Denzel Washington again rewardingly explores his unsavory side in “Man on Fire,” one of the more absorbing and palatable entries in the rather disreputable “Death Wish”-style self-appointed vigilante sub-genre. Heavily trading on the influence of the fashionably rough style of the recent Latin American hits “City of God” and “Amores Perros,” director Tony Scott and his capable screenwriter Brian Helgeland serve up a stiff triple shot of south-of-the-border java about a burned out U.S. government assassin who finds redemption in his efforts to redress the wrongs springing from a little girl’s kidnapping. Fox release, bowing in New York and Los Angeles today in advance of wide opening Friday, may prove too long and heavy to fully attract the “Training Day” crowd, and could suffer a bit from the current mini-glut of R-rated revenge-themed pix. But star’s status and some strong notices should generate solid mid-level biz, with good returns down the line in ancillary markets.
First 50 minutes are fully devoted to credibly forging the bond between John Creasy (Washington), a retired CIA op and self-confessed “drunk and has-been,” and Pita Ramos (Dakota Fanning), the young daughter of Mexican industrial heir Samuel Ramos (Marc Anthony) and his American wife Lisa (Radha Mitchell) for whom Creasy becomes bodyguard.
When Creasy accepts his position, which he does unenthusiastically for lack of much else to do, Mexico City has been experiencing a rash of kidnappings, largely spurred by criminal rather than political motives. That the Ramos family, who live in old-style luxury in an ornately furnished mansion, must have an armed chauffeur drive their daughter to her proper Catholic private school everyday is just a fact of life, one maturely taken in stride by the highly aware Pita, who reacts very quickly when a suspicious car seems to be tailing them early on.
Creasy is as taciturn as Pita is lively, resisting her every overture of friendship and question about his past. In fact, he’s hitting bottom, swilling Jack Daniels and listening to Linda Ronstadt’s “Blue Bayou” before trying to commit suicide, which only a defective bullet prevents. There’s plenty of opportunity here for character backgrounding, but the film cuts it short, suggesting only that Creasy did some nasty, soul-killing things that have made him unwilling and/or unable to open up to other people.
A 9-year-old who still seems to have nothing but baby teeth, Pita is not only bright and well-behaved but talented at everything, including playing Chopin on the piano. She’s good but not yet great at swimming, and Creasy, spotting her weakness, is inspired to help her overcome it and win a meet. But the many omens and foreboding motifs haven’t been planted for nothing, and in an elaborately staged and edited sequence that is deliberately confusing, Pita becomes the latest statistic on Mexico City’s long crime sheet.
Although pic retains the lushly appointed, heavily designed look Tony Scott favors only to a slightly lesser extent than do his brother Ridley and Adrian Lyne, and sometimes overdoes the atmospherics of suffering in chicness, pic grafts onto this the desaturated, jumpy, speed-altered, multi-formatted and otherwise gritty mannerisms of the most acclaimed contempo violent mellers. Hybrid style may be affected — it even extends to the numerous subtitles, which pop out from all sections of the screen and are written in small or large letters depending on the speaker’s tone of voice — but nonetheless produces a powerful effect when it counts.
Style comes to match setting especially in the subsequent 90 minutes of this lengthy but never dull film. After a botched ransom drop-off leaves the half the money missing, one kidnapper dead and Pita presumed so, the Ramoses go into muted mourning while Creasy — whose name sounds like “Crazy” when said by certain characters — becomes that stalwart of modern action films, a one-man army determined to mete out justice when the system can’t. He even says, “Revenge is a meal best served cold” — where have we heard that one before, and so very recently?
For Creasy, this means taking on “La Hermandad,” the mafia-like brotherhood said to protect the corrupt political and legal elite. Implacable and armed as the occasion demands, the Yank enforcer, who speaks quite passable Spanish, uses many of the tricks of his trade to extract info from a surpassingly scummy collection of low-lifes until he learns that Pita may, in fact, still be alive.
Creasy seems especially expert in tying and binding people so he can torture them at will, and while these scenes are protracted and somewhat bloody, they’re not staged so as to put the audience through the wringer. As if to emphasize the sense of a web or layers of evil, Scott and his game lenser Paul Cameron make extensive use of lateral and encircling tracking shots, often intercutting them to create further disorientation. Payoff, long in coming, feels right when it does arrive.
At first seeming like a silent, solitary hit man out of an old Jean-Pierre Melville film, Washington commands the screen with his brooding emptiness, then with his literally fired up determination to render biblical justice and achieve a measure of salvation for himself, in this world or the next one. During the film’s first hour, you never know quite what he’s going to do, while there’s never any question about it from then on.
Fanning impresses here more than ever as a precocious but never overbearing dream child. Her readings and reactions are marvelously fresh and natural, without any child star “sell” behind her energetic enthusiasm.
Mitchell nicely underplays the inevitable trauma of every mother’s worst nightmare, while Anthony may be deliberately opaque as the pressured father. Walken has fun with the picture’s lightest role, Rachel Ticotin is a crusading journalist who helps Creasy through some tricky spots, Mickey Rourke is the Ramos family’s supposedly adept lawyer and Giancarlo Giannini is a somewhat unlikely choice as the head of the Mexican Agency for Federal Investigation –who just happens to have worked in Rome.
Production values are hefty, although dominated by evocatively congested Mexico City locations. Harry Gregson-Williams’ suspense score is abetted by a host of source music, including significant amounts of Ronstadt, Nine Inch Nails and contempo Mexican sounds.