by Marty Demarest

That damn little Dakota Fanning needs to be stopped. She first showed up in I Am Sam as Sean Penn's daughter, and transformed that otherwise serious film into a melodrama. Then she defined preteen anal-retentiveness in The Cat in the Hat. Now this 10-year-old is messing with one of our great actors -- Denzel Washington -- and one of the most timeworn formulas ever produced: the revenge film.

Revenge films are supposed to be glorious opportunities for actors to indulge in righteous evil. Audiences get to enjoy one vindictive killing scene after another. It's such a solid formula for success that three of this week's top five movies feature it: The Punisher, Kill Bill Vol. 2 and Man on Fire.

But 20 minutes into the latter, everything falls apart when Fanning shows up and starts "bonding" with Washington. He's an ex-special operative named Creasy who has taken a job in Mexico City as a bodyguard. One night (after a particularly cheesy music-video sequence), the alcoholic Creasy puts a gun to his head, only to have the bullet fail. Unable to take his own life, Creasy does the next-worst thing, and befriends Fanning's Pita -- the girl he's been hired to protect. A few minutes later, he's coaching her for her swim meet, and the two are giggling with each other like best friends. Her victory at the race is handled like a Kodak moment, and the rest of Man on Fire suffocates under Fanning's sweetness.

It's hard to understand exactly what Fanning is doing in so much of this movie. From a plot standpoint, she's there to get kidnapped partway through. Reports of her subsequent murder are what push Creasy over the edge and start him hunting down members of the kidnapping ring. But Washington's Creasy is a hollow man who sits in his room and plays with guns. He doesn't need a cutie-pie for his motivation. He got shot, and the kidnappers left him for dead. That's motivation enough.

Nevertheless, director Tony Scott seems to think that Washington's performance can be enhanced by having him gaze fondly at a picture of Pita right before he starts cutting the fingers off a corrupt cop. And every time Creasy pauses to reflect on his actions (during a tender moment in the film's bomb-up-the-ass sequence, for example), we see blurry video of Pita screaming or Pita crying. This isn't character development -- it's bad editing.

Part way through Man on Fire, it becomes apparent that we're supposed to hope that Pita is still alive. This possibility is given to us right when Creasy is hitting his stride, approaching the mastermind of the kidnapping ring. We've seen other victims of this man. We know Creasy is hurting. We want to see him deliver a killing blow.

Unfortunately, as Creasy gets closer to his target, all we get to see is more and more of the little girl.

Publication date: 04/29/04

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