Protection racket

Man on Fire is a noisy but empty tale of a vengeful bodyguard

Man on Fire sees the superb Denzel Washington slumming in a noir thriller
that’s sort of a hybrid of The Bodyguard and Rambo. There’s not
much meat on these ribs, but plenty of sauce from its stylish photography,
MTV editing and poolfuls of violence, none of which yield a gram of character
or soul. John Creasy (Washington) is a drunk, dejected ex-Agency assassin
who’s looking for a break. In Mexico, rich, retired ex-gun-buddy
Rayburn (Christopher Walken in a delightfully non-psychotic role) fixes up
Creasy with what should be an easy bodyguarding gig. He’s to protect
Lupita Ramos (Dakota Fanning), the blonde, Anglo-American (adopted?)
nine-year-old daughter of a swarthy Mexican auto magnate, from the typhoon of
kidnappings currently plundering Mexico’s super-wealthy families of its
super-wealthy heirs. Naturally, Lupita gets kidnapped, whereupon Creasy opens
an extra-spicy salsa jar of whup-ass on the craven cabal of Mexican mobsters
and corrupt top cops who nabbed her. Before she’s gone, though, Creasy
has to move from loathing the pushy Lupita to being enamoured with her,
instantly giving him both reason to live and reason to die. She names her
teddy bear “Creasy”, and despite having wanted to avoid being her
“new toy” as he puts it, Creasy becomes just that, a teddy bear
daddy-substitute who can slaughter Mexicans by the streetful. And kot-damn,
these Mexicans are bad. Exceptions: Madre Superior at Lupita’s school,
an honest lawman (played by Italian actor Giancarlo Giannini) and a
“crusading reporter” (Rachel Ticotin). But generally
they’re evil, kid-taking double-crossers, living in their stinking,
overcrowded filth. Thank heaven we have the delightfully precocious Lupita
and her equally blonde mother Lisa to care about, because if it weren’t
for them, well, golly—Mexico might as well be the ninth circle of one
Hell’s scuzzier suburbs. Ultra-clever Lupita asks Washington whether
his race might be a liability in the Black-lite Mexican theatre of
operations, but otherwise his race is invisible, because he’s American.
And no amount of “heroic” violence, from arson to mutilation to
mass murder, is unjustified when he’s on the scene, especially to bring
back a li’l ol’ girl. Man on Fire pretends to be a gritty crime
exposé in the vein of Traffic (a film that sank under its own
disturbing racial subtext), but it’s actually a revenge fantasy in
which the Madre Superior’s question, “Do you ever see the hand of
God in your work?” is answered in .45-calibre triteness. Creasy even
manages to resurrect Ricardo Montalban’s observation from Star Trek II
that “Revenge is meal best served cold,” a line also recently
resurrected in Kill Bill. Bull’s eye: Man on Fire offers no genuine
self-inquiry, hesitation, insight, irony or anything that might give its
revenge plotline some depth. Creasy gets the covert support of a Mexican
lawman and journalist to carry out his astonishingly violent campaign, and
neither investigator worries at all about the ethics of supporting it or even
of getting caught. With all this film’s yearning to generate pity for
the super-wealthy blonde Anglo-American elites, I kept hoping we might get a
clue as to how Lupita’s father got rich—probably from exploiting
low-wage Mexican workers in maquiladora “free trade zones” to
make high-priced cars. But Man on Fire asks no big questions, although
judging from Harry Gregson-Williams’s overwrought score, it sure wants
you to think it’s important. Instead, I found myself missing the
vulnerability Washington brought to his performance as the troubled Navy
shrink in his superb directorial debut, Antwone Fisher. Sadly (and I mean
this literally), this film’s most memorable element is its fascinating,
innovative subtitles. V Man on Fire Directed by Tony Scott • Written by
Brian Helgeland • Starring Denzel Washington, Dakota Fanning and
Christopher Walken • Opens Fri, Apr 23

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