Man on Fire Review
"Creasy's art is death. He's about to paint his masterpiece." - Rayburn
John Creasy (Denzel Washington) is an ex special ops assassin who drinks too much and has a guilty conscience from an unspecified tortured past. Out of work and disillusioned, he travels to Mexico City where he hooks up with his old buddy Rayburn (Christopher Walken). With Rayburn's help he lands a job as a bodyguard for Mexican Businessman Samuel Ramos (Marc Antony) and his American wife Lisa (Radha Mitchell). Ransom kidnappings are rife and an everyday threat for the wealthy in Mexico, so Ramos hires Creasy to protect his young daughter Pita (Dakota Fanning). Creasy settles in with the family and eventually develops a close bond with the little girl, until one fateful day when he is shot and left for dead as kidnappers take Pita.
While a seriously-injured Creasy recuperates in hospital, the Ramos family go through the normal channels for kidnapping negotiation - a ransom demand is made, but things go awry and the transfer fails. Riddled with guilt and not yet recovered, Creasy embarks on a bloody rampage all his own, dispensing his unique brand of justice - one unfortunate gets an explosive shoved up his rectum that's later detonated and another has his fingers sliced off and the wounds cauterised with a car cigarette lighter. With unwavering focus, lack of remorse and a whole lot of sadism, Creasy works his way through every one even remotely connected to the kidnapping.
Adapted from the novel by A.J. Quinnell, Man on Fire is the remake of a 1987 film that starred Scott Glenn. Penned by Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential, Mystic River) and directed by Tony Scott (Spy Game, Crimson Tide), it's the latest entry in the revenge film market. Scott takes his time developing the slowly-evolving friendship between young Pita and Creasy and the kidnapping doesn't happen until almost an hour into the film, but once it does, the violence kicks into high gear and Creasy is out for blood. Scott's use of jump cuts, slo-mo, jerky out-of-focus camera shots, extreme close-ups and bizarre subtitles is at first interesting, but eventually detracts from the poignancy of the first hour he so painstakingly sets up and is ultimately counterproductive. It's also been criticised for being two different films: an effective character-driven first hour and the violent revenge-filled second half, but I thought the first hour, although a bit too long, explains and justifies Creasy's righteous rage beautifully.
Denzel Washington proves yet again why he's on Hollywood's acting A-list. Rising above a mediocre plot, he is able to give Creasy a genuine sense of despair and resignation that sets the tone for the first half of the film. His gradual transformation from guilt-ridden loner to surrogate father for Pita and eventual cold-blooded methodical vigilante is brilliant. Ten year old Dakota Fanning's (Uptown Girls, I Am Sam) star continues to rise - she has a maturity beyond her years and gives Pita a charming precociousness that compliments Creasy's detached alcoholic. Rachel Ticotin and Giancarlo Giannini are good as an investigative journalist who helps Creasy and her Mexican Federal Agent boyfriend, and Latin singer Marc Anthony and Radha Mitchell as Pita's parents are effective, particularly Mitchell. Mickey Rourke is virtually unrecognisable as Ramos' attorney and Christopher Walken delivers an excellent though restrained performance as Rayburn.
At a time when revenge films are in popular demand and Tarantino's 2-Volume masterpiece has set the bar, Man on Fire proves to be a worthy entry into the sub-genre. I doubt the Mexican government is very pleased with the film's depiction of corrupt Mexican officals and police and the threat of kidnapping once you've set foot over their border and the revenge angle has been done to death, but Washington and Fanning deliver stellar performances, the executions are as unique as they are violent and there are enough twists and turns to keep things interesting. The two and a half hour running time and Scott's arty but nausea-inducing visuals are off-putting, but the only real negatives in an otherwise good film. The film's resolution will satisfy some and anger others, but I really believe it was the only way to go and kudos to the film makers for not making it your typical Hollywood ending.