The Austin Chronicle

Man on Fire

Rated R, 142 min. Directed by Tony Scott. Starring Denzel Washington, Dakota Fanning, Christopher Walken, Giancarlo Giannini, Radha Mitchell, Marc Anthony, Rachel Ticotin, Mickey Rourke.

REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., April 23, 2004

One thing about Tony Scott’s newest film is certain: It will be reviled by anyone with an interest in the Mexican tourist industry. The movie’s spectacular action and revenge is predicated on the wave of kidnappings that have targeted the country’s wealthiest citizens and their children.

As the movie opens, we are given statistics that ominously announce that throughout Latin America one kidnapping occurs every 60 minutes and that 70% of the victims do not survive. Washington delivers another finely nuanced perormance as John Creasy, an alcoholic ex-CIA assassin, who, for lack of anything better to do, comes to visit his old colleague Rayburn (Walken), who has since married and retired from the business of killing. However, Rayburn does hook up his old friend with a bodyguard job in Mexico City, essentially chauffeuring to school Pita (Fanning), the daughter of an industrialist (recording star Anthony) and his wife (High Art’s Mitchell). Almost the entire first hour of this movie is given over to Creasy’s reluctant but steady growth of attachment to Pita. The role allows Washington, who appears in almost every scene, to again explore the dark inner workings of a damaged and delinquent character, cut off from the social norms and seeking no re-entry. Yet, Creasy also reads his Bible and wonders aloud such things as whether God will forgive him. Fanning (best known for her role as Sean Penn’s daughter in I Am Sam) ratchets down the cute factor and believably portrays a child who is able to unchill Creasy’s deep-frozen heart (instead of one of those spoiled-brat kids who you secretly wish the kidnappers don’t return). But, it’s almost getting to a rule these days that if you introduce Mickey Rourke in the first act of a movie, his character will skulk away until his perfidy is revealed toward the movie’s end.

After Man on Fire takes its time during the first hour to let us get to know Creasy and the family he’s working for (without using flashbacks to show us the precise horrors committed by Creasy during his career as a CIA counter-insurgency operative, but that so clearly still haunt him), the film turns into a one-man revenge epic for the remainder. Creasy goes after the organized kidnapping and crime operation that is shown to rule Mexico City, although he receives some help from the only two seemingly honest people in the city: a news reporter (Ticotin) and a police captain (Giannini).

Although adapted by veteran Brian Helgeland, the story in based on a novel by the pseudonymous author A.J. Quinnell, whose thrillers are reputed to have their sources in real events. But what distinguishes Man on Fire most is Scott’s visual style: It is drenched in post-production work that can only be achieved once the actors have all gone home. Multiple exposures, flash edits, and innovative type usage combine with the jittery and always moving camera angles to create a nervous and off-balanced milieu for the action. Scott uses different type fonts, sizes, and screen placement to generate emotional tones throughout this bilingual movie that uses English subtitles for its Spanish-language dialogue. Although Man on Fire treads a lot of familiar thriller and revenge territory, it is ultimately more bleak and furious than most Hollywood tales of this sort. Man on Fire plays it out to the bloody end, like there’s no fire extinguisher in Mexico but for the oceans that hold its borders.

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