Went to the theater last night with my wife, best friend, and best friend's Significant Other. Theater-going is for me, a monumentous occasion in itself, because the last time I went, an elderly woman asked me to hold her seat, and after a few embarrassing moments and a denture-quaking scream, I was thrown out.
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Man on Fire was the movie chosen, and I was looking forward to a fast-paced, action-oriented flick. I'm still looking, because I didn't find it here.
Denzel Washington stars as John W. Creasy, burned-out ex CIA assassin with plenty of guilt about his past life. While visiting friend and former colleague Rayburn (Christopher Walken) in Mexico, he agrees to take a job as a bodyguard for the daughter of prominent businessman Samuel Ramos (Marc Anthony) and his American wife Lisa.(Radha Mitchel). The daughter, Pita (Dakota Fanning)is a very bright and somewhat chirpy pre-teen who tries her best to worm her way into the sullen Creasy's heart.
Creasy doesn't really want the job; he takes it mostly to please his friend Rayburn. Yet Pita manages to inject some warmth and thaw this frozen old bear out. Eventually, he is coaching her before an important swimming competition, helping her study, getting into a smiling contest with her, and advising her that the easiest way to get herself thrown out of the piano lessons she dislikes so much is to belch repeatedly in front of the prim and proper instructor during lessons. Pita succeeds in helping him rediscover warmth in life; and to realize he still has a life left for him.
And then it happens....Pita is kidnapped, and in attempting to prevent this, Creasy is seriously wounded. A ransom attempt is botched by the local police,and Pita is very likely dead. While still recovering from his wounds and accused of murdering two police officers and aiding in the kidnapping, Creasy vows revenge. To paraphrase a comment by Rayburn, "the girl gave him his life back, and anyone who harmed a hair on her head will regret it", also "he's an artist whose art is death; and he's about to paint his masterpiece." (good line).
The pace doesn't actually pick up much at all, and the revenge taken is brutal and bloody; a man has his fingers sliced off and cauterized with a car cigarette lighter, another man receives a C-4 suppository, a rave club is blown up, another man gets his fingers blown off with a shotgun, and Creasy himself bleeds plenty...this is not for the faint of heart.
Creasy's main support is a reporter played by Rachel Ticotin, who is trying to get to the bottom of a series of kidnappings that have been happening all over the country. She is able to provide Creasy with valuable information that helps him track down the criminal organization responsible for the kidnappings, "The Brotherhood", led by a man known only as "The Voice".
All these ingredients have the potential for a very good action flick with some good drama and flashes of sweet warmth, yet it doesn't get there. Many "cuts" are jumpy; a great deal of the movie has sudden "flashback" sequences involving strobing effects, sepia-tones that are out of place, and skewed angles that gave me a small headache, and were all overdone. Symbolic imagery doesn't go anywhere, and the occasional touch of surrealism doesn't fit. The camera shies away from some violent scenes too quickly, and linger needlessly on other bits. Light and shadow effects are just blown....some scenes are much too dark, and the focus is sometimes too fuzzy. The pace is slow, a little too slow, and relentless; it's going to get to the conclusion come hell or high water, but it's not going to hold attention very well along the way, and actually becomes both mentally and physically tiring to watch.
Denzel Washington's performance is solid. He's been accused of sleepwalking through the film, and that was my first thought. As I began this review, however, I realize he was doing a superb job of portraying a man who starts out guilt-ridden, numb, exhausted and heavily depressed with flat affect and heavy demeanor. As the movie progresses he begins to rediscover warmth again, and thaws out bit by bit. When Pita is kidnapped, he replaces this with an icy cold rage. Well done...yet it became difficult to watch throughout the film due to the poor pacing.
Christopher Walken is Christopher Walken is Christopher Walken, and so on. I've never been able to distinguish any major differences between any of the characters he has played. Yet, there's something about the man that makes me think that I could almost believe he too has been an ex CIA assassin trying to rebuild his life. I guess that means it works.
Singer Marc Anthony is something of a surprise. The role of Samuel Ramos is small, with a major twist. The man can act...there's potential here for bigger and meatier roles.
Radha Mitchel doesn't thrill me that much. Her scenes in the final moments are superb...I will say that, but the most of the time she's just in the background, pleasant, but cool.
Rachel Ticotin is a solid reporter; she hasn't lost a step over the years, so to speak. Her character is quirky, sharp, yet soft. Nice job.
Dakota Fanning is a treat: her Pita is a cute kid, basically, with a mixture of innocence and fun combined with youthful wisdom and maturity that she wears like a second skin. This young lady has a great future ahead.
So; there's good talent here, and a better than average story....yet, poor pacing, bad edits, and just poor effects and camera work weigh just too heavily. It generally has the feeling of trying much too hard to be something that it isn't; and the differences are glaring. I would like to give at least three stars, but light of these, which just weigh it down, I can't.
yours until "The Matrix 4--Neo goes Laptop"
Hugh U. Kidden
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