Review by Dustin Putman
3 stars out of 4
The fourth revenge thriller in as many weeks (following "Walking Tall,"
"The Punisher," and "Kill Bill: Volume Two"), "Man on Fire" is the
best of the bunch as it takes a potentially derivative premise and
makes it fresh again. Directed with invigorating style by Tony Scott
(2001's "Spy Game"), the film creates a vivid setting and takes its
time in developing the lead characters and their special bond so that
the plot turns in the second half have a great deal more weight and
urgency to them. Unlike in "The Punisher," where Thomas Jane hypocritically
sought vengeance on John Travolta for something that he himself was
just as much at fault for, it is completely understandable why Denzel
Washington (2003's "Out of Time") does what he does and, in his own
to-the-point, take-no-prisoners attitude, is strangely just in those
extreme actions. Whereas "The Punisher" was sadistic, meanspirited,
and exploitive for exploitation's sake, "Man on Fire" has a distinct
heart, soul, and mind.
John Creasy (Denzel Washington), once a military man for a top-secret
operation that went wrong, is a broken-down alcoholic on the verge
of suicide when he travels down to Mexico City to visit old war buddy
Rayburn (Christopher Walken). With Latin America experiencing an epidemic
of kidnappings, wealthy married couple Lisa (Radha) and Samuel (Marc
Anthony) wish to hire a bodyguard to protect their 9-year-old daughter,
Pita (Dakota Fanning), a job Rayburn thinks Creasy would be suited
for. Creasy accepts, basically because he has nothing better to do
in between his Jack Daniels binges, but what starts as just a professional
duty for him gradually turns int o something more. Pita, a smart,
precocious aspiring swimmer, works her way under Creasy's skin, and
soon they have become tight pals. For Pita, who sees the sadness in
her protector's eyes, it is something similar to a childhood crush.
For Creasy, it's something more, as she gets him to see that his life
is, indeed, worth living.
The opening hour of "Man on Fire" is deliberately deceptive, necessary
for the following ninety minutes to have the impact director Tony
Scott intends. In building up the platonic love story between young
child Pita and bodyguard Creasy, Scott and screenwriter Brian Helgeland
(2003's "Mystic River") tread dangerously close to mawkish sentimentality,
but avoid such temptations in favor of something that feels authentic
and true. It only helps to have two superlative actors in the lead
roles. Denzel Washington, in his most focused and poignant turn in
recent memory, and Dakota Fanning (2003's "Uptown Girls"), hands down
the most astonishing and instinctive child actor working today, exude
such warm, honest chemistry together that it is impossible not to
feel despair when Pita is abruptly kidnapped and, after a drop-off
gone terribly wrong, presumed dead. Creasy, utterly outraged to have
Pita stolen and possibly killed purely out of someone else's bloodthirsty
greed, vows to Lisa that he will make pay everyone even remotely responsible
for her daughter's kidnapping.
"Man on Fire" was filmed on location in Mexico City, and never, or
rarely, before has a country been portrayed in such a boldly negative
light. With the aid of Paul Cameron's (2000's "Gone in Sixty Seconds")
stark cinematography, Mexico City is viewed as a grimy, violent cesspool
inhabited by crooked cops and vicious criminals. All other citizens,
such a s Lisa and Pita, live in constant fear for their safety. Director
Tony Scott does a splendid job of using the rapid-fire, jittery editing
and camerawork to throw the viewer off-balance, in a constant state
of unrest as they are thrown into the mind of a man—Creasy—who has
been forced over the edge. The way in which Scott employs subtitles,
bouncing across the screen even during some of the English-speaking
parts, is partially pretentious but nonetheless ingenious, reinforcing
the vitality of the words in question while given the scenes that
extra bit of memorable spark. As stylized and experimental as some
of the filmmaking choices are, they only help to darkly personify
a foreign setting that, when all is said and done, no viewer in their
right mind would ever want to visit. The end credit dedication, thanking
Mexico City for being "a very special place," comes off as sarcastic
and morbidly funny—a glaring misstep that robs the preceding final
moments of some of thei r very serious emotional fireworks.
Denzel Washington achieves what any great actor does; he wholeheartedly
burrows his way into the body of his character, becoming Creasy as
opposed to simply playing him. The depression, the anger, and the
newfound hope suddenly taken from Creasy just when he has gotten it
back is all fully realized by Washington, who brings three dimensions
to a role that, in certain instances, is intentionally less rounded.
Creasy is a man destroyed by his past who suddenly finds himself let
down again with the present, and Washington's intensity in bringing
this character's predicament to visual fruition is unblemished. When
Pita abruptly vanishes from the screen, the viewer notices, and the
black hole left by her disappearance makes Creasy's actions of revenge
brutality all the more justified. Creasy may not be playing by the
country's written laws, but he is playing by the rules of the thieves,
who could bring themselves to kidnapping and torturing children for
their own financial welfare. For that, what Creasy's payback is worth rooting for.
As Pita, 10-year-old Dakota Fanning is a marvel who only becomes more
natural and nuanced with her every film role. Unlike most child actors,
even the best of them, whom you can tell are just playing "make-believe,"
Fanning has the maturity and intuition of a performer three or four
times her age. She builds Pita from the ground up, taking what is
on the page and enriching it with palpable character traits and personal
tics. Fanning is charming, yes, but she is also concentrated, unmistakably
natural, and heartbreaking. There is an Academy Award in this actress'
future, and it may well come sooner than later if she sticks with
parts as good as this one.
At almost two-and-a-half hours, "Man on Fire" is a long motion picture,
perhaps longer than need be for what is essentially a "point-A-to-point-B"
revenge tale, but the time is used wisely and nothing seems extraneous.
The opening hour is vital is getting the viewer to care about Creasy
and Pita, which makes the second and third acts all the more urgent,
discordant, and somber. Such a downbeat tone is needed, however, for
the cathartic conclusion to pay off. "Man on Fire" may or may not
be a fully accurate vision of the current environment in Mexico City,
but it certainly works to the benefit of a film that is as uncompromising
and plausibly compelling as this one.
Copyright © 2004 Dustin Putman