Man on Fire

Movie Information

Genre: Thriller
Director: Tony Scott
Starring: Denzel Washington, Dakota Fanning, Marc Anthony, Radha Mitchell, Christopher Walken, Giancarlo Giannini
Rated: R

That Tony Scott has directed thousands of TV commercials perhaps explains why the interminable 147 minutes that comprise Man on Fire are a nonstop barrage of aggressive effects. Still, this does nothing to excuse Scott’s having ended up with a movie that looks like it was shot by a cat having a fit in a bucket of catsup.

The film speeds up. It slows down. The camera jitters, wobbles, shakes and gyrates with the fervor of a whirling dervish on speed, with this constant flurry of activity having little or nothing to do with the actual story. The editing is equally frenetic and lacking in point, while the color scheme alternates between grungy murk, the garish look of 8 mm home movies, and a low-rent acid trip.

Meanwhile, the film frame is littered with “clever” animated subtitles that not only translate Spanish into English, but also replicate the English dialogue. It’s the sort of thing that might have worked if it had been used playfully; here it merely detracts from the oh-so-grim drama, yanking us out of the story with constant reminders that we’re watching a movie.

The soundtrack, which bristles with outbursts of exaggerated noises and has a peculiar fixation on the song “Blue Bayou,” also includes a smattering of Debussy and the all-too-popular chunk of Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma” (from Turandot).

Were I in a charitable mood, I might suggest that Scott is using everything at his disposal to try and disguise the shortcomings of Brian Helgeland’s script — and I could certainly see the point in that. Helgeland continues to prove that A Knight’s Tale was some kind of happy accident, and that he needs a remedial course in the crafting of thrillers if he’s going to now continually insist on writing them.

Blessedly, this one doesn’t aspire to being a mystery, as did his screenplays for Blood Work and Mystic River. However, Man on Fire still operates on the belief that it’s constantly surprising you — with revelations you probably guessed 30 minutes earlier. This is a movie, not a Holiday Inn, yet Helgeland seems to operate on that company’s recent motto: “Sometimes the best surprise is no surprise.”

I have no doubt that Helgeland thinks he’s crafted some kind of important work here. In fact, what he’s given us is no deeper than The Punisher, and not a whole lot different from it either. Man on Fire is merely a half-hour longer, and pretentious. It also smells of xenophobia and an American superiority complex with its apparent belief that one alcoholic U.S. ex-Special Forces agent can outdo Mexico’s entire law-enforcement apparatus (most of which is corrupt anyway, of course).

And in the bargain, Man on Fire can’t manage — despite its excessive length — to explain points it dredges up along the way. Just what are those scars that mark the hands of John Creasy (Denzel Washington)? Just what did happen that so ruined his life? Just why is the man addicted to the three Bs — the bottle, the bullet and the Bible? This last vice presumably adds weight to the story, to set it apart from movies like The Punisher; really, though, how different is the Punisher’s assertion that “God’s going to sit this one out” from Creasy’s claim that what happens is between the bad guys and God, and that all Creasy’s doing is arranging their meeting? The film never fills in these gaps; director Scott is too busy pouring on all those embellishments that he mistakes for style to wonder.

Since the movie stars Washington as the vengeance-minded hero and the frighteningly precocious Dakota Fanning as the kidnap victim, it’s no surprise that there’s nearly a full hour devoted to their relationship before the movie gets down to its standard-issue revenge raison d’etre. And these are the best sections of the film — and that’s despite the fact that Fanning continues to seem like a 40-year-old playing at being a child, and Scott does everything he can to drown the story in a deluge of artiness.

Once the kidnapping goes down, we’re treated to Creasy’s recovery from the wounds he received during the snatch, and that eats up another reel to no good point. Yet even that is perhaps preferable to the tortures our “hero” inflicts on the guilty. I’m not sure which is more repellent — getting information out of someone by hacking off his fingers and cauterizing the wounds with a car cigarette lighter, or blowing up a miscreant by shoving plastic explosives up his backside; both are certainly exercises in sadistic excess.

That the good guy is the one doing them is even more questionable. Compare the finger-hacking business with a similar scene in The Punisher, where the main character merely bamboozles his victim into thinking he’s being tortured; it’s sobering to realize that the comic-book hero is far more humane — not to mention resourceful — than the supposed real-life one in this ostensibly serious drama.

I have little doubt that Man on Fire will prove popular, even though Washington is giving pretty much the same performance he did in the forgettable Out of Time. I do hope, however, that viewers will stop long enough to question just what it is the filmmakers are asking us to endorse.

— reviewed by Ken Hanke

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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