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Early in Man on Fire, Denzel Washington’s second collaboration with Tourette’s-cinema director Tony Scott, grade-school charmer Pita tries to get her new bodyguard to smile. Soul-sick erstwhile special-ops agent John Creasy (Washington) doggedly resists—for about 15 seconds. Then he cracks, and that wide Denzel grin beams. Yes, the actor’s trademark smile has become just too easy—which is probably why he’s traded hero roles (including the one in the Scott-directed Crimson Tide) for less likable turns in films such as Remember the Titans (crabby coach), Training Day (corrupt narc), and Out of Time (light-fingered police chief). Always in sync with the latest multiplex vogue, Washington plays a Christlike mass murderer in this high-pitched actioner, which might have been called The Passion of the Creasy.
Although few people noticed, A.J. Quinnell’s novel was first filmed in 1987, with Scott Glenn in the Washington role. Then the story was set in Italy, but now Scott and scripter Brian Helgeland have transplanted it to Mexico. Someone is kidnapped every 60 minutes in Latin America, explains one of the many notes, subtitles, and footnotes that play across the churning screen. So, on the basis of recommendations from both their lawyer and Creasy’s best friend—as if any parent would take advice from guys played by Mickey Rourke and Christopher Walken—Samuel and Lisa (Marc Anthony and Radha Mitchell) hire the damaged ex-assassin to protect their daughter (Dakota Fanning), the only little blonde around. When not drinking heavily or reading the Bible, grim-faced Creasy initially resists Pita’s cuteness onslaught. Soon, though, the man she calls “a big sad bear” is her best friend, coaching her in swimming and avoiding piano lessons. Just when she’s revived her bodyguard’s will to live, Pita is abducted and Creasy is shot up pretty bad.
Outraged at what has happened—and at Mexican corruption in general—Creasy dispenses with a full convalescence and begins tracking, questioning, and killing everyone who had anything to do with the crime. A crusading reporter (Rachel Ticotin) and a rare untainted Mexican cop (Giancarlo Giannini) feed the Yanqui clues, then stand back as he blasts his way through the kidnappers, cleansing their fallen nation with blood. About two hours into the movie, Creasy busts open an improbable conspiracy, leaving two of the central plotters dead. This resolution isn’t especially satisfying, but at least the rampage seems to be over. Then Creasy keeps going—and there’s a sinking realization that he has another half-hour of plot strands to blow away.
Though Scott is a skilled filmmaker, he has no sense of proportion. Rather than ration his frenzied shaky-cam, overloaded superimpositions, and strobelike cuts for moments when they would convey fear and rage, he uses them constantly, so that every motion or noise—the lighting of a match, say, or a starter’s pistol at a swim meet—howls like a streetwalking cheetah with a heart full of napalm. Virtually the only nuance is expressed by the soundtrack, in which the contrast between the two aspects of Creasy’s character is telegraphed by, respectively, techno-metal (Nine Inch Nails) and choral exoticism (Lisa Gerrard). There’s also, inexplicably, a lot of Linda Ronstadt.
Man on Fire achieves a strange sort of moral equivalence with The Punisher: The mother who insists that all her child’s attackers be killed is a sympathetic character in the former but a monster in the latter. Though both movies revel in torture and manslaughter, Creasy’s bloodthirsty flourishes are nastier than anything in The Punisher, which doesn’t include a villain being interrogated while a bomb occupies his rectum. But then Creasy isn’t being groomed for a sequel, as his physical suffering and resigned attitude make clear. “Do you ever see the hand of God in what you do?” the kindly headmistress of Pita’s Catholic school asks the bodyguard. He doesn’t respond, but Scott ultimately answers for him with a last act that includes Creasy’s reassurance that “I’m going home, too.” In Tony Scott’s
x-treme theology, the hand of God rests comfortably on a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.
More than 40 years after Daniel Boorstin critiqued this country’s fascination with celebrities, Americans seem more interested than ever in the person who—in Boorstin’s phrase—“is known for his well-knownness.” The ongoing prominence of Donald Trump to the contrary, such renown does eventually fade. Take, for example, Rodney Bingenheimer. Though the Los Angeles publicist, partygoer, and disc jockey was once celebrated as “Mayor of the Sunset Strip,” the documentary of that name chronicles his waning influence. Age is the nemesis of all beautiful people, even ones like Bingenheimer, who wasn’t that beautiful in the first place. But the diminutive scenester also made the mistake of never varying his game, maintaining his fantasy outlook as both the music and the biz got rougher.
As a KROQ DJ and the onetime owner of L.A.’s English Disco, British glam rock’s home away from home, Bingenheimer met just about all his heroes and heroines—as well as plenty of available young women. He was, ex-supergroupie Pamela Des Barres reports, “the first boy I kissed in Hollywood.” An eternal fan of what the Brits call “pop,” Bingenheimer shifted as underground-rock styles did, eventually becoming an advocate of L.A.’s anti-glam punk scene. Mayor of the Sunset Strip, in fact, opens with Bingenheimer introducing the reconstituted X. But the pop stars who talk most enthusiastically to—or about—Bingenheimer are mostly of an earlier generation: Cher, Nancy Sinatra, Brian Wilson, Doors boor Ray Manzarek, the remarkably gracious David Bowie, and the reptilian Kim Fowley, one of the DJ’s oldest pals. If it weren’t for Coldplay, Bingenheimer’s youngest onscreen booster might be Johnny Marr.
The Smiths’ “London” is one of the songs writer-director George Hickenlooper offers as a capsule Bingenheimer bio—another is Sonny Bono’s “Laugh at Me”—and its tale of fleeing to the big city is indeed pertinent. The only child of a quickly divorced mom who was a waitress and an autograph hound, Bingenheimer grew up in the tract-house precincts of Mountain View, Calif. This period of his life is eerily reminiscent of Chuck & Buck—though unlike that movie’s loser protagonist, who stayed in suburbia until Mom died, Bingenheimer arrived in Hollywood as a teenager. Soon he’d snagged what could be seen as his defining gig: Davy Jones’ stand-in on The Monkees.
From “Daydream Believer” to “Yellow,” Bingenheimer was in it only for the reflected glory. If he made any money off his famous friends, it’s gone now (though he still has an apartment full of eBay-able memorabilia). Mayor does contain recent footage of Bingenheimer schmoozing with Hollywood celebs—including some young ones—but the career-making DJ has been cut back to three hours weekly of air time on KROQ, which now plays mostly nü-metal. Bingenheimer seems worn, weary, and almost alone in the world, distant from his father and step-kin, patently enamored of a young woman who tells the camera she “kind of has a boyfriend,” and wildly jealous of his protégé, former Dramarama bassist Chris Carter, who’s become a successful DJ at a KROQ competitor.
That rivalry provides the documentary’s most heated moment, but Mayor doesn’t tell the full story of the men’s relationship. (Carter is listed as one of the film’s producers.) Hickenlooper, who’s best known for co-directing Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, largely skirts the darker precincts of Bingenheimer’s soul, probably because his film’s subject isn’t inclined toward public self-analysis: If Bingenheimer has thought much about life as a perennial teenybopper, he’s not letting on. There are poignant moments, but the director contents himself mostly with witty edits and shrewd musical segues. That should be enough for those who already have an interest in Bingenheimer’s modest legend, but to the uninitiated, Mayor of the Sunset Strip may seem as inexplicable as an episode of The Apprentice. CP