The latest in an unexpected cycle of vigilante dramas, Man on Fire pits Denzel Washington against what looks like all of Mexico to rescue a kidnapped girl. Boasting a budget that would bankrupt many national film industries, it's a cynical and weirdly unbalanced picture that veers from cloying to crude. Strong work from Washington and his extremely sympathetic co-star Dakota Fanning compensate somewhat for Tony Scott's overbearing direction.

Washington plays Creasy, a tormented armed-forces veteran who becomes a bodyguard in part to avert suicide. Fellow veteran Rayburn (Christopher Walken) helps arrange a Mexico City job interview with Samuel Ramos (Marc Anthony), who needs cheap protection until he can renew his insurance. Creasy's main job will be to watch over Samuel's young daughter Pita (Dakota Fanning).

Distant at first, Creasy reluctantly bonds with the lonely girl, especially when Samuel and his wife Lisa (Radha Mitchell) leave on a business trip. Creasy helps Pita with her swimming and schoolwork, while she gives him a reason to stop drinking.

Kidnappers grab Pita on the street after a piano lesson. Creasy kills four of them, but is wounded too many times to rescue the girl. While he recovers, Samuel's lawyer Jordan Kalfus (Mickey Rourke) and police kidnapping expert Fuentes (Jesús Ochoa) take over the case. When a ransom drop goes awry, the kidnappers tell Samuel that they have killed his daughter.

Helped by Rayburn and by Mariana (Rachel Ticotin), a crusading journalist, Creasy vows revenge. It isn't long before he is fighting "La Hermandad," corrupt cops who are above the law. Creasy will stop at nothing to avenge Pita, even if it means sacrificing his own life.

Director Tony Scott has always been more interested in stylistic tics than in plotting, but his touch here is off. The first hour of the film--filled with pregnant pauses and pointed dialogue--is largely a wash. When young Pita's life is placed in peril, tension inevitably builds. The vigilante heroics that make up the last 90 minutes of Man on Fire are powerful, but they are undercut by Scott's relentless tricks. Washed-out footage mixes with artfully desaturated shots and blue-tinged nightmare scenes. Titles pop up, for English as well as Spanish dialogue. But dropped frames and jump cuts can't hide how poorly paced and ineptly structured many of the action scenes are. Scott skips over much of the plot, treats crucial scenes in a cursory fashion, and is shameless in forcing a happy ending. Giving credit to Mexico City as 'a very special place' after spending more than two hours depicting it as the most wretched locale in the hemisphere shows how clueless the director can be. But as he's proven in films like Spy Game and Enemy of the State, Scott can make any place on Earth look like hell.

--Daniel Eagan