By John Defore
Outside the meta-cinematic funhouse of Kill Bill, vigilante movies generally want to be as quick and to-the-point as a garrotting. The mother of them all, Death Wish, clocks in at a blunt 93 minutes; Rolling Thunder is 99; even The Wrath of Khan, which had to contend with William Shatner's bloated oratorical style, slips in under two hours.
So you know you're in for a long, hard slog when you check your watch around an hour into Man on Fire and realize that nothing has happened yet worth avenging. In fact, almost the entire running-time of Death Wish has passed before this film becomes a revenge saga. Up until that point, it has mainly been about the nearly 60-year-old director Tony Scott applying the stylistic affectations of a Nine Inch Nails video to material as rotely sentimental as a silent-era melodrama.
What has happened up until then is this: An alcoholic ex-military man (Washington) has become the bodyguard of a privileged Mexico City girl (the generically precocious Fanning). He makes it clear to the child that he is her protector, not her friend. But a scene or two later, when an act of God foils his middle-of-the-night suicide attempt, Washington has a change of heart. He starts playing swim coach to the girl and listening to Linda Ronstadt. Now, when confronted by a Bible and a bottle on his nightstand, he chooses the former. Then the girl is nabbed, and Washington gets to put his new reason-for-living to the test.
Tony Scott has claimed in interviews that he was influenced by City of God, which is baloney. That agile Brazilian film squeezed two generations of mean streetlife into the time it takes Scott to explain that taking care of a child is better than drinking yourself to death.
What Scott might mean is that he saw City of God and started feeling insecure about his visual style. In response, he decided that Man on Fire should have the shakes: Every now and then (frequently for no good reason), Scott and his editor start overlapping footage, shaking the camera, inserting white flashes and messing with the sound. It's one thing when these MTV affectations depict Washington's late-night despair - but they're a little less appropriate when applied to a swim meet.
Viewers who stick with this plodding stuff long enough to see Washington's young client get kidnapped will be rewarded with a finale sadistic enough for any Charles Bronson flick. "I'm gonna kill 'em," our hero says of the kidnappers, but he may as well be talking about anyone in Mexico City stupid enough to be standing in his way: Washington shoots a bazooka into a crowded street, sets fire to a packed nightclub, and detonates some C-4 right beside the structural support of a freeway overpass. On a more intimate, "this time it's personal" level, he chops off one man's fingers to the strains of "Oye Como Va" and inserts a bomb into another man's body using an orifice typically reserved for proctologists.
Moral and political qualms aside, this kind of meanness certainly has its place in the cinema. But Scott has managed to gussy it up with so much superfluous material that the result is more tedious than visceral. Give the raw footage of Man on Fire to one of Roger Corman's old editors, throw out the pompous musical score entirely, and you might come up with a really gripping little drive-in feature. As it is, the movie is enough to make even The Punisher sound appealing. •
By John DeFore