Only in a perplexing, misshapen, and undisciplined kidnapping thriller could Denzel Washington’s starring performance pale in comparison with that of a grave 10-year-old actress who’s missing for most of the action. But then, Man on Fire is exceedingly perplexing – a redemption film about a character who never opens up enough to earn anyone’s concern, a child-in-peril movie that plays dirty with audience sympathies, a coldly violent revenge drama that tarts up scenes of wanton sadism with lush art direction, and a spiritual story that invokes serious struggle and prayer for atmosphere rather than content. It’s a wicked long movie, too – whole cities ought to be on fire to justify the 142-minute running time.
Instead, it’s just one man’s crisis of faith and firearms we’re meant to support – that of John Creasy (Washington), a former covert-ops killer who, in the way of remorseful company men throughout movie history, is first seen deadening guilt over past misdeeds with liquor (and, for character depth, with a Bible). Hired as a cut-rate family bodyguard in Mexico City, Creasy settles uneasily into a well-defended mansion glistening with ornate religious shrines and unexplained weird vibes: Papa Samuel (Marc Anthony) is furtive and distracted, mama Lisa (Radha Mitchell) is subdued and distrustful, and white-blond Pita (Dakota Fanning) – from the looks of her, the daughter of white-blond Lisa and the Holy Ghost – is preternaturally bright and hungry for friendship with her new, petulant protector. Fanning can now add Pita to her repertoire of vulnerable and eerily serene little-girl roles; the actress’ self-possession is uncanny, yet unmannered. And Washington can add another credit to his résumé of characters built from foundations of resentment and simmering disquiet.
An hour goes by before Pita is, of course, kidnapped, during which time director Tony Scott dabbles indulgently in the kind of surface Mexican frooferoo bound to attract a filmmaker as visually glib and fussy as Scott. The remaining time is devoted to Creasy’s incendiary mission: to blow the crap out of anyone who might have had anything to do with the crime. Is this a final showdown with God? Brian Helgeland’s oddly stilted script, based on A.J. Quinnell’s novel, offers no clues.
The tortures and traps Creasy devises – with the help of a friendly journalist (Rachel Ticotin), an honest investigator (Giancarlo Giannini), and a fellow former soldier of fortune (Christopher Walken, as always performing his own rococo one-man show in a wasted subplot) – are as elaborate as one might expect in a big-budget Tony Scott film. But the movie’s mortal failing is echoed in the religious medal Pita gives Creasy in a gift of innocent, uplifting love: Finding heft or coherence within all the lugubrious agitation is a lost cause worthy of St. Jude.