Dir: Tony Scott. US. 2004. 145mins.

Just weeks after The Rock (Walking Tall) and Tom Jane (The Punisher) decimated parts of the US, comes Denzel Washington to wreak havoc on Mexico City. Man On Fire is yet another post-9/11 vigilante movie in which a righteous American tough man takes revenge on the bad guys with such Bush-ian ferocity that, frankly, by the time his trail of devastation is over, you don't know who to root for.

A bloated, swaggering, wildly self-important movie made with all the cinematic trickery and noise that director Tony Scott can muster, Man On Fire marks the official return of the Rambo amorality of the 1980s to Hollywood's mainstream. Using a sweet nine year-old girl as the catalyst for the rampage on the evil foreigners, Scott's film is about as manipulative and arch as Top Gun in its day but painted in a deceptive coat of hand-held realism borrowed from Traffic or City Of God.

Fox's muscular advertising campaign and Washington's broad popular appeal will deliver strong openings around the globe, but the violence and running time will damage its long-term prospects and female audiences will be swiftly turned off. With Van Helsing and Troy just around the corner, Man On Fire could lose out with 18-35 male audiences. Home video and pay-TV values are high, although free-TV channels will balk at giving such a graphic and long-running title prime-time exposure.

Washington is that classic character: the washed-up, ex-CIA assassin with a drinking problem. Suitably named John Creasy, he is unable to get work until his old friend Rayburn (Walken) brings him to Mexico City to be the bodyguard to the nine year-old daughter of industrialist Samuel Ramos (Anthony) and his wife Lisa (Mitchell).

Deeply disillusioned and uninterested in protecting a precocious girl, Creasy rebuffs the friendly questions and interest of the girl, called Lupita (aka Pita) (Fanning), drinks at night and toys with suicide. Gradually, however, the child wins him over and, when he sees that she is nervous about a swimming contest at school, he helps her train. She in turn spurs him on to clean up his act, and he begins to enjoy life again.

Nearly an hour into the film, however, the inevitable happens: Pita is kidnapped. While dropping her off at a music lesson, some crooked cops close the street and a team of gangsters engage Creasy in a gunfight, which leaves him riddled with bullets, two of the cops dead and Pita abducted.

While Creasy lies in a coma, Pita's parents turn to family consigliere Jordan (Rourke) and senior police officer Fuentes (Ochoa) to help negotiate the ransom. But the police ambush the money drop-off, one of the kidnappers is killed and the gang boss Daniel Sanchez (Gustavo Sanchez Parra) has the hostage herself executed.

Cue a fast recovery for Creasy and the beginning of his revenge rampage. Convinced that the police department is corrupt and unable to help bring the killers to justice, he takes the law into his own hands, enlisting journalist Mariana (Ticotin) and Italian secret agent Manzano (Giannini) to find out information about the kidnappers.

The first gang member to encounter Creasy's bad mood has his hands taped to the steering wheel of his car and each of his finger's sliced off with a knife until he reveals further details about the operation. When he does, Creasy then rolls the car off a cliff. Another corrupt cop has an explosive device inserted into his anal passage. Others are simply shot in the head or killed in their car by a targeted missile.

By the time Creasy gets to Sanchez who reveals that Pita is in fact alive, he has fully justified the trite prediction of Rayburn: 'Death is his art, and he's about to paint his masterpiece.'

Scott is an accomplished film-maker, there is no doubt about it. The first hour of the film in which simply superb child actor Fanning wins Creasy's heart is artfully composed and almost delicate in its nuances. The director captures the grime and splendour of teeming Mexico City, and he has assembled a wonderful cast of supporting players including old-timers Walken, Giannini and Rourke alongside fresh up-and-comers Mitchell and Anthony.

The shift in gear from relationship piece to blood'n'guts actioner is jarring, not only because it comes nearly half way through the film but because it resorts to a level of random torture and killing which certainly doesn't speak well to Creasy's CIA training let alone to the Mexico City Police Department, which should be outraged at its portrayal in this film as corrupt and inept.

Washington is as solid as always as Creasy, although even he isn't entirely plausible in the transformation from damaged man in recovery to 'man on fire'.

Prod cos: Scott Free Productions, New Regency Productions, Fox 2000 Pictures
US dist:
20th Century Fox
Int'l dist:
20th Century Fox/Regency Enterprises
Exec prods:
Lance Hool, James W Skotchdopole
Arnon Milchan, Tony Scott, Lucas Foster
Brian Helgeland, based on the novel by AJ Quinnell
Paul Cameron
Prod des:
Benjamin Fernandez, Chris Seagers
Christian Wagner
Harry Gregson-Williams
Main cast:
Denzel Washington, Dakota Fanning, Marc Anthony, Radha Mitchell, Christopher Walken, Giancarlo Giannini, Rachel Tictotin, Jesus Ochoa, Mickey Rourke