A Denzel Washington movie his devoted admirers have likely seen was actually not the first time that story had been told, because it had originally been a terrible ’80s flop without Denzel Washington‘s involvement.
One of the worst movies of 1987 according to critics (Leonard Klady of the Los Angeles Times said that the film’s script “limps along as badly as its protagonist.”), it screened at a single festival before heading straight to VHS in the United States.
This was all before Washington got involved in a new version of it which could have become one of the best thriller movies of his career… if it wasn’t also panned. 2004’s Man on Fire, as you might have guessed, is not on our list of the best Denzel Washington movies.
The first on-screen adaptation, 1987’s film of the same name, was directed by Élie Chouraqui and starred Scott Glenn, Jade Malle, and Joe Pesci in a supporting role. It was based on the 1980 novel by A. J. Quinnell and follows a burned-out ex-CIA agent turned mercenary hired by a wealthy family to protect their daughter.
Like loads of recent best spy movies (or worst, depending on who you ask) it uses the ‘bitter but capable action hero protecting young girl/woman’ trope we’ve seen in the likes of Close, The Mother, Lou, and even 2023’s Heart of Stone to some degree. It’s usually women cast in these roles now, for whatever reason, but this was the 80s.
2004’s Man on Fire fared much better, earning a total of $130,293,714 worldwide against its $60–70 million budget. It was also triumphant in the U.S. home video market, grossing more than $123 million in DVD and VHS rentals and sales in the U.S. — which goes to show how much physical media was worth back in the day.
We’re big Denzel fans at The Digital Fix, so check out what we’ve written about The Equalizer 3 release date, how Washington made one of Don Cheadle’s best movies happen, and why Washington says Clint Eastwood is his hero. Or, check out our lists of the new movies coming soon or our picks for the best movies of all time.