Revenge is the “it” thing in film so far this year, with Kill Bill Vol. 2, The Punisher, and now Man On Fire, the new film from director Tony Scott (Spy Game) and screenwriter Brian Helgeland (Mystic River) that is stealing the show at cinemas across the country. Man On Fire tells the story of a washed-up, heavy-drinking, antisocial former U.S. government agent named John Creasy (Denzel Washington,) who is hired by a wealthy family in Mexico City to protect their daughter, Pita (Dakota Fanning, from I Am Sam.) When Pita is kidnapped, Creasy goes on a vengeful and violent rampage against the leaders of a kidnapping ring in Mexico City. Director Scott, whose Spy Game was engaging and charismatic, remains distant from his audience here, using all of the gimmicks of a director who has no idea where to go with his script; it seems as though Scott has trouble deciding between intense violence and a guttural, hateful drama of hedonism and revenge. In fact, Scott’s indecisiveness kills the film, as bright flashes of white, jump cuts, overlapping images, transparency and other music-video film tricks speed across the screen and immediately out of the viewer’s memory. Scott’s jumpy visuals are effective in only one scene, at a rave on the outskirts of the city, where high-strung sexuality, substance abuse, and corruption mesh perfectly with the visuals to create a startling and exciting image of hedonistic Latin America and the darker side of humanity as a whole. Otherwise, the visuals are dissonant, over-directed notes that prevent most of the emotional depth from reaching the surface. Helgeland, whose adaptation of Mystic River earned him an Oscar nomination, provides little for the director to work with in Man on Fire, filling the script with overwrought lines and cold-hearted melodrama. The charisma of the actors is the sole force that pushes real feeling to shine through the first half of the film, while the series of vengeful attacks in the film’s second half have only the most rudimentary of dialogues to carry them. The result is the audience’s inability to see Creasy as anything more than a man who snapped because of his relatively short interaction with a little girl. There seems to be no satisfaction or even catharsis gained from Creasy’s actions, and we know so little of his background that any possibilities are automatically negated. The rest of the script, like Creasy’s part, is underdeveloped and thin; actions, reactions, and emotions come from nowhere and assume important positions in the plot. Indeed, Helgeland only provides cinematic intimacy and genuine emotional grit in short scenes between Creasy and Pita, and, by raising the audience’s expectations with those, sabotages his weak work elsewhere. The acting is, for the most part, at least serviceable, but never truly notable. Washington is only mediocre; he does not contribute to the film’s detriment, but does not help it either. His grimace of discontent is tiresome, his alcoholism weakly realized (partly the fault of director and screenwriter as well,) and his character is unlikable. He does, however, have a great rapport with Fanning, who has the requisite likability and precociousness to charm the audience into the palm of her hand. The scenes they share early in the film are of the utmost fragility and subtlety, a refreshing addition to a film otherwise lacking of those qualities. The supporting cast was large and unimpressive; the most worthy of mention is Radha Mitchell, as Pita’s American mother, who treads a fine line between high drama and overacting, and fluctuates back and forth across it. One scene in particular balances that tightrope (and, in my opinion, succeeds,) when Mitchell exquisitely captures the tragic consequences of corruption and evil and the tension of living in an area of the world where kidnapping is so prevalent. Marc Antony is yawn-eliciting and dourly unattractive as Pita’s father; Christopher Walken is over-the-top annoying as a friend of Antony’s; and Rachel Ticotin as an investigative journalist is such a Lois Lane character (even described as that by Walken halfway through) that one wonders what purpose she serves other than a bland information source. One quickly realizes that this is yet another stock action film where certain characters are prone to do just that. A film that, at moments, might comment on the nature and depth of corruption in Latin America, on a modern hedonism that has compromised valued morals, and the dangers of having money in a poverty-stricken world, relegates itself to the role of formulaic B-movie thriller that, not surprisingly, is less than thrilling. Overall Grade: 4-
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