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With: Denzel Washington, Dakota Fanning, Christopher Walken, Radha Mitchell, Giancarlo Giannini, Mickey Rourke, Marc Anthony
Written by: Brian Helgeland, based on a novel by A.J. Quinnell
Directed by: Tony Scott
MPAA Rating: R for language and strong violence
Running Time: 146
Date: 03/18/2013

Man on Fire (2004)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Taunting Love

By Rob Blackwelder, SPLICEDwire

Remove the potent dramatic anchoring effect of Denzel Washington in the title role -- as a guilt-ridden bodyguard reaping retribution on the kidnappers of his young charge -- and Man on Fire could have easily deteriorated into the apathetic, stone-faced overkill of a Steven Seagal action movie.

A brooding, violent tragedy about a former assassin who had given up on redemption and resigned himself to the bottle before taking a job in Mexico City guarding a millionaire's daughter, it's a film elevated above archetype by its star's profound, understated depth and by director Tony Scott's determination to take his time giving the story a character-driven soul.

Almost the entire first half of the picture, while underscored with danger and tension, is about the complex devotion that forms slowly (and reluctantly on his part) between CIA washout John Creasy (Washington) and inquisitive, fiercely intelligent, 8-year-old Pita Ramos (the preternaturally talented Dakota Fanning). A sweet little girl with a keen sense of the world around her, she converses with Creasey as her equal and knows enough about daily kidnappings in Mexico City to recognize that when the bodyguard asks her for a pencil while driving her to school, it's to write down the license number of a car tailing them.

Sure, she's interested in puppies and rainbows, but she's far more likely to look Creasy dead in the eyes and ask, "Being black, is that a positive or a negative to being a bodyguard in Mexico?" ("Time will tell," he shrugs.) Try as he might, Creasy can't help but take a shine to the girl, in part because she can see into his heart and is determined to bring out the good in him.

Then comes the shocking abduction. In a flash the little girl is gone and Creasy has six bullets in him. More shocking developments follow, relayed to Creasy in his hospital bed by his oldest friend from his CIA days (Christopher Walken in a perfectly pitched performance of ironic world-weariness) -- and as soon as the man can walk again (still bleeding from a chest wound, no less), he's hell-bent on reprisal. Not superficial, glossy-cool popcorn-flick reprisal (a la last week's Kill Bill - Vol. 2 and The Punisher), but ugly, merciless, unrelenting, blunt-instrument executions.

Absorbing in its uncommon, penetratingly poignant first half, Man on Fire becomes riveting in Creasy's calm, meticulous rage. But gradually it's also undermined by Scott's non-stop, hopped-up-on-crystal-meth-style editing -- an attempt to heighten the film's strong, gritty sense of constant instability and fear. So much of Man on Fire is an onslaught of flash-zooms, cut-cut-cuts, freeze-frames and slow-motion (often set to grinding guitars on the soundtrack) that it begins to feels as if the director is deliberately trying to drive the audience to distraction.

The raw emotional authenticity of the drama, and especially Denzel Washington's performance, prevail nonetheless, giving Scott his intended effect in spite of himself (and in spite of the fact that Rhada Mitchell and singer Marc Anthony are oddly distant and lackluster as Pita's parents). But toward the end of Creasy's tear through the street-level Mexican underworld, either Scott (Spy Game, Crimson Tide) or screenwriter Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential, Mystic River) seems to lose confidence in the movie's jagged edge. Man on Fire begins capitulating to convention with all the conspiracies, too-obvious "twists," cop-outs and narrative loopholes one would have expected from that Steven Seagal version.

It's also quite transparent that the picture was made for ethnocentric American audiences because, despite revolving around the epidemic of ransom kidnappings in Latin America, this story's victim is played by the blondest, whitest child actor in Hollywood.

Dakota Fanning is a remarkable young actress, but she's also exactly the kind of idealized Caucasian pre-adolescent beauty who dominates the headlines when falling victim to a crime (think JonBenet Ramsey), while less photogenic or minority child kidnapees and murder victims are often lucky to make the front page even once.

This fact does not undermine any of the substance of Man on Fire, but it is further evidence of the lowest-common-demoninator Hollywood mindset which diminishes the authenticity to which Scott and crew clearly aspired.

DVD Details: Fox's DVD comes with two audio commentary tracks, one by director Scott, and a second by screenwriter Helgeland, co-star Fanning and producer Lucas Foster.

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