Remember when Denzel Washington used to do good movies? Well, those days are officially over with the release of Man on Fire. For all its 2 and a half grueling hours, Malcolm X it is not. Though there was no intermission, moviegoers just came and went like it was a TV show. A film with no substance just has no business lasting that long, especially when the story doesn't really start until and hour and a half in.
Former Marine, with a drinking problem, Creasy (Denzel Washington) visits an old buddy in Mexico (Christopher Walken) and ends up staying as a bodyguard to a wealthy Mexico City family, after a series of brutal kidnappings in the city. Though Creasy's tough exterior seems impenetrable, inevitably the family's charming daughter Pita (Dakota Fanning) overcomes his fortress, steals his heart, and gives him a reason to continue living. Marc Anthony and Radha Mitchell play Pita's Mexican and American parents, respectively. When Pita is kidnapped, despite Creasy's valiant shooting and subsequent wounding, he goes on a murdering rampage, gunning down anyone remotely involved in her abduction (which turns out to be an awful lot of people).
The hour and a half long setup is nothing more than Hollywood drivel. Every cliché is exercised including: the bright child who brings the cynical drinking man back to life, the expert agent who tries to lay low, and several extraneous boob shots, bikini shots, and sex scenes. Ok, so Radha Mitchell was hot in High Art, here she's largely boring and unfeeling, despite her forced tears. None of the characters really elicit much sympathy, not even the precious child. Christopher Walken was the only one at all human, weirdly funny, and oddly compelling, as he always is. Unfortunately, his role here is miniscule. He is given the only smart lines such as this bizarre artist analogy: "A man can make art out of anything...food...whatever. Creasy's is killing, and right now he is creating his masterpiece."
When Man on Fire's action finally begins, it too, is much too long. While this can be construed as a hint toward the corruptness of Mexico City officials and organized crime, this wasn't explored enough to retain any crime mystery interest. (In the ending credits they thank Mexico City, though whether this is for its ticket-selling crime or its self-effacing permission to use it as a big joke, is unclear.) Denzel really is just a man on fire, out for revenge, and for the second hour and a half all you see are various forms of torture scenes. The script could have been written by a team of 11-year-old boys, each of whom got to add their own favorite scene. My favorites being: the plastic explosives shoved up the bum of Mexico City's chief of Judicial Police, or the other fiery scene, wherein drugged up ravers keep dancing and cheering as they watch their club burn. (How inappropriate is that considering those recent New England club fires?)
Only if you consider time only, will you get your money's worth seeing Man on Fire, in the theater. And in fact, the actual amount of time you can stay in your seat will probably be considerably less than the run time of the film, as you try to think of ways to stall: more popcorn, soda, the bathroom? And really, waiting in line for any of these actions is every bit as entertaining as the film itself.