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Review: Decent 'Man on Fire' battles itself

Washington good, but movie not for everybody

By Paul Clinton
CNN Reviewer

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Denzel Washington plays a troubled ex-CIA agent in "Man on Fire."

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(CNN) -- "Man on Fire," the new film starring Denzel Washington and directed by Tony Scott, is a highly watchable action thriller with one big flaw: It feels like two different movies aimed at two different audiences.

The first part is all about redemption. The second is extremely violent and it's all about revenge. Both parts stand up well on their own, but a person who wants to see one kind of movie may not like the other.

The movie, based very loosely on a 1980 book by A.J. Quinnell, is set in Mexico City where a wave of kidnappings by organized crime has swept the metropolis.

Washington, who elevates any movie in which he appears, plays John Creasy, a burned-out former CIA operative and assassin who is slowly killing himself with the bottle. Still, when another fellow retired spook, played by Christopher Walken, recruits him for a bodyguard job, he reluctantly accepts.

Grammy winner-turned-actor Marc Anthony plays a Mexican industrialist, Samuel Ramos, and Australian actress Radha Mitchell plays his wife Lisa. They're the parents of Creasy's 9-year-old charge, Pita, played by the always amazing Dakota Fanning. When Creasy arrives on the scene, people are in a panic in Mexico City, where 24 abductions have occurred in just one six-day period, 70 percent of them resulting in the murder of the victim.

Ramos is going through a financial crisis, and can't afford regular bodyguards. So he hires Creasy at a discount, because despite his impressive resume, it's clear that the man is a drunk. Creasy is up front about the situation: He tells Ramos he'll do what he can but "you get what you pay for," and he's no longer the best at what he does.

Doing the job

In the first part of the film Creasy is the typical world-weary cynic who wants no complications in life. He just wants to do his job and be left alone.

Then slowly, bit by bit, he's won over by the sparkly, bright-eyed optimism of his charming young charge. If you've ever seen a Shirley Temple movie, you've seen this plot.

However, it all becomes tedious after a while because you know the little girl is going to be kidnapped, you just don't know when. I was sitting in the theater, screaming on the inside -- "Kidnap her already, let's move along!"

Finally, the deed is done.

Man on Fire
Washington's character starts a friendship with the girl he guards, played by Dakota Fanning.

Now the film turns into "Death Wish" (1974) or "Walking Tall" (take your pick of versions), as revenge becomes the central character. Creasy nearly dies during the kidnapping, but when he recovers he hooks up with a Mexico City newspaper reporter (Rachel Ticotin) and a former head of Interpol (Giancarlo Giannini), who give him the inside information he needs to track down the organized gang behind the kidnappings.

Basically what they're doing is helping a vigilante who can kill at will and not have to worry about the niceties of Mexican law.

Flashy camera moves

The second half of "Man on Fire" is completely different in its style and pace. Scott, along with Paul Cameron, the director of photography, pull out all the stops using multiple hand-held cameras, different film stocks, slash edits, and even a hand-cranked camera at times to slow down or speed up the movement.

It's also got all the Scott touches. The director, who also helmed "Enemy of the State" and "The Last Boy Scout," fills the screen with lots of blood 'n' guts action accompanied by gigantic explosions -- all wonderfully photographed, of course.

The film was written by Academy Award-winning screenwriter Brian Helgeland, who wrote "L.A. Confidential" and "Mystic River" (though, to be fair, also "The Postman" and "A Knight's Tale"), and there is some wonderful dialogue sprinkled throughout.

If you're a Denzel Washington fan -- and who isn't -- the film is worth your time and money. Just be aware you're going to be seeing two very different movies.

"Man on Fire" opens nationwide on Friday, April 23, and is rated R.


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