For what on first blush resembles a formula thriller, "Man on Fire" (citywide) evolves into a crazy quilt of ideas and moods. Its literary references range from Steinbeck to Spillane and you'd swear scenes and situations from such disparate films as "Sunset Boulevard" and "Personal Best" were being reshaped to accommodate this tale of an ex-CIA operative now serving as bodyguard for the preteen daughter of a wealthy Italian industrialist.
The film has an extremely busy narrative. So one wonders why what we see isn't livelier. For instance, it's ironic that once we cut to the chase--long after all the players have been identified and relationships established--the story virtually stops.
It can also be said that "Man on Fire" is undone by cleverness. The film makers present the obvious aspects of the story in the most convoluted way. The cinematography challenges our ability to focus in the dark while the protagonist's pursuit of kidnapers simply leaves us in the dark.
The story, abetted by voice-overs, sets up the ex-CIA man, known simply as Creasy (Scott Glenn), as sickened by past assignments in global hot spots and ready for something easy. Through a friend, he winds up as protector and chauffeur to precocious 12-year-old Samantha (Sam) Balletto (Jade Malle). She sees the taciturn driver as Lenny to her George from "Of Mice and Men" and is fond of repeating from it: "Guys like us ain't got nobody . . . but not us" (for they have each other).
Creasy slowly accepts the role of surrogate parent, coaching the girl in track and serving as confidant and social organizer. Then, while driving her to the villa one evening, the terrorists strike, grabbing Sam and wounding him. Sam's long-absent parents materialize again as quickly as they disappeared earlier and are warned by the police not to meet the $1-million ransom demand.
Though recuperating from his numerous bullet holes, Creasy pulls himself out of bed like a latter-day Mike Hammer to become the title character--obsessed by finding his little girl. Recalling Lee Marvin's transformation in "Cat Ballou," he cuts his long hair, shaves his beard and dons his field uniform and artillery.
The script by director Elie Chouraqui and Sergio Donati limps along as badly as its protagonist. Every time Creasy gets trapped in a corner, a streetcar literally passes by and he's back in control. While the initial setup is intriguing, the rest is a desperate race to reach a conclusion at any cost. Part of the sacrifice are the characters played by Brooke Adams, Paul Shenar and Danny Aiello, who are reduced to cardboard cutouts.
Glenn fares better, for even if his motivation is sometimes unknown, he at least looks and sounds right. Joe Pesci, a bright spot as Creasy's pal and a former agent, gives a full-bodied performance, introducing a brief, much-needed human dimension to the proceedings.
"Man on Fire" (MPAA rated R, for violence and language) is simply cold-comfort movie-going.