Payback dominates the box office again. Last week it was Kill Bill Vol. 2 and The Punisher; now comes Man on Fire (20th Century Fox) with Denzel Washington, which makes The Punisher look like Shakespeare. As regular readers know (and will probably be sick of hearing), I'm of two minds about revenge movies. As a critic, I get downright moralistic about the way they make their audiences drool for the bad guy's blood. Yet I keep going to them. I'm in the perfect vengeance demographic: I'm angry at injustice, enraged by my own powerlessness, and frankly addicted to scenarios of injury followed by holy retribution. It worries me, this punisher within, who hopes the child molester will take a shiv in prison (while I oppose the death penalty) or, at the other extreme, wants to beat up the guy who cuts in front of me in line. Yes, switching to decaf would help. But there's only so much you can do. It's a mad, mad, mad, mad world—and this is a genre that not only caters to the madness, it reinforces it. Revenge fantasies are big, big business.
It's important to say that humans have always gone for tit-for-tat (or eye-for-eye) scenarios. One of our earliest and greatest epics, The Odyssey, closes with bloody retribution—and that's for people merely lusting after the hero's wife when they thought he was dead, not for actually doing anything. The 2001 Canadian film of the primal, 11th-century Inuit saga The Fast Runner (Atanarjuat) ended with its hero behaving surprisingly mercifully, forswearing vengeance on the tribe that tried to kill him and seize his wife. It didn't track, somehow, and I wasn't surprised to read that in the original, the hero wasted everyone. The Jacobeans made a specialty of celebrating Machiavellian revengers who reveled in their bloodthirsty schemes. And Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson made the vigilante the true urban cowboy. But I think even they would blanch at the hero of Man on Fire.
Washington plays John Creasy, the alcoholic bodyguard of Pita (the blond moppet Dakota Fanning), who gets kidnapped by Mexicans, held for ransom, then … well, best not to give too much away. But it's an amazingly opportunistic setup. The Bible-toting Creasy—a former haunted special-ops assassin who was, in effect, brought back to life by this wide-eyed little girl—doesn't turn the other cheek. He goes on a punishment spree that's sexed up by the director, Tony Scott, who's like a fat, old white guy trying to be a rap-master—zooming in and out, mixing film stocks, superimposing shrieking victims over whip-pans of Mexico City, making even the subtitles dance across the screen. The director gets in so close to his actors' faces that their moles look like mountains. Scott has always been competitive with his equally vacuous but much more cinematically resourceful brother, Ridley, and this seems to be his stab at a Blackhawk Down-style tour de force—a nonstop barrage of MTV sound and MTV fury. But because Scott has no moral sensibility (I mean, nada), this feels different than ordinary showboating. It feels like MTV rape.
It was shocking in the early '60s when James Bond 007 had "license to kill." In Man on Fire, the hero has license to torture and kill. He cuts off a man's fingers one by one. He shreds peoples' ears. He extracts his info in the most grueling manner imaginable and then pulls the trigger anyway. In one scene, he stuffs a time bomb up the rectum of a corrupt police official, who seems to think a full confession will stop the clock on the colon-cleansing of his life. His ex-special-ops friend, played by Christopher Walken, tells a sympathetic inspector (Giancarlo Giannini): "He'll deliver more justice in a weekend than 10 years of your courts and tribunals. … Creasy's art is death. He's about to paint his masterpiece." Rambo's colonel couldn't have said it better. And then Creasy—the impassive avenging angel, his long coat blurring and streaking as he strides toward a car he has just blown up to pull an injured man out and finish him off—delivers a banner vigilante line: "Forgiveness is between them and God. It's my job to arrange the meeting."
Does the movie deliver? Sure: These films usually deliver, even the micro-budget ones with Dolph Lundgren on Cinemax at 3 a.m., and this one is written by Brian Helgeland and tricked out with a first-rate cast. No one rises above the material, though, except for Walken, who looks pleased with the paycheck and the top-shelf tequila. As a shady lawyer, Mickey Rourke is smooth and funny, but recognizable only by his familiar purr: He looks like Ed Gein after cutting off someone's face and pulling the skin tautly over his own. Man on Fire ends with a thank you to Mexico City, "a very special place." As the city has just been portrayed as the most malevolent cesspool of murderous scumbags this side of Bogota, that's either a nasty dig or a desperate attempt at heading off an international incident.
I'm not ready to swear off revenge movies yet, but I find myself longing for another with the mule-kick of a Man on Fire but the double-edged, even tragic perspective of The Searchers (1956) or Taxi Driver (1976) or The Limey (1999) or In the Bedroom (2001). A hopeful development is that Quentin Tarantino has announced plans to make Kill Bill Vol. 3, with a different heroine: not the Bride (Uma Thurman), but Vernita Green's grown daughter, who watched the Bride kill her mother at the start of Vol.1 and now wants justice of her own. That's a great idea for a movie, because it dramatizes the way that even righteous avengers set in motion blood feuds that victimize innocents and span the generations. It's payback that pays you back.