Posted: Monday, April 26, 2004

It could be the war in Iraq. It could be the worsening economy. It could be, I suppose, simple coincidence, but however you look at it, Hollywood has produced an inordinate number of rampaging revenge flicks lately. Kill Bill, The Punisher, Walking Tall, and this week's foray, Man On Fire each feature a weary and weathered protagonist who, in at least three cases, is shot and left for dead, then returns to exact a systematic campaign of carnage on those who wronged him (or her). Are we angry? Are we bitter? Or are we simply suckers for a good underdog-against-impossible-odds shoot-em-up?

Man On Fire is a slick, well-crafted entry into the genre. Denzel Washington plays Creasy, an alcoholic former Marine on a rapid downward spiral. Moving from job to job, Creasy finds himself in Mexico City working as a bargain basement bodyguard for a wealthy family whose business is in a similar free fall. Mexico City, as well as much of the rest of Latin America, is plagued by kidnappings. The practice has become so widespread that it is an actual factor in the national economy. The film quotes a chilling statistic that the region boasts as many as twenty-four kidnappings a day; one per hour. The activity is so commonplace that the perpetrators of the crimes see themselves as simply professionals plying a trade. This excuse is heard often throughout the film, usually just before said professional is professionally dispatched. As far as the rest of the plot, it's not hard to guess that Creasy, despondent and closed off, will learn to live again thanks to his charming and affable charge, Peta, played beautifully by ten-year-old Dakota Fanning. Nor is it hard to guess that when Peta is abducted, Creasy will embark on a bloody rampage.

Revenge flicks were also big in the eighties, making stars out of such butt-kickers as Chuck Norris and an aging Charles Bronson whose Death Wish series defined, and ultimately denigrated, the genre. Man On Fire, in fact, is a remake of a 1987 movie of the same name, starring Scott Glenn. The current incarnation, however, has two very important factors that put it far ahead of the game. One, director Tony Scott is an accomplished action director with an arresting visual style that, unless you're prone to motion sickness, keeps the tension high throughout the entire film. And two, Denzel Washington, an impeccable actor in any role, has the ability to take relatively one-note characters and make them whole. You believe him, and by extension, the movie.

Yes, this film has a few flaws. Notably, the dialogue leaves something to be desired. Some of the lines teeter on the edge of ridiculousness, while others fly right over with abandon (Christopher Walken quips to an investigator, "Creasy's art is death. And he's about to paint his masterpiece." Ouch.) But, overall, the film is a well-made, though a little intense, evening out at the movies. It may not set the world on fire, but it should provide just enough righteous anger to keep you warm from beginning to end. Grade: B+

Man On Fire is rated R for violence and language.

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