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Man On Fire

Know now that in Man On Fire, Denzel Washington himself is never actually on fire. But in the course of events, several men who catch the attention of his driven bodyguard John Creasey do, as the result of his questioning, catch fire. Being no pyrotechnics expert, I cannot tell if that's technically before or after their bodies explode.

We are caught in a strange glut of decent revenge movies, but Man On Fire stands apart as being the one with artistic aspirations. Fortunately for us, as his friend Rayburn (Christopher Walken) matter-of-factly observes, Creasey's art is death, and he's about to paint his masterpiece.

Director Tony Scott's art, of course, is filmmaking. Usually his movies are pulse-pounding audience-pleasers that may one day look as dated as a Nagel painting. But with Man On Fire, working from a Brian Helgeland script, Scott actually seems to be trying to say something with his art. It may not be his masterpiece, but it comes close.

Man On Fire also won't be for everyone. Scott's editing jumps about manically, not a new trick, but here it underscores the struggle it is for Creasey to focus through his emotional pain. In a move that owes much to graphic fiction, the director throws in subtitles that move around the screen, changing size for emphasis and not always there to translate into English. More than once, Creasey's demands appear in gorilla bold, even though we know perfectly well what he said.

It's not the only technique borrowed from comics, either. Scott peppers sequences with grainy still photos, occasionally juxtaposed for greater effect. Each panel seethes with emotion, though, granted, that emotion is usually rage. Again, not the first time the technique has been used; it's like Hulk, only with Denzel Washington instead of a green behemoth, and actually compelling.

We've seen it before. In fact, a lot of Man On Fire, though based on a decades old novel by A.J. Quinnel, would seem to play like any one of a dozen revenge films, including last week's excellent The Punisher. But Helgeland has turned out a slyly relaxed script that sets up its relationships so naturally, so kindly, that we almost might be willing to sit through it without any action.

Of course, there is action. Though Creasey's past violence has deadened him, or maybe it's the alcohol, venturing into a Mexico City racked by the terror of random kidnappings is no way to stay out of the mix. The former assassin finds cheap work as a bodyguard to young Pita (Dakota Fanning), the daughter of auto factory owner Samuel (Marc Anthony).

"You get what you pay for," warns Anthony's lawyer Jordan, played by Mickey Rourke with the same slick naugahyde attitude that matches his face. If professionals try to kidnap Pita, Creasey warns, he probably won't be able to stop them. But if amateurs try, he promises to kill them.

And still Helgeland maps out the slow build of a relationship between Creasey and his charge. With intelligent dialogue, their pairing moves from stiff to moving. When the inevitable kidnapping happens, it's a shock. We'd been drawn into a film about a girl and her bodyguard only to find ourselves back in an action movie.

One heck of an action movie, by the way. Once Creasey recovers and swears his vengeance, there are sequences of great creativity and extremely high tension. Bombs show up in the most uncomfortable places, and Creasey, promised to be a man of relentless violence, does many things that will make the audience squirm. But it should also be noted that he spares some; he may cry "vengeance!" but even the non-corrupt police, led by Manzano (Giancarlo Giannini), recognize that Creasey achieves justice.

You may not agree. But there again, this film presents the case so three-dimensionally that at least you can understand.

Already you can lay money on a couple of Academy Award nominations, if you care about such things. Washington gets to play many shades in this role; it would be nice to see him not Oscar-baiting for a change, but unlike guys like Kevin Spacey that have fallen into that trap, Washington at least has excellent taste in scripts.

But the real shine comes from Fanning; precocious but not cloying, her Pita is absolutely someone that sparks paternal feelings. Child actors do not often come along this assured.

It could have been just another riff on vengeance. But Man On Fire may mark the first great film of the year.


Derek McCaw

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