I guess 2004 is the year of revenge. In the past month, we’ve had three revenge dramas: The Punisher, Kill Bill Vol. II, and now Man on Fire. All three have essentially the same plot: bad guy kills (or kidnaps) someone close to the hero, who then launches into a bloody crusade of vengeance in retaliation. Despite the similarities in story, it’s amazing how different these pictures are in tone. The Punisher is dark and comic bookish, Kill Bill is an astonishing blend of various exploitation genres, and Man on Fire is operatic. Although it can get kind of old seeing the same story being told over and over, I have found these three films to be a fascinating collective experiment. All three have worked for me, specifically because of their tones and styles.
Denzel Washington plays John Creasy, a former Marine hired to protect the young daughter of a rich couple living in Mexico City. (We are told that there is one kidnapping in Mexico City every 60 minutes.) The parents, Samuel and Lisa (Marc Anthony and Rhada Mitchell) jet in and out of the country frequently, so they need someone to keep an eye on little Pita (Dakota Fanning). Creasy seems like an excellent candidate on paper, and Samuel inquires as to why he’s doing mere security work. “I drink,” is Creasy’s honest answer.
At first, Creasy is all business. He maintains an overly serious demeanor, and we come to learn that he has his share of demons. The only time he loosens up is when he’s hanging with his friend Rayburn (Christopher Walken), who has helped him get the job. One day Pita confronts him on his surliness. Over time, she starts to warm him up. Some of the defensiveness drops away, revealing a softer side underneath. Creasy even helps Pita gain a competitive edge in her swim meets. In short time, they become friends. Then, naturally, Pita is kidnapped in an ambush that leaves Creasy injured. He not only feels bad because he couldn’t protect the little girl, but he also feels angry that criminals snatched one of the few people in the world he cares about. When a ransom drop-off goes wrong, Creasy sets out to find the kidnappers and make them pay…big time.
Man on Fire has a terrific set-up. The two-and-a-half hour movie takes nearly the first hour to set up the relationship between the bodyguard and the child. This makes Pita’s kidnapping feel less like a plot machination and more like an act of terror. The chemistry between Denzel Washington and Dakota Fanning is touching. Together they create a genuine bond between their characters that is surprisingly rich for an action movie. You can see how this friendly little girl warms the cold heart of the former Marine. I also like how we get to see Creasy’s demons pop out occasionally. We’re always aware that he’s a troubled guy who isn’t exactly stable. Therefore, when Pita is kidnapped, we’re not surprised that the guy snaps.
The main drawback in the film is a common one to the revenge picture (although Kill Bill brilliantly avoided it). Once Creasy decides to get revenge, the film turns into a rather straightforward action flick complete with graphic shootings, explosions, and torture sequences. One of them, in which Creasy literally sticks a bomb up a bad guy’s butt, is a bit too far-fetched for me. The story veers off into being mostly about his attempts to kill the villains. Fortunately, there’s a twist at the end; Creasy does something I’ve never seen a character in one of these movies do, and it reintroduces the human element in a big way. Best of all, the moment is played quietly. There’s no big overloaded massacre that ends the film, as there was in The Punisher. As the screen fades to black, we are left thinking about the characters, not the carnage.
There’s an interesting visual style at work here. Director Tony Scott (Top Gun, Spy Game) uses various films stocks, double exposures, and editing techniques to give the film a feeling of being off-kilter and dangerous. The use of this style increases as Creasy’s fury builds, giving us a visceral feeling of his inner turmoil. Even the subtitles are part of the show; they appear in different fonts and different sizes, literally flying off the screen at times. The overall effect is very operatic – it’s bigger than life. Initially I thought the end result was going to be show-offy, but Scott actually makes it work (most of the time, at least).
I think the style does work because the movie has solid performances to ground it. Denzel Washington is, of course, The Man. The guy is always good. He has an intensity that is impossible to look away from. He doesn’t make Creasy an unstoppable superhero; instead, he plays the character as a guy pushed too far. The human element is always present in his performance. Then there’s Dakota Fanning, who is a natural. At the tender young age of 10, she summons emotions that would be hard for an actor twice her age. After appearing in Trapped, Uptown Girls, and The Cat in the Hat, she is matched with one of the greatest screen actors of all time, and she holds her own. The rest of the cast, including Mickey Rourke (as the family lawyer), Rachel Ticotin (as a journalist), and Giancarlo Giannini (as a police detective) are also solid.
This is the second time Man on Fire has come to the screen. Based on a novel by A.J. Quinnell, there was also a 1987 version that starred Scott Glenn as Creasy. Like most people, I didn’t see it. I liked this version, though. As Creasy investigates the kidnapping, he uncovers a conspiracy with eerie implications. Is this really how it goes down in Mexico City? I have no idea, but the combination of first-rate performances and a stirring visual style makes Man on Fire a compelling journey through one man’s personal hell.
And did I mention that Christopher Walken is in it? That’s always a plus. Know what I mean?
( out of four)
Man on Fire is rated R for language and strong violence. The running time is 2 hours and 26 minutes.
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