Violent 'Man On Fire' shoots, but misses its target

by AnnMary Mathew | 5/4/04 5:00am

Denzel Washington plays a ruthless, revenge-bent bodyguard in "Man on Fire," -- a movie that, in terms of plot, script, direction and length, is every bit as histrionic as its title.

Washington stars as John Creasy (a name jarring enough to the ears), a washed up, depressed, alcoholic, ex-government assassin. He takes a job protecting Pita, a loving little blond girl and the daughter of very wealthy Mexico City parents.

In probably the movie's most memorable scene, Creasy puts a gun to his head, and pulls the trigger. The gun does not fire and Creasy takes this as a sign that his life is worth living. After all, according to the movie, "a bullet never lies" (this, along with "Creasy's art is death, and he's about to paint his masterpiece" are actually some of the movie's less vapid one-liners).

In one scene, Creasy puts down his bottle of whiskey and picks up a Bible (here and there, the movie manages to throw some half-developed, quasi-profound religious references into the mix). Creasy befriends Pita and all is right in the world.

But it is only a matter of time before Pita is kidnapped. Creasy's attempt to protect her is futile, though he manages to kill most of the kidnappers. The ransom pick-up is botched and the kidnappers inform Pita's parents that the girl will be killed. The rest of the movie is a guns-flaring revenge sequence.

With the help of a newspaper journalist and a police detective, Creasy works his way up the powerful organized-crime syndicate that orchestrated Pita's kidnapping, leaving a spattering of corpses in his wake. Some of the ways that Creasy chooses to kill his foes are nothing short of sordid. If the dialogue accompanying these scenes were more interesting, Quentin Tarantino would be proud.

But disappointingly, the movie culminates into a twist ending that feels more contrived than clever.

The directing in "Man on Fire" is reminiscent of that of "City of God;" saturated colors, frenetic flashes and camera distortions abound. But unlike in "City of God," the camera work in "Man on Fire" serves no discernible purpose within the story and leaves the viewer nauseous rather than entertained. The movie could be used in film schools as the very incarnation of over-direction.

"Man on Fire" was filmed on location in Mexico City. Unfortunately, it does not make good use of the locale. Rather, it presents the city in the same overdone, obscuring style as the rest of the movie.

Despite all the Spanish that is thrown around and the flashes of the massive mountains that surround the city, the movie almost never quite captures the exotic flavor of the place. Exceptions include scenes in Pita's family's massive mansion, and an early scene in a beautiful, spacious marble restaurant. These scenes also happen to be the few where the camera actually stands still for more than a few moments at a time. Only here does the viewer not feel that the movie might as well have been shot in inner-city Los Angeles.

Washington's performance is disappointingly cliche. He moves through the actions of a man jaded by death and dripping with machismo.

But we rarely see any real emotion from him. The scenes where Creasy is intimidating his victims could have been so much more exciting if Washington had played his character with more polish. Dakota Fanning's performance as Pita is one of the best parts of the movie. She provides a good contrast to Washington's Creasy. But perhaps she would be more interesting to the viewer had the script developed her character more instead of spending most of its time draping her in tired little-girl regalia like puppies, diaries and stuffed animals.

Marc Anthony is adequate as Pita's scheming father. Nervous and emaciated, the man presented in the movie is very far removed from the Marc Anthony we know through MTV.

But the high point of "Man on Fire" was the constant fun of watching Christopher Walken, who plays Creasy's former colleague. The script may have fed him very tired lines, but he delivers them with his usual unique panache.

The one unique aspect of the film is the use of subtitles on choice English lines, with the size of the text corresponding to the urgency of what is being said. This technique adds excitement to what would otherwise be rather humdrum death and destruction scenes.

But in the end, "Man on Fire" was too ambitious and too long.

Do yourself a favor: go to the next theater over and watch "Kill Bill Vol. 2," an equally blood-soaked, but far superior, revenge flick.