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Denzel Washington is a ‘Man on Fire’

DVDs: Actor saves what would have been pure Hollywood schlock. Also reviewed, Martin Scorsese's must-have new DVD collection. By Michael Ventre

“Man on Fire”Audiences have come to learn over the years that you just don’t mess with Denzel Washington. It isn’t wise. It isn’t healthy. It isn’t productive.

The “Man on Fire” promo art says it all. A determined Denzel, walking away from a fiery explosion while protecting a little girl, suggests that whichever nefarious forces are at work, they’d better scurry.

The action-thriller takes place in Mexico, where kidnappings have become almost an epidemic. Washington plays Creasy, a hard-drinking security expert, in the throes of personal despair, who gets a job handed to him by his old friend Rayburn (Christopher Walken, terrific in a rare good guy role). Creasy must serve as bodyguard to Pita (Dakota Fanning),the nine-year-old daughter of a wealthy couple.

The relationship between Creasy and Pita is strained at first, but the two form a bond just in time for her to be kidnapped. That sets Denzel off on a rampage of revenge. It isn’t just a mission to retrieve the little girl, since the hopes of that don’t appear to be bright. It’s more personal than that. Creasy decides to take out his stored-up anger on the bad guys, with mixed results.

Denzel has often carried material that would have sagged in the hands of a lesser leading man, and that’s the case here. Directed by Tony Scott and scripted by Oscar winner Brian Helgeland, “Man on Fire” has some interesting touches, including the Mexico City location and the unmasking of the shadowy underworld responsible for abductions in Latin America. But it’s basically a by-the-numbers studio picture that works well primarily because Denzel is so weighty and charismatic as the main character.

The DVD, unfortunately, is skimpy. Shooting in a city crowded with traffic and logistical problems begs for a making-of featurette, yet there is none. Instead, there is just a commentary track featuring Scott, Fanning, Helgeland and producer Lucas Foster, which is fine, but not nearly enough.

And a special note: An unfortunate sign of the times is that most DVDs have promos for upcoming releases before the movie. Usually you can just hit the “menu” button if you don’t want to be held prisoner by them. Unfortunately, this DVD doesn’t allow you to do that. It’s a little like being forced to watch commercials after you’ve paid good money to see a movie in a theater. You can scan through them, but you can’t avoid them completely. It’s a little obnoxious.

Still, “Man on Fire” is worth seeing for the obvious reason: the “Man on Fire” himself.

Fox Home Entertainment, $29.98

“The Martin Scorsese Collection”

Warner Home Video

Putting together a Martin Scorsese collection — like doing so for the works of any great director with a wealth of credits — is no easy task. The best a DVD addict can hope for is that such a compilation is an eclectic mix that captures the essence of the man’s output.

A new five-DVD collection is on the streets and the mission has been accomplished. The Martin Scorsese Collection features five of the famed director’s pictures that covers a broad range of styles and genres.

First, there is “Who’s That Knocking at My Door?” a prelude to Scorsese’s breakout picture, “Mean Streets,” which is also included here. “Who’s That” was released in 1968, and deals with the same coming-of-age issues in an Italian neighborhood of New York that were fleshed out more successfully in “Mean Streets.” While uneven as one might expect, it’s still fascinating to see the young master at work — he just got out of NYU film school — and note the early signs of a unique style in development.

Like “Who’s That,” 1973’s “Mean Streets” also stars Harvey Keitel, but is notable more for the powerful performance of a young Robert De Niro, who would go on to collaborate on seven more pictures with Scorsese. De Niro plays Johnny Boy, a two-bit hood in debt to the mob. “Mean Streets” was praised for its gritty realism, but De Niro steals every frame he’s in.

The 1974 release, “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” stars Ellen Burstyn in a role that would bring her a best actress Oscar as a widowed mom who goes on the road to find a new life. In 1985, Scorsese released “After Hours,” a dark comedy starring Griffin Dunne that was a radical departure from previous works. The picture was panned by many, adored by many others, but is worth seeing because it represents Scorsese’s intention to stretch beyond the pigeonhole Hollywood created for him.

The gem of this collection is a two-disc special edition of 1990’s “Goodfellas,” arguably Scorsese’s best picture (although I would split my vote between “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull,” neither of which are in this collection). “Goodfellas” is a brutal depiction of the mafia through the eyes of Henry Hill (Ray Liotta), a real life wise guy who eventually testified against his colleagues. It was based on the book, “Wise Guy” by Nicholas Pileggi, who collaborated with Scorsese on the screenplay. It garnered six Academy Award nominations; Joe Pesci won the picture’s sole Oscar, for best supporting actor.

This collection was well thought out. Each movie contains a commentary by Scorsese and others. Each has at least one making-of documentary, and there are plenty of other extras to keep Scorsese buffs busy for hours.

Scorsese is about more than just mob movies, which is why this collection is so ideal. While it doesn’t contain every Scorsese work of art, it provides a satisfying sampling that will whet the appetite for the next collection, which is surely being put together as we speak.

Check out this special feature: There are several to mention. The best commentary track is on “Mean Streets,” because Scorsese seems more carefree and rambles with humor and nostalgia. The making-of doc for “Goodfellas” is up-to-date (some of the other material was prepared when the movies were made), although interviews with DeNiro and Pesci were taken from 1990 publicity tours. Still, Scorsese buffs will devour this stuff.

Warner Home Video, $59.92