Perhaps Denzel Washington is his generation’s Steve McQueen. Stay with me here: Aside from their remarkably similar approach to stoic humanity on screen, both men acquired an iconic presence in pop culture despite their acting choices, not because of them.
McQueen is pretty much the template of a star unblemished by the dorky frippery of Hollywood, but few of us could name three of his movies beyond Bullitt. He was cool for being cool, toiling in forgettable genre pictures and a handful of compelling but eccentric mediocrities such as The Getaway. Denzel has done a bit better for himself, mostly by becoming Spike Lee’s favorite actor and working for studios that pushed him hard for two Oscars, but he’s still slogging through garbage paycheck roles and good-try misfires too numerous to mention. And he’s totally cool anyway, just like Steve.
At first glance, Man on Fire seems to be another one of those misfires. It’s even in the script: Denzel’s character, an alcoholic Marine assassin-turned-bodyguard named John Creasy, fails in an early suicide attempt when his bullet won’t fire. Brian Helgeland’s bad-tempered screenplay has little accessible charm, and director Tony Scott fumbles while searching for a way to capture the grim magnificence of its Mexico City setting. But it’s filled with interesting deaths, a bit of honest emotion and so-bad-they’re-good zingers such as “Forgiveness is between them and God. It’s my job to arrange the meeting.” Add Denzel’s magnetism and the usual pleasures of a kill-’em-all movie, and there are plenty of reasons to see it.
He’s actually playing two characters in two well-worn story arcs, divided by the kidnapping of the 10-year-old girl he’s assigned to protect. First, he’s the unsociable loner who gradually rediscovers his smile through contact with a child and/or woman, in this case the diabolical Dakota Fanning; in the second, he’s the remorseless commando firing many guns on the well-worn road to revenge.
The arcs add up to the best kidnapping movie since Fargo—easily outdistancing the Botoxed, textbookish Proof of Life and the overacted Ransom—but that’s not enough for Scott. So he bonds the arcs with style: As usual, he’s engaged in his long-running overdirecting duel to the death with Oliver Stone. Scott slathers on overexposed frames, relentless jump-cuts, random handheld camera moments and dozens of extreme closeups more invasive than a colonoscopy. The shame is that with a bit more subtlety, Scott would be a visual artist, but he’s always determined to steal the show from his actors.
This brings us to Dakota, the child performinatrix who’s more creepily polished and hyper-realistic than anything Scott could film. She’s been a nightmare of artistic overkill in every film she’s made previously, but thankfully, she’s finally getting old enough to grow into her impersonation of a child. Perhaps Denzel’s cool rubbed off on her, because she’s positively natural as the daughter of a struggling Mexican auto-company heir (Marc Anthony) and his American wife (Radha Mitchell, looking absolutely stunning). Denzel’s character gets his bodyguard assignment through a buddy played by Christopher Walken, who’s an odd choice for a stock best-friend role that only requires him to set up his pal’s rampages: “Creasy’s art is death. He’s about to paint his masterpiece.”
Man on Fire is serviceable during its first half, but it picks up speed in the second half when Creasy becomes a vigilante, forgoing The Punisher’s skull T-shirts for loud-print button-downs. It even maintains credibility when it veers to an unexpectedly touching ending. The straight-up revenge aspect of the story is a great deal of fun, and it’s built for just such a star, one who seems capable of the feats performed by Creasy. Almost nobody alive is better at being this cool.
MAN ON FIRE, ***, Denzel Washington, Dakota Fanning, Christopher Walken, Rated R