Man On Fire (18)

Beyond redemption
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The Independent Culture

Sentimentality and sadism are the two poles between which the revenge drama Man On Fire plots its grossly extended journey. Quite why Tony Scott thought it necessary to spend almost two-and-a-half hours on this relatively straightforward story is unclear; the result is a peculiar combination of gruelling and plodding. I can't imagine why anyone would want to gaze at the horrifying spectacle of a man having his fingers bloodily pruned one by one, but, even if you did want to, there's at least a two-hour wait for the privilege. If it's just Scott's way of saying, "Get a load of this, Quentin", the speed of response (12 years since Reservoir Dogs) leaves something to be desired.

Sentimentality and sadism are the two poles between which the revenge drama Man On Fire plots its grossly extended journey. Quite why Tony Scott thought it necessary to spend almost two-and-a-half hours on this relatively straightforward story is unclear; the result is a peculiar combination of gruelling and plodding. I can't imagine why anyone would want to gaze at the horrifying spectacle of a man having his fingers bloodily pruned one by one, but, even if you did want to, there's at least a two-hour wait for the privilege. If it's just Scott's way of saying, "Get a load of this, Quentin", the speed of response (12 years since Reservoir Dogs) leaves something to be desired.

The man on fire turns out to be a burnt-out case. John Creasy (Denzel Washington) is a former CIA assassin who's adrift in Mexico City trying to drown his demons in whiskey. "Do you think God will forgive us for what we've done?" he asks his old confrère (Christopher Walken), though exactly what they have done is never explained. It must be something terrible, because early on Creasy tries to put a bullet through his own brain - maybe it was in remorse for buying a Linda Ronstadt CD at the street market that morning. But, lo! Redemption is at hand, as a wealthy industrialist (Marc Anthony) and his American wife (Radha Mitchell) hire him as a bodyguard for their young daughter, Pita (Dakota Fanning) - a precocious moppet who knows why she's being minded. Kidnapping is a growth industry in Latin America, with four abductions a day in Mexico City alone.

Let's overlook the fact that this couple, who live in baronial splendour, employ an alcoholic not only to drive their child to school but also to protect her from villains. The business of the first hour is to establish the great rapport that builds between the girl and the bodyguard, who also proves pretty useful as a history tutor and a swimming coach. You see, behind the boozy, hard-bitten façade lurks a real softie, and it's not long before Pita is presenting Creasy with a toy bear and a medallion of St Jude, the patron saint of lost causes. When the film occasionally breaks off from its in-loco-parentis maundering it's actually quite effective in conjuring the mood of menace and paranoia that boils up around the city streets, where the guy with a squeegee at the traffic lights might be a decoy for a gang of kidnappers. Tony Scott has form here, having investigated the underside of law enforcement in Enemy of The State and Spy Game; something about men in dark glasses and sleek German automobiles evidently does it for him.

Inevitably, the moment arrives when Creasy's instincts aren't enough to save Pita from being snatched right in front of him. The hour spent watching the bodyguard and his young charge bond is, we are to suppose, our investment of faith in whatever measures Creasy takes to recover her. But this hardly prepares us for the exorbitant acts of savagery he visits upon the girl's abductors.

The writer is Brian Helgeland, whose work on LA Confidential exhibited a feel for the shadowlands of conspiracy and a gift for switchback plotting. Unfortunately, he was also responsible for the lumpen Mel Gibson vehicle Payback, whose trigger-happy mayhem is a precursor of Man on Fire. Christopher Walken, drawling out one of his deranged-visionary monologues, observes, "A man can be an artist... Creasy's art is death. He's about to paint his masterpiece". Well, don't contact Charles Saatchi just yet, because shoving an explosive up a man's rectum doesn't qualify as art, nor does blasting a rocket through a car windscreen in a built-up area, or lopping bits off your enemy with a knife.

Scott, perhaps motivated by his own idea of "art", strives to raise this slash-and-burn rampage a cut above the usual with speeded-up montages, rapid changes of filter and film stock, and juddering bad-trip camerawork. And, for extra style points, he has Washington stroll through the carnage as if he were out for a Sunday constitutional, apparently impervious to his enemy's slings and arrows. He has taken four bullets during the kidnap, but bounces back from that reversal with superhuman ease.

His passage through the underworld is smoothed, implausibly, by a crusading journalist (Rachel Ticotin) from a newspaper called, with cringeworthy condescension, Reforma, and in the meantime a network of corruption that seemingly includes half the cast is uncovered. Some will try to claim Washington's performance as a powerhouse, but it seems to me a highly self-conscious mixture of lost soul with gun-toting superhero, with little human nuance in between.

The broader effect of the film is its assertion of implacable American righteousness. If you mess with our people, goes the word according to Denzel, we will hunt you down and kill you in the vilest conceivable way - and if that means a bomb up the backside, so be it. Not a heartwarming attitude, though it probably chimes with the present, embattled, spirit. The depths to which Washington feels justified in going will not surprise anyone in the year of Abu Ghraib. The closing credits offer thanks to Mexico City, and will provoke hollow laughter from everyone bar the Mexican tourist board. After 146 minutes portraying it as a hotbed of thieves, murderers and despoilers of innocence, it takes either remarkable stupidity or an Olympian sense of irony to salute it as "a very special place".

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