Friday, April 23, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

'Man on Fire': Denzel Washington is wasted in sadistic revenge fest

Seattle Times movie critic

Revenge, of the blood-soaked variety, is in the air at the multiplexes these days: "Kill Bill Vol. 2," "The Punisher" and now the new Denzel Washington action drama "Man on Fire" all focus on a lone character determined to make others suffer terribly for their wrongdoing, as if that might somehow change what came before. And watching these movies can be somewhat soul-deadening — you feel as if the entire world is populated with wronged souls only waiting for an excuse to wreak their terrible revenge. For the record, we might all want to be a bit more careful about not cutting people off in the parking lot these days. You never know.

"Man on Fire" is a strange and ultraviolent misfire from director Tony Scott, who's clearly turned to the dark side after his sunny 2001 CIA caper "Spy Game." It's really two separate movies, having little to do with each other. Washington plays John Creasy, a troubled man with a shadowy past (he's some sort of former assassin, but we never learn much about it) who comes to Mexico to take a job as bodyguard to the 9-year-old daughter (Dakota Fanning) of a wealthy businessman.

In the film's sweet but puzzlingly slow first hour, Creasy and young Pita become friends.

He helps her with her swimming technique, she gives him a dandelion, and they grin at each other while the audience checks their watches.

Suddenly, we're jolted into an entirely different movie, as Pita is kidnapped (well, it's hardly sudden — Scott uses so much foreshadowing, the actual event seems like a rerun) and a seriously injured Creasy is vowing to kill the parties responsible.

Right there is where the movie self-destructs, turning into a wildly fast-paced, MTV-ish melange of lightning-quick cuts, split screens, slo-mo, gray light and gore. There's energy to burn, sure, but it's out of control — even the subtitles, used for the Spanish-speaking characters, suddenly take on a life of their own and start translating dialogue in English, for no discernable reason.

Movie review

Showtimes and trailer

"Man on Fire," with Denzel Washington, Dakota Fanning, Christopher Walken, Marc Anthony, Radha Mitchell. Directed by Tony Scott, from a screenplay by Brian Helgeland, based on the novel by A.J. Quinnell. 146 minutes. Rated R for language and strong violence. Several theaters.

And Washington, at its center, is lost. Early in the film, this fine actor etches a portrait of Creasy as a complex, tragic hero.

A Bible-reading loner haunted by unknown demons, he sits up late at night drinking himself into unconsciousness. In one shattering close-up, relatively early in the movie, alcohol has rubbed out Creasy's usual watchfulness — his face is soft, his eyes hollow, his expression empty despair. He and Fanning, a scarily iron-jawed child actress who's as tough as any noir heroine, keep their scenes interesting; an odd mismatch that somehow works because of the effort put into the performances.

But, after Pita's kidnapping, all this goes out the window: He's become a cold-eyed Terminator, sawing off people's fingers, inserting mini-bombs into body cavities and making threats like, "I will take your family apart, piece by piece." All the while he fingers the St. Jude medal Pita gave him — but what God is guiding him here? The patron saint of the multiplexes?

Scripted by Brian Helgeland (who's capable of far better — he adapted "Mystic River" and "L.A. Confidential"), "Man on Fire" is punishing filmmaking: overlong, off-putting and at times sadistic.

You wonder why Washington, who can put a world of meaning into the simple word "Hi" (listen for it, late in the film), would hijack his talent to a project like this — and what kind of revenge would be appropriate for those unfortunate enough to watch it.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company


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