“Man on Fire” wants to be more than an ordinary kidnapped-child drama, and more than an ordinary revenge thriller, and I think it succeeds. It has just enough weight and depth to feel like it means something. I don’t think it actually DOES mean anything, but it gives the illusion of it nicely.
It is set against the backdrop of modern-day Latin America, where we are told a child is kidnapped every 60 minutes. (Who is this child, and why does everyone want to kidnap him? But I jest.) In Mexico City, where the film takes place, these abductions are generally not for political reasons, but for good ol’ financial ones: Bad guys want money, and the city is brimming with wealthy businessmen with abductable children.
Consequently, many of these tycoons employ bodyguards for their offspring, and that is how we find John Creasy (Denzel Washington), an alcoholic former military man who has come to Mexico to hang out with his old buddy Rayburn (Christopher Walken) and his even better buddy Jack Daniels. Rayburn is an American who has found, like many Americans, that you can live like a king in Mexico on very little money. He encourages Creasy to find a job suited to his particular skills.
Creasy is hired by Samuel Ramos (Marc Anthony) to guard his supernaturally cute daughter Pita (Dakota Fanning) as she goes from Catholic school to piano practice to swim meets and such. At first Creasy wants only to be her bodyguard, not her friend, and he therefore evades her attempts to learn about his personal life and background. But slowly she wins him over with her youthful innocence and infernal adorability.
The screenplay, adapted by Brian Helgeland (who also wrote the similarly themed “Payback”) from A.J. Quinnell’s novel — which was already made into a 1987 film that no one saw — takes plenty of time developing the bond between Creasy and Pita. The film is 52 minutes old before she finally gets kidnapped, and by then the two have become best friends. Part of me admires the movie for wanting to truly establish a relationship, but part of me resists such efforts because I know they’re all just part of the set-up: Once she’s gone, he’ll have to find the evil-doers, whether he and the girl were bosom buddies or not; that’s just how movies work. Likable performances from Washington and Fanning aside, I never felt like they were anything more than mechanisms in a plot.
At any rate, the ransom drop goes awry and Pita is presumed killed as a consequence, turning Creasy into the titular man on fire — not literally, unfortunately, as I always enjoy seeing a man on fire, but figuratively, as he goes after the killers.
After “Kill Bill Vol. 2” and “The Punisher,” this is the third film in two weeks to focus on someone tracking down and killing people who have committed great wrongs. “Man on Fire” doesn’t have the style or black humor of “Kill Bill,” but neither is it as relentlessly bleak as “Punisher.” It is matter-of-fact about Creasy’s duty to exact revenge on the kidnappers; the option of letting the police sort it out is not even mentioned. We are to understand that Mexico is an utterly lawless place, full of corrupt cops and social anarchy. Maybe this is true, I don’t know; I’ve only ever been to Tijuana, and just for a day.
The film’s greatest liability is its director, Tony Scott, brother of Ridley Scott (“Alien,” “Gladiator”). The less-talented Tony is known for big, bombastic stuff like “Top Gun,” “The Last Boy Scout” and “Enemy of the State.” I don’t recall his jittery, gritty style bothering me before, but “Man on Fire” seems to be his magnum opus of spastic filmmaking, a veritable grand mal seizure of quick cuts, swirling close-ups and over-caffeinated movement. (Action cinematographer Paul Cameron and editor Christian Wagner, a Scott regular, should be blamed for this, too, I suppose.) It is “stylish” for a while, but then it becomes “flashy” and eventually “irritating.” Even the subtitles, used when characters speak Spanish, get into the act, certain key words being made larger or the whole lines jumping around the screen as the people talk. And I think making the SUBTITLES part of your action-thriller is the very definition of over-doing it.
B- (2 hrs., 26 min.; )