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MOVIE REVIEW

Washington unable to bring heat to the ponderous 'Man on Fire'

On the heels of "Mystic River," "Walking Tall," "Kill Bill, Vol. 2," and "The Punisher," this week's revenge flick is the Tony Scott rager "Man on Fire," with Denzel Washington as a washed-up, suicidal, alcoholic ex-government assassin (is there any other kind?) who takes a job as the bodyguard of Pita (Dakota Fanning), the plucky, towheaded daughter of a rich family in Mexico City.

The girl bonds with the drunk, and suddenly the drunk doesn't mind driving her to school. The job is thankless, though. He's a glorified chauffeur and playmate. But one afternoon, she's kidnapped and he's shot to death. (Or close to it.) As he lays bandaged and bleeding, the girl's parents (Marc Anthony and Radha Mitchell) set up a ransom payment, but the job gets botched. Only partially recovered from his wounds, the ex-assassin -- his name is John Creasy -- stops where all those bloodthirsty avengers do: at nothing. Which is also where Scott stops in turning this into a runaway Humvee of a movie.

He's shot the picture with all manner of twitches, freezes, and oversaturated, overcranked images. It's filmed as though it has a vicious, $1,000-a-day crack habit -- or fleas. And we're lucky if we can get a shot that lasts longer than 10 seconds. (The movie suffers from the editing-room equivalent of an irritable bowel.) Most cuts come with a nagging, pounding sound, which goes well with the movie's lead foot and ham fist. Having over-directed "Days of Thunder," "The Last Boy Scout," "True Romance," "The Fan," and "Enemy of the State" with the same macho scramble, Scott is the go-to guy to turn a screenplay into hot coleslaw. (The script is from Brian Helgeland, who, after "L.A. Confidential" and "Mystic River," has become a specialist in testosterone-drizzled pulp. This latest movie is a loose remake of a 1987 Scott Glenn vehicle.)

Tony Scott's new trick with "Man on Fire" is to bring the film as close as he can to the visual exclamations of comic books. This is a ludicrous aspiration for a movie that wants to be taken seriously. (The movie likes to lavish us with statistics about kidnappings in Latin America.) Shots are laid atop each other like paper towels over a spill. And after Pita's abduction, Spanish is hurled all over the place. Subtitles wash up on the screen, and they remain even when the characters are speaking English. Giancarlo Giannini shows up as a Mexican detective and Rachel Ticotin as a journalist, but their English sounds fine.

The subtitles are there in pedantic-moronic comic-book fashion. ("AMBUSH!!!") When Creasy begins his rampage, his dialogue hangs in the frame, the font size corresponding to his rage. He tracks down, tortures, and kills anyone and everyone involved with the kidnapping. In case the editing is too fast for us to see, Creasy's line to one of his victims -- "I'm going to cut off your fingers!" -- appears so we can follow along. In another loony moment, Washington, still on a mission, fastens a do-rag to his head, crashes a rave, and yells at three employees who must know something. When he and the screen scream, "Who's the boss! WHO'S THE BOSS!!" I thought, "Save your lives! Just tell him, `Tony Danza's the boss!' "

The movie trots out Christopher Walken as an old assassin pal of Creasy's to offer shiver-me-timbers endorsements of his friend. Here's one: "He can do more justice than 10 years of your courts and tribunals, just stay out of his way." But this one's better: "Creasy's art is death. He's about to paint his masterpiece."

"Man on Fire" is ponderous and bloated, dragging the Bible and Giannini into its swirling cesspool. Scott can't give the movie any real emotional weight. And Washington gives his first lifeless performance. He leaves the melodrama and pyrotechnics to the movie's technical crew. All he reveals is the paycheck smoldering in his eyes. Fanning, however, is a remarkably attentive child whom you really care for. But after Pita's abduction, if not before, the film gives up on being anything that resembles a political thriller.

Toward the middle, it does try sputtering into Stallone-level inanity. And there is a whiff of stupid fun in seeing Washington skulk into an elderly couple's apartment to launch a shoulder-guided missile. But the movie's trashy kick doesn't last long and comes too late. Still, by the time it's over, we do understand that Denzel Washington is, indeed, a Man on Fire. Though I can only presume "Hellboy" was taken.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

Man on Fire

Directed by: Tony Scott

Written by: Brian Helgeland, adapted from the novel by A.J. Quinnell

Starring: DenzelWashington, Dakota Fanning, Mark Anthony, Radha Mitchell, Rachel Ticotin, Giancarlo Giannini, Mickey Rourke, and Christopher Walken

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 137 minutes

In English and Spanish, with subtitles

Rated: R (language and strong violence)

1/2*

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