Originally created 04/23/04

At the Movies: 'Man on Fire'



Apparently, a kidnapping involving the young daughter of a wealthy Mexico City couple, and the subsequent rampage of vigilante justice on which her guilt-ridden bodyguard embarks, aren't dramatic enough.

Director Tony Scott feels the need to overwhelm us with hyperstylized visual tricks and heavy religious symbolism with "Man on Fire."

Not that the director of "Top Gun," "Days of Thunder" and "Spy Game" has ever been known for subtlety. But he goes so far over the top here, it's headache-inducing, with jump cuts, strobe effects, sped-up montages, lightning-quick zooms and grainy, shaky, hand-held footage.

The most obtrusive gimmick, through, is his liberal use of subtitles - not just when characters are speaking Spanish, but sometimes when they're speaking English, too, with sentences flying out from all over the screen and some LOUDER words appearing much BIGGER than others. The tactic takes a movie that already looked like a music video and gives it the look of a TV commercial - like one you'd see for beer, perhaps, or a sport utility vehicle, which is appropriate because that's one of the many things that explode in "Man on Fire."

Before the actual kidnapping, though, Denzel Washington and Dakota Fanning strike a surprisingly sweet friendship as brooding, taciturn protector and perky, inquisitive protectee.

Washington plays a former government operative named Creasy, a broken alcoholic tormented by his years of unnamed misdeeds. (And his torment is far too literal: Voices invade his head during a thunderstorm and he tries to drown them out with Linda Ronstadt's "Blue Bayou" and swigs of Jack Daniels. The camera finds a Bible sitting untouched on his desk as if to suggest that, um, maybe he should pick up the book and put down the loaded 9 mm pistol he has pointed at his head.)

Protecting pint-sized Pita Ramos (Fanning) - a job he took reluctantly through his old friend, Rayburn (an underused Christopher Walken, though it is fun to hear him say the word "Juarez") - slowly provides him with purpose. Ten-year-old Fanning, who tended to be shrill in movies including "I Am Sam" and "Uptown Girls," has developed into a smart, self-possessed young actress, with a lack of cutesy child-star mannerisms that's refreshing.

Pita's scenes with Creasy, in which he initially refuses to chitchat with her in the car but ultimately ends up helping her with swim practice and history homework, are the best parts of "Man on Fire." Once she's ripped away from him as she's leaving a piano lesson, the movie spirals out of control.

Radha Mitchell trembles and flails with appropriate maternal concern as Pita's American mother, while Marc Anthony is quietly enigmatic (for reasons that are pretty obvious early) as the girl's father. As the family's lawyer, Mickey Rourke slinks about with typical sleaziness.

The twists in the script from "Mystic River" writer Brian Helgeland, adapted from A.J. Quinnell's novel, aren't terribly hard to figure out and it takes too long to get to them.

But the creatively sadistic torture tactics that Creasy employs as he hunts down the kidnappers - a criminal ring known as La Hermandad - at least provide a darkly amusing distraction. One baddie gets it in his car after having his fingers sliced off one at a time, then cauterized with a dashboard cigarette lighter. Another, strapped face-down to the hood of a car, becomes a human bomb after Creasy places an explosive in his, um, trunk.

Maybe he's the "Man on Fire" of the film's title after all.

"Man on Fire," a 20th Century Fox release, is rated R for language and strong violence. Running time: 142 minutes. Two stars out of four.