The first 30 minutes of Man On Fire are so arresting that you want to forget the negative buzz about the movie.
As you watch Creasy (Denzel Washington), an American soldier of fortune, continuing his steep decline into alcoholism even as he takes up a job as a bodyguard in Mexico City, you tell yourself that this movie is not going to let you down.
One of the reasons you want the movie to succeed is because Washington is so good in the early part of the film with his brooding expression and burnt-out appearance.
You also watch the young girl Pita Ramos (Dakota Fanning) trying to strike a friendship with Creasy. He is not paid to be her friend, Creasy tells Pita; his duty is to be only a bodyguard.
You are amazed by the powerful emoting by Fanning who has put behind her shrillness in I Am Sam. Watch out for the suspenseful scene in which she gets out of the car in the midst of the chaotic traffic in Mexico City. The relationship that slowly builds up between the two is anything but cute.
You may remember then that scriptwriter Brian Helgeland is rather good at this. He was the Oscar-nominated scriptwriter of the Clint Eastwood-directed Mystic River. But then he was working with a director who, in his advancing years, has become even better.
Director Tony Scott (Spy Game, Top Gun) is certainly no match for Eastwood. This becomes apparent in less than 40 minutes as the film starts a rapid descent into cinematic hell.
Yet, given the success rate of many recent films with a strong dose of violence and the box-office clout that Washington commands, Man On Fire could become quite a hit.
Once Pita is kidnapped, everything (including the film) goes off the track. Soon after Creasy, who is implicated by the corrupt police in the kidnapping, escapes the hospital with the help of a friend (Christopher Walken), the bloodbath begins.
As the parents (Radha Mitchell and Marc Anthony) try to find their own way to get their daughter back, Creasy goes on his own search for the kidnappers, looking for them in some of the most crowded slums on the outskirts of Mexico City.
Suddenly, the human drama is replaced by overheated action and blood spills that are captured by a giddy camera. The movie, which till then had been filled with strong visuals capturing both the opulence and grittiness of Mexican life, is now filled with jump cuts, strobe effects, and lightning montages. This is pure self-indulgent filmmaking.
No surprise that Washington is soon turned into a robot. And you start wondering what made Washington, who turned a successful director two years ago with Antwone Fisher, take up this film. For the record, Washington and Scott had worked together in the 1995 hit movie Crimson Tide that also starred Gene Hackman.
Among the worst aspects of the film is the unrealistic portrayal of a local journalist (Rachel Ticotin), who starts helping Creasy. She is among a few characters in the film, including the honest police officer (Giancarlo Giannini), who aren't evil.
But soon she becomes yet another factor in escalating the film's downfall. Sitting in the middle of a newsroom, for instance, she takes a phone call from Creasy who is on the run, busting one gangster after another, all by himself. Without even a second thought, she uses his name loudly. Compared to the scores of inanities in the film, this is a minor one, but you can't help wondering how a veteran director like Scott overlooks such a weak scene.
Cast: Denzel Washington, Dakota Fanning, Christopher Walken, Radha Mitchell, Marc Anthony, Rachel Ticotin and Giancarlo Giannini
Director: Tony Scott
Writer: Brian Helgeland based on the novel by A J Quinnell
Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes
Rating: R for violence