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Getting Even: Denzel Washington plots his revenge in 'Man on Fire.'

El Punisher

Denzel Washington goes to Mexico City to give the criminals what for in 'Man on Fire'

By Richard von Busack

THE GIST of Man on Fire is easily discerned from the previews. Evil, swarthy Mexicans kidnap a little blonde half-American girl named Lupita, called "Pita" and played by the direst of the dire, Dakota Fanning. Her bodyguard, Creasy (Denzel Washington), is filled full of lead and accused of killing two Mexican cops during the shootout when Lupita is heisted, but he manages to escape and find the people responsible, promising bloody revenge.

Director Tony Scott doesn't have one particular style but a lot of them: between your favorite TV programs, you can see all of his styles when the commercials come on. Scott has been defended as a postmodern giant by his former employee Quentin Tarantino, who scripted Scott's most watchable film, True Romance. What Tarantino sees as horsepower, I see as horseshit. Yes, Scott elevates the manly-man to the point of myth. But thanks to his decades-long indifference to scripting, he pumps the divine afflatus into his heroes until they practically hover on screen like Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade floats.

And Washington is one of the puffiest of Scott's Michelin men. At first, he's a burned-out government killer living on Jack Daniels. Later, he has swollen to sainthood, bearing stigmata like wounds and baptizing himself in a swimming pool. In between, he cuts off people's fingers and literally pokes a bomb up the ass of a Mexican gangster. "His art is death," says Christopher Walken of Washington, with a look in his eyes that tells you he knows the line's not going over. Even an actor as solid as Washington can't brazen it out. He just drifts, like Snoopy on the third Thursday in November. "Revenge ... is a dish best served cold," Washington intones. We moviegoers seem to get it reheated.

Maybe Tarantino can defend Man on Fire's subtext as being about the religious redemption of a lost killer, via both the Old Testament and Old Testament revenge. Pita's mom (Radha Mitchell) is punished for her decadence: "I used to wonder what nightclub we're going to next. Now, I'm reading The Bauble" (she uses an odd Southern accent for this role). Mexico City, where, let's face it, the people are on pretty good terms with Jesus already, is depicted as the pagan mouth of hell. Snidely, the film is dedicated "to Mexico City, a very special place." Scott must have learned how special it is from seeing Amores Perros; the director loots the film's look from the Mexican New Wave. Man on Fire is loaded with jittery, swaying, freeze-frame-prone digital camera work that makes half the movie practically impossible to watch; it's in a color palette that ranges from bile green to piss yellow--all the better a color scheme for the depiction of Mexicans as whiskery, fat, sweaty and bent, with a savage's appreciation for fire.

Arriving late is seriously advised, since the first hour is all teddy bears and dandelions. Pita teaches Creasy "to live again" (actual dialogue) via swimming coaching and the presentation of a St. Jude medal. Fanning's rap sheet (I Am Sam, The Cat in the Hat) indicates more crime to come; she has the slickness of an actress 10 times her age, and that's what's referred to as her "professionalism."

Man on Fire (R; 146 min.), directed by Tony Scott, written by Brian Helgeland, based on the novel by A.J. Quinnell, photographed by Paul Cameron and starring Denzel Washington, Christopher Walken and Dakota Fanning, plays valleywide.

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From the April 28-May 4, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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