There’s a simple, thematically satisfying revenge tale somewhere within Man on Fire, but director Tony Scott is too busy letting gremlins take over his camera to find it.
Within the first five minutes, the count of loopy, hallucinogenic camera speed-ups, slow-downs and distortions is lost. And nothing has even happened yet. The opening credits show how kidnappings go down in Mexico City, which Scott calls “a very special place” in the closing credits after filming it as a cesspool of dirt and corruption.
Clearly, Tony lacks the aptitude to blend substance with style as brother Ridley has in many of his films. Tony Scott adrenalized Enemy of the State and Spy Game with such tweaks, but only in spots. Here, the jitters don’t jolt, they jar us right out of caring about the quest at its core.
It’s a shame, because Man on Fire starts off with such a strong connection of its two main characters that the eventual disconnection is doubly disappointing. A complete bungle is tough with Denzel Washington, who slips in some nuance before the film’s spatter-by-numbers second act.
Washington plays John Creasy, formerly a distinguished military man and now a suicidal drunk who has bottomed out when he arrives in Mexico City as a guest of his friend, Rayburn (Christopher Walken, given his obligatory brilliant monologue and little else).
In a city with a kidnapping rate of one per hour, guarding the wealthy and privileged is a growth industry. Creasy is taken on as a “low-end” bodyguard by businessman Samuel (Marc Anthony) and his wife, Lisa (Radha Mitchell), to protect their daughter, Lupita (Dakota Fanning).
Creasy and Lupita form the “reason-to-live” bond that’s obligatory, but certainly affecting. Fanning has a way of softening the usual precocious-child blow and Washington cranks up his charming aloofness. It’s quickly shattered, though, when Lupita is nabbed, presumably killed and Creasy left for dead by the kidnappers. He’s anything but, and embarks on a bloody mission of retribution.
Until then, Brian Helgeland’s script (from a novel by A.J. Quinnell) is on point with direct confrontations between all its characters. And there is brutal forthrightness to Creasy’s one-man, bombs-and-bullets quest.
But storytelling and economy are blown up along with Mexico City’s buildings as Man on Fire lumbers past the two-hour mark. Creasy’s to-kill list of corrupt police, scumbag lawyers and kidnap brokers should stir our bloodlust and shake our composure, but Scott’s Stupid Camera Tricks detract from the grit.
In a bad way, the film’s choppy editing already resembles a previous episode recap of 24, and that’s before the inconsistent, onscreen countdown clock. Even the subtitles, some of them for dialogue in plainly spoken English, become sideshow special effects.
That particular error happens most unfortunately in the finale, which rights the film briefly when Creasy discovers the only logical conclusion to his mission with a quiet dignity.
Man on Fire shares plot, and plot twists, with 1996’s Ransom, but it replaces that film’s claustrophobic, character-driven intensity for showy, Michael Bay-style overkill that’s sorely unnecessary.