[Screen It]

(2004) (Denzel Washington, Dakota Fanning) (R)

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Drama/Action: A former covert operative goes on a rampage of revenge after the young girl he's been hired to protect is kidnapped and he's severely wounded during the abduction.
Following a meeting with their lawyer, Jordan Kalfus (MICKEY ROURKE), Mexican industrialist Samuel Ramos (MARC ANTHONY) and his American wife, Lisa (RADHA MITCHELL), decide that they need to hire a new bodyguard for their young daughter, Pita (DAKOTA FANNING), after her current one quits. Former CIA operative Rayburn (CHRISTOPHER WALKEN) thinks he has the man for them in friend and fellow ex-operative John Creasy (DENZEL WASHINGTON).

While overqualified, the latter hasn't ever worked in such a fashion, but agrees, making Samuel fully aware of his drinking problem. He decides to let Lisa and Pita make the final decision on John's employment, and with their approval John is hired. Being a precocious sort, Pita thinks of John as her new friend, but he makes it clear that he's not interested in that and only wants to do his job. Yet, over time, the two eventually bond, particularly when John takes to coaching her regarding her swim meets.

Then the unthinkable happens. While waiting for her piano lesson to end, corrupt Mexican cops and others close in on the scene with the intent of kidnapping Pita. John tries his best, but is outmanned and outgunned, resulting in Pita being abducted, and John severely wounded and arrested for the murder of two cops.

Current Mexican investigator Miguel Manzano (GIANCARLO GIANNINI) knows John is innocent, but worries about his safety and thus covertly moves him to Rayburn's place to recuperate. With the help of Manzano and Mariana (RACHEL TICOTIN), a local reporter who wants to expose the kidnapping problem, John sets out to get his revenge on those who kidnapped Pita. In doing so, he scales the ladder of corruption that eventually leads to corrupt cop Victor Fuentes (JESUS OCHOA) and finally ringleader Daniel Sanchez (GUSTAVO SANCHEZ PARRA).

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
I recently saw a TV special about a firm that specializes in taking anyone's run of the mill vehicle and retrofitting it with armor and bulletproof glass. The benefits are obvious, what with increasing road rage, and the business is reportedly booming. Yet, beyond criminals and law enforcement, government and military types, does the average driver really need such a fortified chariot?

Apparently, you do if you live in certain parts of the world where you and/or your family members are potentially lucrative hostages to a growing number of kidnappers. While such a vehicle isn't featured in "Man on Fire," the kidnapping situation is. Based on A.J. Quinnell's 1980 novel -- that suggests the problem has been around for decades -- the story isn't about armored cars. Instead, it focuses on a former covert operative who goes -- to quote Uma Thurman's character from "Kill Bill Vol. 2" -- "on a roaring rampage of revenge" after the young girl he's been hired to protect is kidnapped and he's shot up by the bad guys.

Yes, April 2004 continues as the month of cinematic vengeance and comeuppance in this moderately engaging drama-cum-action flick from the hands of director Tony Scott ("Spy Game," "Enemy of the State"). Yet, the way in which the filmmaker has layered one overdone, unnecessary and rather distracting directorial flourish after another ultimately weighs down this vehicle like so many pieces of heavy lead.

While I understand what Scott is trying to achieve -- a gritty, edgy and unpredictable ride -- there are far too many bells, whistles, edits, shaky camera moves, subtitles (for dialogue spoken in Spanish and English) moving all over the screen and much more. Thankfully, all of that isn't prevalent from start to finish and the director wisely stops short of any "Matrix" style tricks (although there are plenty of spin around character shots).

Nevertheless, all of the visual overkill comes off feeling like the work of a first time filmmaker who's just graduated from the music video world rather than a Hollywood veteran. Yes, Scott has done this sort of thing before, but this has to be the most distracting and annoying use to date.

All of that aside, the plot -- adopted from Quinnell's work by Brian Helgeland ("Mystic River," "L.A. Confidential") -- is really just a glorified and dare I say "mature" revenge flick. After the girl is kidnapped and our hero is shot up, he sets out to climb up the slimy ladder of villainy and throw off those responsible from their respective rungs. Beyond the standard, third-person cathartic release of watching cinematic comeuppance, what makes that work -- at least to some degree -- is the presence of and performance by Denzel Washington ("Out of Time," "Antwone Fisher").

I swear the actor could make a film about painting a picket fence seem fraught with significance, drama and intrigue. Here, he takes a standard-issue tough guy character -- an unsociable anti-hero with a troubled past and a current drinking problem -- and makes him interesting, engaging and sympathetic. There are few surprises in how his character develops and reacts. Yet, Washington - both by default and effort -- makes the guy believable.

That is, until the end where various developments -- that are supposed to be crowd pleasing, telling and/or poignant -- rear their ugly heads and only prove to be lacking in credibility. That doesn't do any more damage to the proceedings that the hyper directing and editing haven't already done, but the third act is the weakest and least satisfying of the bunch.

Beyond Mr. Washington, the cast includes the always fun and unpredictable Christopher Walken ("The Rundown," "Catch Me If You Can") who's sadly underused but delivers the film's best and most memorable line. Dakota Fanning ("The Cat in the Hat," "Uptown Girls") is quite good and finally seems to be growing into her more mature nature and thus losing that awkward and distracting precociousness that bedeviled some of her earlier film work.

Radha Mitchell ("Phone Booth," "Pitch Black") is decent embodying the distraught mother, Marc Anthony ("Bringing Out the Dead," "The Substitute") plays her less sympathetic husband (and victim of one of the bad plot twists), and Mickey Rourke ("Once Upon a Time in Mexico," "The Pledge") briefly appears as their lawyer.

Those playing the villains are okay but only briefly personified as they mostly just appear in order of how the protagonist bumps them off. Giancarlo Giannini ("Hannibal," "A Walk in the Clouds") and Rachel Ticotin ("Something's Gotta Give," "Total Recall") are both good but underused as characters that should have been developed more.

It isn't terribly shocking that they aren't, however, since the film is all about Washington's character doing his Chuck Bronson/Clint Eastwood/Uma Thurman thing in big Hollywood style. On that level it works, but the fact that the film is too long (at around 150 minutes) and over-directed and edited prevents it from being as involving or good as it might have been. "Man on Fire" rates as a 4 out of 10.

Reviewed April 20, 2004 / Posted April 23, 2004

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