In Hollywood, payback pays. From Death Wish to Kill Bill, audiences have always lapped up revenge, whether it's served cold, hot or reheated. Man On Fire knows this and knows exactly how to feed an appetite for destruction. In fact, it's hard to remember a more outrageous wallow in holy retribution.
When we first meet our `hero' Creasy (Washington), he's haunted by his past, sinking Scotch and getting lucky at Russian roulette. But wouldn't you know it? Pita (Fanning), the sunny blonde cherub he's charged with protecting, slowly melts his heart. She teaches him how to smile; he teaches her how to swim. So far, so blah. But this is all sudsy set-up. Man On Fire only really starts blazing when Creasy does.
In case you're worried that your enjoyment of the designer violence will be ruined by irritating pangs of guilt... Don't be. The morality in this redemptive thriller is as simple as it comes. The cops are corrupt and the criminals are ruthless - - these bastards deserve everything they get, and once Creasy turns vigilante to hunt down Pita's evil abductors, boy, do they get it bad.
We're talking operatic brutality on a Biblical scale: rocket-launcher gunishment, severed fingers cauterised by lighter, sliced ears and - our fave - a bomb-up-the-bum colonic interrogation. It's almost rousing when Washington's avenging angel leaves his calling card: ""Forgiveness is between them and God. It's my job to arrange the meeting.""
Sandwiching every zinger with a brace of clichés, the script (by Brian Helgeland, whose Mystic River took a far more painful look at vengeance) is bolstered by a committed cast. Radha Mitchell and Rachel Ticotin are particularly smart at shading in their slender roles and, as Creasy's buddy, Christopher Walken has a riot with lines like: ""Creasy's art is death. He's about to paint his masterpiece.""
Tony Scott's art is death, too. Empty, snazzy death. Having seemingly overdosed on Traffic and NYPD Blue reruns, he lenses Mexico City's grimy cesspool through twitchy jump cuts, sun-bleached filters and jagged whip-pans. Fatally, as Man On Fire flip-flops between sappy sentiment and gleeful nastiness for a saggy two-and-a-half hours, Scott and Helgeland fail to conjure a smidgen of tragic resonance. But as the director blindly shoves the camera into the faces of his actors, he does find something...
What he finds is Washington - - sincere and sympathetic in a movie that deserves neither quality. After narc thriller Training Day and sweaty potboiler Out Of Time, Man On Fire sees DW continue to swerve clear of the rumbling decency that threatened to devolve him into a latter-day Morgan Freeman. Lucky for us. Because this guy's pretty good at being bad.
This revenge fantasy fancies itself, hilariously, as an emotional thriller. Still, a weighty Washington turn packs a mighty wallop.