Man On Fire opens by noting that a kidnapping occurs every 60 seconds in Latin America, and that 70 percent of them end in death. Director Tony Scott then provides a characteristically over-the-top visual illustration that attempts to convey the disorienting exotica of a strange, violent land through imagery that looks like the Mexican sequences in Traffic played at quadruple speed. Man On Fire's opening actually has the opposite effect, as the film doesn't take place in Mexico so much as in Tony Scott Land, the familiar, MTV-addled realm of an auteur for whom too much is never quite enough.
The second adaptation of A.J. Quinnell's novel (the first starred Scott Glenn and Joe Pesci), Man On Fire casts a largely wasted Denzel Washington as a repressed alcoholic and Bible-reading killing machine hired as a bodyguard for Dakota Fanning, the most creepily precocious child star this side of Haley Joel Osment. Fanning begins to wear down Washington's hard-boiled veneer, so when she's abducted by a shadowy cartel of thugs and corrupt cops, the two-time Oscar winner goes bucking for revenge, not unlike Kevin Costner in Scott's similarly tedious 1990 film Revenge. Needless to say, gratuitous stylistic trickery isn't the only thing Scott shamelessly recycles.
Washington and Fanning have a nice rapport, with Washington refusing to talk down to his young charge, and Fanning—who plays a warmer variation on her usual role as a prim adult in a little girl's body—exuding charm and decency without becoming gratingly adorable. Fanning brings out the human side of both Washington and the film; when she disappears, the movie just becomes an interminable orgy of violence and mayhem in which Washington seemingly kills half of Mexico City to little discernible effect.
Man On Fire's moral palette never extends beyond black and white, and its plot has a distinct Neanderthal quality, but Scott's latest exercise in assaultive excess nevertheless lingers for two and a half hours, like a drunken houseguest who won't leave. The movie was written by Oscar-winning L.A. Confidential screenwriter Brian Helgeland, who owns the peculiar distinction of having, in two consecutive years, adapted a contemplative critique of the futility of revenge (Mystic River) and a simplistic celebration of vigilante justice.