $123,000,000. Critics slighted it, for good reasons—lazy script, overly stylized direction, irritating camerawork and editing—but it delivers as a slaughter-slimeballs-with-extreme-prejudice vehicle for Washington, and as another showcase for the preternatural skill of his young co-star, 9-year old Dakota Fanning.
Burned-out former death dispenser for the CIA ‘John Creasey’ (Denzel, 48) is haunted by past deeds and prone to drink. Visiting an old comrade (Christopher Walken) in Mexico City, Creasey is hired as a bodyguard by wealthy ‘Sam Ramos’ (Marc Anthony) and his American trophy wife ‘Lisa’ (Radha Mitchell) to watch over their precocious daughter ‘Lupita’ (Fanning). Lonely ‘Pita’ takes a shine to the hard-shelled Creasey, who begins to thaw as he bonds with the child. Kidnappers intrude none too gently: vengeance must be served (cold, of course).
Raise your hand if you really want to see murderous child-abductors and corrupt cops go to trial? Get a clue, simp: the only ‘justice’ we’re likely to get is in make-’em-suffer fantasies like this (hopefully sans all the “watch-me-directing” jive). Washington’s always good, and Fanning was one of the most extraordinary child actors ever to come from some other planet.
Brian Helgeland’s derivative, pretentious script was based on A.J. Quinnell’s 1980 novel, which sold 8,000,000 copies and spawned four more ‘Creasy’ adventures, plus a maligned 1987 film version of this one. Paul Cameron’s cinematography is part lush and dense, part hyper jittery (no doubt insisted by Scott); there’s a tense score from Harry Gregson-Williams. Enough of it looks good, and that makes Scott’s fixation on jagged jump-cuts, overdone closeups, film grain fiddling and repeated insertions of subtitling all the more frustrating. Just cut to the chase and off the bad guys, already. Novel use is made of a cigarette lighter.
Overlong at 146 minutes, with good turns from Rachel Ticotin, Giancarlo Giannini, Mickey Rourke, Jesús Ochoa (recipient of a C-4 enema) and Carmen Salinas.