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Man On Fire

(2004) * 1/2 R
142 min. 20th Century Fox. Director: Tony Scott. Cast: Denzel Washington, Dakota Fanning, Marc Anthony, Radha Mitchell, Christopher Walken.

Too preposterous to be edgy, Tony Scott's Man on Fire is a slick and dreary penny dreadful (adjusted for inflation) that's only marginally more sophisticated than Walking Tall. At least the Rock's revenge flick had the benefits of accelerated pace and cheery badness. Man of Fire has one considerable but annoyingly wasted asset--Denzel Washington--and lots of money to burn.

Washington plays John Creasy, a grizzled drunk, CIA dropout, and supposed "silent type" who takes security work to sustain himself and habitually listens to the song "Blue Bayou" (so you know he's tender at heart). In Mexico City, where kidnapping is purportedly rampant, Creasy's buddy Rayburn (Christopher Walken) encourages him to take a position as bodyguard to nine-year-old Pita Ramos (lily-white Dakota Fanning of I Am Sam). Creasy shuts down the girl's friendly advances until the script requires him to make a hard turn into softness. After bonding with Pita over swim lessons, Creasy falls hard at her inevitable victimization.

Creasy tells the girl's mother (Radha Mitchell, plying an atrocious, wandering accent), "I'm gonna kill 'em." She replies, "You kill 'em all." Cue the pounding rock music. If revenge movies float your boat (and they've been "in" for a while (Helgeland's Payback and, in Bush's America, Kill Bill, Volumes 1 & 2, The Punisher, et al), nestle your rear in for a long ride. Director Scott (Crimson Tide, Spy Game) retains his flashy, jittery style (though he trades in his venetian blinds for billowy curtains). Among his flourishes are subtitles which zoom around the screen, including a running clock ticking down an enema bomb (don't ask). As Washington gets nuttier, Scott even subtitles English dialogue for emphasis.

Screenwriter Brian Helgeland--who won an Oscar for his work adapting L.A. Confidential and a nomination for his screenplay of Mystic River--seems wholly at sea with this material, likewise adapted from a novel (by A.J. Quinnell). In fact, Man of Fire is a remake of a 1987 film adaptation also produced by Arnon Milchan. I haven't seen that version, but this one is frequently, accidentally goofy. The overripe dialogue finds Washington--without irony--saying, "Revenge is a meal best served cold"; you may recall that Tarantino paraphased the same sentiment as the epigrammatic Klingon proverb of Kill Bill, Volume 1. Add a pinch of ponderous religious reactionism (Helgeland also wrote The Order). Nun: "Do you ever see the hand of God in what you do?" Creasy: "I'm the sheep that got lost, madre."

Even though, according to Walken's latest wacko, "a bullet always tells the truth," Man on Fire seldom does, especially in a disingenuous postscript which extends--after 142 minutes of depicting a crime-infested hellhole--"a special thanks to Mexico City, a very special place." Yeah, and if you believe they think that, I've got a movie to sell you.

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