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Man on Fire

  Man on Fire
"J.Lo is NEVER going to stay with you dude."

© 2004, Fox
All Rights Reserved

Creasy (Denzel Washington, as stoic and rigid as ever) is a retired Marine haunted by his violent past and unable to bring his life together. He reluctantly accepts a job down in Mexico as a bodyguard to a young girl called Pita (Dakota Fanning, putting a brake on her newfound smarm). Creasy tries to keep a professional distance between himself and Pita, but they soon become friends; Creasy even taking the place of her business-obsessed parents (Radha Mitchell and Marc Anthony) on occasion. When thugs kidnap Pita, Creasy is wounded in the firefight to save her, and when he emerges from the hospital (with help from Christopher Walken), he sets out to kill every last individual associated with Pita's abduction.

What makes "Man on Fire" (IMDb listing) stick out amongst the recent barrage of revenge films released these past two weeks is its roots in authenticity. Based on the novel by A.J. Quinnell (which also spawned a 1987 film of the same title), there is nothing in the premise of the film that couldn't happen on the crime-infested streets of Mexico. It's not based on a fanboy's wet dream, like "Kill Bill," nor is it from a comic book, like "The Punisher." But seeing what aesthetic poison director Tony Scott has given to "Man on Fire," I see no reason to judge it as any more credible than the two previously mentioned, considerably better films. "Fire" is a cartoon, but one that is unbearable to sit through. It features a side-splittingly funny moral streak, and is ultimately a multi-million dollar lesson on why some directors shouldn't have complete visual control over their films.

Tony Scott ("Top Gun," "Spy Game," "The Fan") isn't known for his restraint in pushing atmosphere and cinematography buttons during his career, but in "Man on Fire," Scott goes completely bonkers. The film is captured with a relentlessly zooming, heavily filtered camera, and pieced together with a strobe-like edit rhythm that is sadly commonplace in all MTV product and commercials that sell automobiles. Here is a picture that requires audience participation, but Scott's saturation of style hinders the rah-rah flow of the film's widespread and exceedingly violent vigilantism. In fact, it's hard to even look at the screen since Scott has turned his film from a simplistic revenge tale into a headache-inducing circus of fleeting images and throbbing cuts. It's backed by pretentious, self-righteous Lisa Gerrardish songs, which provide an ideal backdrop to the increasingly ludicrous nature of the story and the filmmaking. On top of all this nonsense, the film is padded with a Nerf wall of pointless religious iconography and bible quoting that should induce Diet Coke spit-takes in theaters across the globe. It's tough to understand Creasy's imperative spiritual intentions when Scott takes greater pleasure in arduously detailing the torturous tactics of his revenge, which include cutting the fingers off one individual, then sealing his wounds with a car cigarette lighter, and planting a tiny bomb up a villain's rectum.


If you can believe it, even the film's extensive subtitling gets in on the fun: leaping, exploding, and sneaking around the frame, regardless of if someone is speaking English (huh?) or Spanish, then evaporating or wiping away from the screen. When a movie has to resort to mucking with subtitles to make a point, then you know the film is in trouble

The only element in Scott's favor is his running time. Clocking in at an extravagant 145 minutes, Scott has time to build the relationship between Creasy and Pita carefully, a crucial building block that many revenge pictures fail to pay attention to. The film's first 50 minutes are devoted to how the two characters learn to communicate with each other, and their blossoming friendship, which soon slides into a paternal role for Creasy. Though he can't control himself completely in these sequences either, Scott does dial down the berserk visual scheme for this section of the material, easily making these quieter moments the only thing viewable in the entire film.

The rancid frosting on this rotten cake comes at the very end where Scott elects to dedicate the film to Mexico City, which he calls "a very special place." Yeah, a special place full of unbridled crime, corrupt cops, kidnappings every hour, awful traffic, and a complete disregard for any violent act that happens in a public place. I'll make sure to book passage there as soon as my crazy pills kick in.

Filmfodder Grade: D-

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