Thursday, March 24, 2005

Man on Fire / **½ (R)

Creasy: Denzel Washington
Pita: Dakota Fanning
Samuel: Marc Anthony
Lisa: Radha Mitchell
Rayburn: Christopher Walken
Manzano: Giancarlo Giannini
Jordan: Mickey Rourke

20th Century Fox presents a film directed by Tony Scott. Written by Brian Helgeland, based on the novel by A.J. Quinnell. Running time: 142 minutes. Rated R (for language and strong violence).

The Denzel Washington starring actioner Man on Fire begins with the ominous factoid that in Latin America a kidnapping occurs every sixty seconds; then adds that only seventy percent of those kidnapping victims survive the ordeal. My immediate response to this news was to ask, “Why?” The story involves a child kidnapping victim and her bodyguard, who goes on a revenge rampage after the kidnapping. Man on Fire is not interested in answering questions as to what prompts this inundation of kidnappings in Central America, or even with pointing out that it is not only children that are the victims of these frequent ransom demands for loved ones. Man on Fire is only interested in showing the tortured journey of a man who finally finds a reason to live only to have it taken away from him.

Denzel Washington (The Manchurian Candidate) plays John Creasy, a man with a dark past that, while not explored here, continues to cause him pain. As the story opens, the clearly suicidal Creasy visits Rayburn, an associate from his former life as a government assassin played by Christopher Walken (Envy). Walken adds surprising definition to both characters, giving a sense of details from their contracted murderous pasts without actually revealing any specifics of that former life. Rayburn “lives like a king” in Mexico arranging security for a U.S. car manufacturer running assembly out of Mexico. Rayburn suggests a job as a bodyguard for the daughter of one of the Mexican plant owners in order to get Creasy back on his feet.

Creasy’s biggest problem holding any kind of a job since his days as a killer is his drinking, but Samuel Ramos (Marc Anthony) is not so concerned since the bodyguard is merely a necessity for him to renew the $10,000,000 kidnapping insurance policy to assure his social standing in the Mexico City business community. For his daughter Pita (Dakota Fanning, Taken) Creasy represents far more -- the father figure such an intelligent young girl so desperately needs.

Lisa, Samuel’s wife portrayed by Radha Mitchell (Phone Booth), at first likes Creasy simply because, like her, he is American. Eventually she comes to recognize the reluctant bonds Creasy forms with Pita. Then Pita is abducted, a ransom is demanded by a fugitive known only as “The Voice”, the police become involved along with a news paper reporter and an AFI investigator, and … Well, to reveal much more might be revealing too much, even though the film makers make such grossly unsubtle and obvious choices its hard not to figure out what is going to happen before it does. Needless to say, Creasy charges himself with the task of exacting revenge on each and every individual that had even the slightest hand in the kidnapping, thusly earning the film’s title.

Screenwriter Brian Helgeland (Mystic River) seems to have gleaned a great deal of ideas from A.J. Quinnell’s novel, and perhaps from elsewhere, that he wants to express here. There is the state of personal terrorism that is exacted on these privileged families of Latin America, the financial and logistic workings of this little-known in America service industry of kidnapping insurance, the farming out of the American auto industry to cheap labor countries, even the isolation of these children of industry like Pita; but the only story this film is really interested in telling is one of vengeance. Helgeland does succeed in fleshing out the central character of Creasy into a convincingly flawed individual, and Washington captures every nuance of emotional pain this tortured soul carries with him. The relationship between Creasy and Pita runs the danger of being too cute for such a gritty environment, but Helgeland meticulously molds their bonding in a way that is believable.

Director Tony Scott (Enemy of the State) tells this gritty character study thriller in the jump cut/varying film stock and speed style popularized by David Fincher’s crime thriller Seven. This dizzying editing style might be employed to portray the alcohol addled daze in which Creasy spends the first thirty minutes of the film, or even the rage induced frenzy of its final hour, but it all seems much more random than that. I can’t help getting the feeling when I’m watch a film by Tony Scott, that he is desperately trying to live up to the skill and accolades of his brother Ridley’s work. Ridley Scott has employed these same storytelling tactics in films that seem much more focused on the overall objective of the material than it does here in Tony’s film. Tony even goes so far as to copy his brother’s Hannibal casting choice of the great Italian actor Giancarlo Giannini as a law enforcement authority of questionable motivations. Or perhaps he just uses Giannini in this similar role to make the audience question his motivations.

All these jump cuts and nearly subliminal images seem much more appropriate for the horror genre than this, albeit psychologically based, action flick. A visionary director knows when to employ certain filmmaking techniques, and more importantly when not to. Gore Verbinski comes to mind as someone who has employed this particular storytelling devise successfully in The Ring, and yet produced a picture sans flash editing that could have been directed by an entirely different artist with his Pirates of the Caribbean. There is one image in particular that is cheated to the audience in the opening moments of the film, which is finally contextualized in the closing shots. Is this meant to suggest a prophetic nature to the proceedings? A miscalculated story of fate? I don’t know.

Man on Fire is not a bad movie. There are some wonderful performances here by Washington, Fanning and Walken. The relationships are fully developed, a detail sorely missing from most action films. Even Latin pop idol Marc Anthony turns in an affecting performance in his largest American film role to date, although both of the parents’ roles are underdeveloped, especially Lisa who ends up becoming a much larger character than her shallow introduction would intimate. It also succeeds at delivering the terse, gritty action suggested by its title; but it seems at odds with itself. At once drawn out and undeveloped, it seems to want to be more yet content to let its most interesting elements lay by the wayside. The predictable plot developments only increase the longing to have it explore some of its unused ideas. I left thinking, Well, at least it was more engaging than Proof of Life.

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