In the kidnapping hotbed of Mexico City, ex-marine John Creasy (Washington) is hired by industrialist Samuel Ramos (Anthony) to protect his family. When Ramos' young daughter Pita (Fanning) is snatched, Creasy sets forth on an unstoppable dervish of revenge.
At the heart of Tony Scott's rip-roaring rampage of revenge is an astonishing feat of cinematic alchemy. It's not the towering presence of Denzel Washington on tip-top blistering form. It's not the absorbing quality Scott manages to invest in the tired cliches of the kidnap genre (tapped phones, botched ransom drops etc.). It's not even the incendiary high style that starts at frame one and never lets up over the whole 146 minutes. No, it's the fact that, for the first time in any movie, Scott will make you bemoan the absence of Dakota Fanning, the loathsome little moppet from Uptown Girls and The Cat In The Hat.
On paper, we have a well-worn initial-mistrust-gives-over-to mutual-affection arc, but Washington's despair-tinged reserve and Fanning's astonishing naturalness give the relationship warmth and resonance. Fanning exudes more than enough charm and decency to make Creasy's renewal of faith completely believable.
What follows is like the finale of Taxi Driver played over 90 minutes. Sharing a '70s-style steeliness with screenwriter Helgeland's Payback, the movie sees Creasy hunting down Pita's kidnappers with the no-nonsense cruelty of a Lee Marvin or a Charles Bronson, lopping off digits or shoving explosives up a rectum like a Picasso of pain.
In one of his trademark little speeches, Christopher Walken, as Creasy's old military cohort, utters: "Creasy's art is death. Hes about to paint his masterpiece." The same is almost true of the movie making you relish the gleeful celebration of mayhem and destruction.
It is a failing of the flick that, when the body count starts rising, the creases in Creasy are ironed out, the character taking on an indestructible Terminator-like superheroism. But Washington is too class an act to let Creasy drift into sub-Steven Seagalisms, and he is never less than completely compelling. As the action goes increasingly over the top, so does Scott's visual pyrotechnics. Probably setting a new world record for the number of different film stocks in one movie, Scott and hot-to-trot cinematographer Paul Cameron (Collateral) whip-pan and crash-zoom to new levels of excess, heightening both the teeming life of Mexico City and the anxiety around Pita's kidnapping. Best of all are the subtitles: rather than simply translating dialogue, they assault the viewer, conveying drama and emotion through aggressive graphic design. You've never seen any done like this before.
If the kidnap/revenge plot is over-familiar, Scott's filmmaking fireworks, the interplay between Washington and Fanning and some great action make this supremely entertaining. Denzel's Creasy may be morally greasy, but his exploits are explosive and exhilarating.