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April 2004

By Julian Roman

Man on Fire
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Director: Tony Scott
Producers: Arnon Milchan, Tony Scott, Lucas Foster
Screenwriter: Brian Helgeland, based on the novel by A.J. Quinnell
Cinematographer: Paul Cameron
Composer: Harry Gregson-Williams
Cast: Denzel Washington, Dakota Fanning, Marc Anthony, Radha Mitchell, Christopher Walken, Giancarlo Giannini, Rachel Ticotin, Mickey Roarke, & Jesús Ochoa


Man on Fire is a film that will own you utterly as you watch it. It is a sledgehammer, brutal, much more intense than expected. But it is also intelligent and moving, a feat rarely accomplished by a big-budget Hollywood film. Denzel Washington delivers a revenge film of raw feeling and ferocity. Alonzo Harris, his Oscar winning character in Training Day, is a cuddly kitten when compared to this protagonist, John Creasy. Audiences expect Denzel Washington to dominate the screen. This performance will surpass their expectations in every possible way. He goes to the darkest, most nuanced place of his career and it is more hardcore than this reviewer could have ever imagined. Add to the mix an interesting plot and good supporting performances. Man on Fire is worth every penny from your wallet and minute of your time.

Kidnapping and ransom is a way of life in Latin America. Mexico City is in a spate of violence where the children of the wealthy have become targets. Samuel Ramos (Marc Anthony) is a rich industrialist that has fallen on hard times. His lawyer (Mickey Rourke) concocts a scheme where his daughter, Pita (Dakota Fanning), would be kidnapped. Ramos's kidnapping insurance would pay out, she would be returned unharmed, and the money's theirs. They just have to hire a low-rent bodyguard to help the illusion. John Creasy (Denzel Washington) is an alcoholic ex-mercenary visiting an old friend, Rayburn (Christopher Walken). His past transgressions have left him spiraling towards suicide. Where his only solace is whiskey and the words of the bible. Rayburn convinces him to get a job as a bodyguard and try to settle down. Samuel's wife Lisa (Radha Mitchell) chooses him to guard her daughter. He's emotionally wounded and a drinker, but exceptionally qualified for the job.

Pita is instantly drawn to him. He reminds her of a sad version of her teddy bear. Pita is intelligent and sensible. Despite all of his misgivings, Creasy becomes fond of her. As her parents come and go about their business, the bond between the two grows. Creasy teaches her to be strong and he is reminded that there are things in life worth loving. Her kidnapping goes horribly wrong. Creasy makes an impressive stand, but is seriously wounded and must recover. His convalescence takes him out of the situation and it has tragic consequences. He is unhinged by the turnout of events. Creasy promises Lisa that he will hunt down and kill everyone that was responsible or profited from Pita's kidnapping. His search takes him into a shadowy world of corruption and conspiracy. A local reporter (Rachel Ticotin) and Mexican agent (Giancarlo Giannini) help Creasy on his quest for blood. Rayburn allays their initial fears with an indisputable truth, days of Creasy on the loose is better than years of Mexican justice.

Man on Fire works because of the characters and their relationships. The premise has been done many times, but rarely do we see such emotion. The characters are believable. Their motivations, whether good or bad, are realistic and honest. Greed, love, desperation, sadness, hatred, the film is packed with candid depictions of human emotion. The relationship between Creasy and Pita is the anchor of the film. It's not cheesy, stupid, or unnecessarily cute in any way. Pita is a little girl that needs a role model and a motivator. Her life is privileged, but rigid and uncompromising. Creasy, despite his flaws, is a highly disciplined individual. He is someone that gets things done. He teaches Pita how to succeed and she shows him the warmth of human kindness. Creasy has surrounded his heart with armor to help him cope with his past. Pita breaks through it. This is the reason for his wrath. She didn't deserve what happened and he is merciless in his revenge.

Tony Scott, the film's director, has had a long and varied career. He's a big budget director responsible for some of the biggest hits of the past twenty years. Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop 2, Crimson Tide, and True Romance are some of the films in his portfolio. Man on Fire is his most stylized film. It's gritty, shot on different film grains, erratically photographed, and filled with complex visual and aural effects. Some people might get tired of the film's look. It pulses with energy and can be overwhelming at times. I thought it was going to be annoying at first, but really bought into what he was trying to do. Scott wants to breathe a distinctive atmosphere into the Mexico City setting. He paints a colorful word of grit and sensation. It's a lot to digest, but adds a real flavor to the context of the film. I'll be curious to see how mainstream audiences receive the film's look.

Denzel Washington rules this movie. He has never been more deadly or ruthless on film. The man has what every actor dreams about, screen presence. He achieves what Thomas Jane of The Punisher and Uma Thurman of Kill Bill didn't, his character is frightening and deserves to be feared. Denzel needs to go in a radically different direction after this role. He'll need to soften up his image and do something a bit light-hearted. He's made a career of being powerful and it'll be hard to top this. I hope his next film, the Jonathan Demme remake of The Manchurian Candidate, is subtler.

Man on Fire does have its illogical moments and contrivances. They are small enough to be ignored completely. It's too solid a film to be nit-picked. There are no sacrifices made for time constraints. The movie runs two hours and twenty minutes. It's not a cheap thrill, bang every ten minutes movie. It takes time to expose the plot and does it well. Running crisply, never getting bogged down or stuck with unnecessary filler. This approach allows Tony Scott and his editor the chance to tell the whole story. The movie has a complete feel to it. You don't get the feeling that something was missed or it dragged on for too long. The greatest accomplishment of the film is that it gets better as you watch it. What I felt in the first five minutes was totally transformed by the end. That is what you hope for, the chance to be moved by a film. Man on Fire is not to be missed in the theater.