Man on Fire

Starring Denzel Washington, Dakota Fanning, and Christopher Walken. Rated 14A.

It may have something to do with the times, but revenge fantasies seem to be gearing up for their most fashionable comeback since Ronnie and Nancy were still power-dyeing their hair for the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. Man on Fire is more cerebral than Rambo and more polished than Death Wish, but, despite an elegant patina, there's a nostalgic streak of vigilante justice bracing the spine of Brian Helgeland's talky screenplay. The big question? Do we really need another story about a charismatically dysfunctional loner who cleans psychological house by single-handedly blowing away a small army of one-dimensional scum?

Thanks to a highly accomplished cast--anchored by Denzel Washington's most ambitious performance since Training Day--the answer for many will be "Hell, yes!" Man on Fire is the second attempt to translate A. J. Quinnell's novel to the screen. (The original was an obscure bomb starring Scott Glenn back in 1987.) Putting his directorial stamp on the book has been an obsession of Tony Scott's for years. It shows. He lavishes the movie with a burnished look and an attention to detail that's often mesmerizing.

The story focuses on an ex--military man named Creasy (Washington). Trained by the American government as an assassin, Creasy is tormented by his past. By the time he travels to Mexico City to swap war stories with an old friend (Christopher Walken), Creasy has become a reclusive alcoholic who takes solitary comfort in reading the Bible. When his pal helps him land a job as the bodyguard to a wealthy Mexican family, we know it's his last chance at personal salvation.

Creasy's main duty is to protect 10-year-old Pita (Cat in the Hat's Dakota Fanning, whose heart-tugging performance supplies much of the film's soul). Mexico City has been experiencing a rash of kidnappings, and as Creasy's fatherly affection for the girl deepens, he stops drinking and starts to shape up. When Pita becomes the victim of a savage abduction, he vows to take revenge.

Unfortunately, splitting up Creasy and Pita robs the movie of its true emotional core. Their touching relationship is inevitably replaced by an orgy of violence. In Creasy's quest for revenge, we get everything from dismemberment and close-range gut shots to a far-fetched scene where a miniature time bomb functions as the mother of all suppositories. Of course, if you consider it a spoiler to reveal that one of the movie's hairy-backed villains expires when his shorts blow up, you'll probably relish the last third of the movie. As for me, I left the theatre feeling hollow. But then, sometimes the gut can serve as more than just a handy target for special effects.