Tony Scott is so intent on gussying up his frazzled frame that his pictorial compositions are barely projected on screen before being multiplied, splintered, or dispatched in a frenzied haze of computer-enabled editing and camera gimmicks. Scott’s increasingly showy cinematographic sensibilities tend toward the ephemeral and shallow, making it nearly impossible to find meaning amid his films’ chaos. And unlike Revenge—his similar but more successfully austere 1990 tale of one man’s gun-toting pursuit of retribution—Scott’s harried mise-en-scène can’t elevate his latest payback saga, Man on Fire. Written by crime-noir disciple Brian Helgeland, this grim revenge potboiler (based on a novel by A.J. Quinnell that was originally adapted for the screen in a weirdo 1987 version starring Scott Glenn) is like much of the screenwriter’s output—it offers lots of sadistic thrills (in one scene, ravers ecstatically cheer when gunshots are fired in a dance club) but also a disingenuous redemptive streak that undercuts any hint of pleasurable misanthropy.
Denzel Washington is John Creasy, a former military man and struggling drunk who, through his retired hitman friend Ray (a jovial Christopher Walken), gets a job in Mexico protecting the daughter of a financially strapped businessman (Marc Anthony). The blond-haired, blue-eyed little girl, Pita, is played by Dakota Fanning, which—for anyone who’s seen the young actress in I Am Sam, The Cat in the Hat, or Uptown Girls knows—automatically means that every scene she shares with Washington is dominated by her unbearably precious precociousness. Creasy is initially chilly, but soon Pita softens his stern heart and the two bond over her upcoming swimming meet. Their blossoming surrogate father-daughter relationship, however, is shattered when Pita is kidnapped, and although one feels relief at Fanning’s sudden departure, Creasy takes it hard, and sets about finding the kidnappers he’s been led to believe have murdered the girl.
Scott dawdles his way through the drawn-out prologue, which is all the more frustrating considering the film’s unmistakable interest in festishizing Creasy’s vicious torture of the Mexican lowlifes (known as “The Brotherhood”) involved in Pita’s abduction. Subtitles jump across the screen with distracting flashiness, Scott’s washed-out images—fused to a chugging industrial-metal score—look like they’ve been sitting in the sun too long, and it’s clear we’re meant to enjoy rolling around in all of this filth. “Creasy’s art is death. He’s about to paint his masterpiece,” Walken laughably tells an investigator (Giancarlo Giannini), but Creasy’s malicious crusade is more Bad Boys II than Boticelli. Washington makes sure his character’s cruelty—including his use of an absurd rectal bomb—camouflages a St. Jude-inspired righteousness, just as Man on Fire‘s callous fixation on violence is merely a lame pose meant to distract us from its soggy redemptive core. Like both Kill Bill and The Punisher, Scott’s film fails to tap into the cynical brutishness that fuels the best noir and revenge stories, choosing instead to stage its portrait of blistering, hopeless rage with self-conscious bombast.