Based on the 1980 novel written pseudonymously by an "A.J. Quinnell," "Man on Fire" tells the story of a boozy ex-special forces assassin named Creasy (Denzel Washington) whose slow, self-destructive descent into the bottle is temporarily arrested when his old friend Rayburn (Christopher Walken) arranges for him to be hired as a bodyguard. Kidnappings are epidemic in Mexico City (the book was situated in Italy) and wealthy businessman Samuel Ramos (Marc Anthony) and his American wife Lisa (Radha Mitchell) are fearful that their nine-year-old daughter Pita (Dakota Fanning) may be targeted. For Creasy, it's simply a job. But Pita wants a friend. And for the better part of an hour, the little girl pouts and prods, making every effort to melt Creasy's cold, hardened heart and bring out the human being inside the killer. In the end, she succeeds, but it's a short-lived success. Kidnappers--including a pair of crooked cops--finally make their move and snatch little Pita amid a hail of bullets. Creasy takes out the dirty cops, but collapses with a chestful of lead.
From here, the picture follows the more routine revenge genre beats, with a recovered Creasy reverting to his old, lethal self, a one-man vigilante army who will stop at nothing to see any and all responsible parties brought down and killed in the most painful, creative and sadistic fashion imaginable.
Scott, Washington and writer Brian Helgeland ("Mystic River") have all been here before, as have filmgoers. Three other revenge films ("Kill Bill--Vol. 2," "The Punisher," "Walking Tall") have opened in recent weeks, and audiences clearly aren't tired of the premise. If anything, "Man on Fire" exploits the premise in some praiseworthy ways the others don't. The scenes between Washington and Fanning are excellent, and Washington and Walken are typically superb throughout. The problem, unfortunately, is Scott. Not content to simply let a time-tested formula unfold on its own merits, he jazzes up every frame, every cut, every second of the film, so obsessively micromanaging the style that he winds up fighting the very emotions his actors are working to evoke. Through a haze of palsied photography and epileptic editing--excessive even for a Tony Scott film--audiences may be able to capture some of the story's essence, but it's such an overwrought, seizure-inducing Frankenstein monster of a movie, with its discombobulated extremities and dysfunctional attachments, that most will simply find the effort too exhausting.
The film's press notes tout this as being a collaboration more than two decades in the making, with producer Arnon Milchan and Scott already discussing it as far back as 1983. What is downplayed is that Milchan, who bought the rights soon after the book's publication in 1980, actually did make a previous film version with French director Eli Chouraqui. That dismally-received 1987 picture, also called "Man on Fire," starred Scott Glenn as Creasy, but ran almost an hour shorter. Likewise truncating this version wouldn't have cured its problems, but it would definitely have been far more merciful on the audience. Starring Denzel Washington, Christopher Walken, Dakota Fanning, Marc Anthony, Radha Mitchell, Mickey Rourke and Rachel Ticotin. Directed by Tony Scott. Written by Brian Helgeland. Produced by Arnon Milchan, Tony Scott and Lucas Foster. A Fox release. Action. Rated R for language and strong violence. Running time: 146 min