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‘Man on Fire’ fails to combust

Denzel Washington stars as a bodyguard seeking revenge for the kidnapping of his charge, Dakota Fanning.

Bloated and boring, “Man on Fire” is a simplistic revenge melodrama stretched out to a staggering two hours and 20 minutes. Like last weekend’s top grossers, “The Punisher” and “Kill Bill (Vol. 2),” it’s ultimately about one thing: getting even.

The hero spends much of his screen time slicing off the fingers and blowing off the hands of his enemies, and of course he doesn’t spare their cars. The entire movie sometimes seems set up to justify the standard action-movie “money shot” — of the star (or stars) running (or walking) from an exploding car (or tank or gas tank). This will, naturally, be prominently displayed in the television trailer and newspaper ads.

The star who walks away from the exploding vehicle this time is Denzel Washington, who isn’t required to do a great deal more. He plays John Creasy, an alcoholic, suicidal ex-terrorism expert who discovers a new career as a Mexico City bodyguard.

His first job: to protect precocious, nine-year-old Pita Ramos (Dakota Fanning), daughter of a curiously tortured industrialist (Marc Anthony) and his much less neurotic American wife (Radha Mitchell). Creasy is supposed to develop a bond with the girl, and that’s clearly crucial if the story is to click.

The plot, based on a novel by A. J. Quinnell, draws whatever legitimacy it has from the rash of recent kidnappings in Latin America. Considering the events of the past couple of weeks, it’s also impossible to watch “Man on Fire” without thinking of the hostage-taking in Iraq.

Unfortunately, the movie, which could have seemed so timely, looks damningly slick and artificial when compared to the graphic television footage from Fallujah. Creasy and Pita’s relationship is mostly theoretical, buried somewhere in the script by Oscar-winning screenwriter Brian Helgeland, whose screenplays alternate between the very, very good (“L.A. Confidential,” “Mystic River”) and the appalling (Mel Gibson’s “Payback,” Kevin Costner’s “The Postman”). This one falls in the latter category.

The director, Tony Scott (“Top Gun,” “Spy Game”), whose once-trim movies get longer and longer, also isn’t at his best here. Although he gets solid work out of a supporting cast that includes Christopher Walken (as Creasy’s longtime pal), Mickey Rourke (as a sleazy lawyer), Rachel Ticotin (as a brave reporter) and Giancarlo Giannini (as a wry Mexican cop), his leading actors look stranded. Even Washington’s intensity seems phoned in, while Fanning just seems excessively cute.

Always an impressive stylist, Scott seems less interested in people than he is in hardware and flashy visuals. He and his cinematographer, Paul Cameron, borrow the jittery, layered style that Oliver Stone developed for “Natural Born Killers.” Double exposures, time-lapse photography and swirling cameras threaten to take over. But what worked for Stone just seems tacked-on here.

Throw in a tinkly, obvious score by Harry Gregson-Williams — not to mention a series of gratuitous subtitles that inexplicably translate English as well as Spanish dialogue — and you’ve got an action-movie nightmare that never seems to end.