Smoke Screen

Attempts to make `Man on Fire' about more than violence and explosions go overboard.


April 23, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC


The marketers of Man on Fire have launched a monstrous bait-and-switch media campaign.

They've sent Denzel Washington on the morning talk shows with touching clips of his character, a scarred bodyguard, bonding with the luminous 10-year-old Dakota Fanning. They've provided only fleeting glimpses or discussion of the picture's mayhem - a relatively clean RPG assault on a motorcade, for example, instead of the scene where Washington rips some digits from a thug and cauterizes the wounds with a cigarette lighter.

Then again, Man on Fire pulls the bait-and-switch while you're watching the movie. The first half dramatizes the claptrap notion that only the purest love can redeem the hardest soul. Fanning plays Pita, a smart, intuitive grade-school girl who rouses the humanity of Washington's antihero Creasy, an alcoholic former counter-insurgency agent.

In the second half, her kidnapping sends him into icy-assassin mode without losing his holiness. It turns him into the Angel of Death. Retribution is Creasy's, sayeth the Lord. As Silvio might put it on The Sopranos, corpses accrue.

Set in a Mexico where 24 kidnappings can occur in six days and 70 percent of the victims don't survive, the movie propels us into a world of bloody chaos, then takes its time setting up Pita's growing crush on Creasy and Creasy's fatherly devotion to her. (Singing superstar Marc Anthony plays her real father, a Mexican industrialist.)

In this comic-book-film era, director Tony Scott (Top Gun, Enemy of the State, Spy Game) and screenwriter Brian Helgeland (Mystic River) get away with an avalanche of redemption-film cliches - like Creasy setting down his bottle of Jack Daniels and picking up his Bible - because they're trying to provide genuine emotional ballast in a genre usually given over entirely to explosions. What they really do, though, is soften viewers up for the kill.

On the plus side, the casting is superb - and the acting, too. Although the context is overwrought and the moviemaking over-the-top, Washington acts from the ticker out. He gives Creasy's hopelessness a chest-deep authority. His sorrow seeps into the sardonic sting of Washington's line-readings and the eloquent slump of his shoulders.

When he starts to reawaken, you can sense the weight lifting even from his eyelids. (The movie's most shriveling moments come when despair clouds his face again.)

Fanning leaves behind the wind-up doll cuteness that afflicted her not only in The Cat in the Hat but also in I Am Sam. Her spontaneous baby-toothed grins and plangent yearnings flare out and connect like carbon arcs to Washington's hooded or conflicted gaze.

And Christopher Walken gives a fully committed, non-camp performance as Creasy's best friend, Rayburn, a man who's managed to make peace with his violent past and detach himself from killing - all without losing his subterranean cunning.

This trio's interplay lends credence to such bald manipulations as Pita calling her teddy bear Creasy Bear, or Creasy and Rayburn providing a jollier group outing for the girl than anything she has experienced with her status-conscious dad and dazzling mother Lisa (Radha Mitchell).

Scott is the Tilt-a-Whirl of directors here. He deploys his usual vertigo-inspiring techniques, shooting scenes with as many as four cameras, and he adds slow and sped-up motion and multiple exposures.

Still, he captures his actors' most vivid and unguarded flights of feeling better than independent directors who simply stalk their actors with one camera. For parts of this very long movie, his hyperactive style has a purpose: He demonstrates how difficult it is to keep track of a single spirit in the frenzied metropolitan crush of Mexico City.

The kidnapping itself is heartbreakingly well-done. It plays off the crucial earlier sequence of Creasy teaching budding-swimmer Pita how to respond to a starter's pistol. Before Creasy becomes Rambo in civvies, the moviemakers introduce a couple of other intriguing characters, including the blazingly forthright Rachel Ticotin as a crusading journalist and the satirical Giancarlo Giannini as a smarmy yet righteous investigator. And there's documentary fascination to the expose of a secret brotherhood that protects criminal high officials and operates kidnapping rings like terrorist cadres.

But once Creasy begins enacting divine retribution, the moviemaking suffers a nervous breakdown. Scott uses every graphic element, even subtitles, to pound home the obvious. The performances suffer along with everything else. If anyone had to say the line "His art is death, and he's about to paint his masterpiece," I'm glad it was Chris Walken. Too bad it pushes the actor into the sort of garish theatrical stylization he has wisely resisted to that point.

Scott dives so far into crusading sadism that when Creasy blows up a rave joint (he implausibly evacuates the clientele), the explosion registers, queasily, as an act of moral revulsion.

By going all the way with the torture scenes, Scott may feel he's being honest and daring. Instead, he exposes the flimsiness of the material and its underlying vision of a cuddliness that requires ruthlessness to defend it.

Creasy says he's sick of the brotherhood's members telling him "I'm a professional" - that's how Scott must feel when he hears Hollywood moviemakers agree to make incendiary trash. But that's just what he made with Man on Fire.

Man on Fire

Starring Denzel Washington, Dakota Fanning and Christopher Walken

Directed by Tony Scott

Released by 20th Century Fox

Rated R

Time 142 minutes

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