Someone should tell director Tony Scott that the 'high concept' 80s are over. Man On Fire is so hollow, excessive and just plain dumb that it could have been scripted after an all-night coke binge at a Hollywood party circa 1985. And shot by a cameraman hung-over from the same party. Days of Thunder, Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop II? Here we go again. Denzel Washington's career isn't faring much better at the moment either. His roles have been in steady decline since Fallen (1998) and The Bone Collector (1999).
In this, Washington's second film with Tony Scott (the first was Crimson Tide in 1995), he plays John Creasy, a burnt-out, alcoholic ex-CIA agent who takes a job as a bodyguard in Mexico. His charge is nine year-old Pita (Dakota Fanning from I Am Sam), the emotionally neglected daughter of rich parents Samuel and Lisa, Australian actress Radha Mitchell (Phone Booth) and salsa star Marc Anthony in his ninth feature. Bear in mind I'm talking about a relationship between an adult and a child here: Creasy and Pita first circle each other like cats, then fight, then make up, then fall for each other. Then Pita goes missing, kidnapped, and then our Denzel embarks on a sadistic revenge-rampage that would make even Charles Bronson blush.
Man On Fire is an adaptation of the 1980 novel by the enigmatic 'A.J. Quinnell'. Tony Scott says that Man On Fire is the product of a twenty-year 'odyssey', a film he bumped from his schedule two decades ago to make his first big Hollywood hit, Top Gun (1998). 'Odyssey' seems too grandiose a word though for what is essentially a B-Grade movie. Man On Fire is a product is the cinema of 'smoke and mirrors', of a Hollywood out of ideas and ways to make movies.
With its 'floating text', furtive visuals and 'non-linear editing' ripped straight from the Advertising 101 Handbook, Man On Fire is all style over substance, which makes it maddening to watch. The violence is nasty, not ironic or humorous as it was in The Punisher, a far superior revenge film from earlier this year. And the morality in Man On Fire is false. If Scott had wanted to make a straightforward killing spree movie (which is really all this movie amounts to) he should have had the courage to make it without all the ?emotional journey? bunkum. His hero Creasy likes to kill, he likes to torture, he has absolutely no qualms about it.
There are no conflicted morality plays here - this ain?t no Dirty Harry. It?s a straight-up exploitation film on every level. Tony Scott hasn?t made a decent film since True Romance (1993) and unfortunately Man On Fire does nothing to change his track record. It only further compounds it. Let?s make some new rules for Hollywood: long form ads do not pass for films, ban Hollywood productions from making films in or about Mexico (the Mexican filmmakers do a fine job on their own), and Denzel, a personal plea from a fan. Please, change your agent. Where have the glory days of Mo? Better Blues, Malcolm X and Glory gone? These badly-fashioned tough guy roles are way beneath you.