One of these two is an alcoholic mercenary in need of the kind of redemption that can be only be delivered at the hands of an innocent child. (Hint: It’s not Dakota Fanning.)

I didn’t set out to watch three movies about kidnapped children in a row, but for whatever reason, it worked out that way. After High and Low and Changeling, however, Man on Fire comes at the viewer like a flying mallet.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone, since the director is Tony Scott, the director of Top Gun, The Rock, et al. You know what you’re signing up for, which is typically a film as  a subtle as the WWF.

I’ve liked Denzel for just about his entire career.  He’s still one of a handful of pure movie stars we have in the modern age. (Anyone else own The Mighty Quinn on DVD?) So I have been intending to watch one of his more recent films and had heard good things about Man on Fire. (Man, his movies stack up like back issues of  “The New Yorker,” though. My idea of  a “recent” movie, apparently, is something seven years old. I’m on track to see Unstoppable in 2019, when we all are driving flying cars.)

But Man on Fire does everything that High and Low–and even Changeling, which I knocked around quite a bit–strives to avoid. It studiously dodges the moral and ethical questions both of those other films embrace in favor of a bloody tale of vengeance that barely passes as reality, with plot twists that are surprising only in their absurdity.

It’s a truly manipulative film–and after its first 45 minutes or so (by far, the best part of the overlong story), you know there are precisely two possible outcomes and, in a sense, both are cheats.

That’s due to the time that Scott takes to establish a bond between Washington’s character, the classic alcoholic loner seeking redemption (think Dean Martin in Rio Bravo drunkenly practicing with his sidearm to the thumpety tunes of Trent Reznor) and Fanning’s typically precocious tween. Because of that first act, an extended sequence that’s low on action but spends time developing the characters, Man on Fire, ultimately, appears to be a film that wants to take risks but ultimately loses its nerve.

Scott’s signature visual style, however, which here is at its most hyperkinetic, is the one thing that keeps the film engaging, even when Washington transforms into a one-man killing machine.  His Mexico City is a swirling stew of sound and light, brought to you in pure ShakeyVision. At the end, though, it’s hard not to feel like all the glitz is there to distract the viewer from a plot that is familiar terrain at best and patronizingly exploitative at worst.

It’s a credit to Scott, and especially Washington, who pretty can sell anything with his personal magnetism, that you end up caring about the resolution in spite of yourself. Responding emotionally to a story even as you can feel the strings on your arms may not be a definition of art, but it suggests a high level of craft. Too bad it’s in service of such a cynical work.

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