Denzel Washington as Creasy
Dakota Fanning as Pita
Marc Anthony as Samuel
Radha Mitchell as Lisa
Christopher Walken as Rayburn
Giancarlo Giannini as Manzano
Rachel Ticotin as Mariana
Jesús Ochoa as Fuentes
Mickey Rourke as Jordan
Man on Fire is a surprisingly entertaining film featuring strong performances by Denzel Washington and Dakota Fanning. If you like action movies or tales of redemption and revenge then you’ll want to check this out, but beware of the violence.
This film is based on the novel by A.J. Quinnell.
Creasy is an ex-counter terrorism agent who is now retired. Looking for work and a way to escape his inner demons, he turns to his old friend Rayburn in Mexico for help. Rayburn lines him up a job as a bodyguard in Mexico City. He is to protect Pita, the young daughter of a wealthy businessman and his American wife. Kidnapping is a huge problem in Latin America and bodyguards are routinely employed.
As Creasy begins the job, he continues to struggle with alcoholism, depression, and suicidal tendencies. But over time he starts to grow closer to Pita and she helps him find new meaning in life. Creasy almost becomes a father figure for Pita.
Things take a tragic turn when Pita is kidnapped and held for ransom. This sets Creasy off and returns him to the world of violence that he thought he left behind. He begins to systematically hunt down everyone responsible for the kidnapping and kill them.
Man on Fire is rated R for language and strong violence.
Man on Fire really came out of nowhere and surprised me. I really had no interest in seeing this film. The trailers weren’t impressive and the commercials didn’t help much either. It was with some reluctance that I went into this screening. However, it didn’t take long to hook me. Directed by Tony Scott (Top Gun, Days of Thunder, Spy Game, Crimson Tide), Man on Fire is a film that takes audiences on quite a roller coaster ride of emotions.
This movie is really two films in one. The first part is a sweet tale of redemption. We see the tormented Creasy slowly develop a relationship with Pita that is wholly believable. He goes from a suicidal assassin to a new man. You see him go from the depths of depression to a loving father figure. That’s what gives the second half of the film such impact. It is a bloody, violent tale of revenge after the girl is kidnapped and Creasy is pushed over the edge. The way he battles the kidnappers is creative yet stomach churning at the same time. Creasy’s “roaring rampage of revenge” makes the Bride from Kill Bill look like Snow White. There were times during Man on Fire where I thought this film was closer to the look and feel of the Punisher comic than the Punisher movie itself. You cheer for him to kill the bad guys but cringe when he actually follows through. It’s total anarchy and it’s really engrossing. Put the two halves together and you have quite a story.
Denzel Washington was perfect for the role of Creasy. He’s believable as both the “nice guy” and the “bad guy”. You buy into his character whether he’s joking with the little girl Pita or he’s cutting the fingers off of a man he’s interrogating. Not many actors could pull that off, but Washington does. Creasy is a complex character full of contrasting sides. He’s a born again Christian but also a cold-blooded assassin. He’s suicidal but also capable of being a father figure. That makes him and his dark history all the more interesting.
Dakota Fanning supports Washington as Pita. She is talented beyond her years and it shows on the screen. She displays a good mixture of maturity and childishness that makes her seem like an average kid that Creasy could grow fond of. Her constant pestering of Creasy eventually wears down the walls that he built up and helps redeem him. Also appearing is Christopher Walken as Rayburn, Creasy’s former colleague who has retired. Walken also has that right mixture of toughness and good humor that makes him instantly likable. His secret past with Creasy also makes him intriguing. Playing Pita’s parents are Marc Anthony (yes, the singer) and Radha Mitchell (Pitch Black). Both are excellent and play their roles with the right amount of anguish. Giancarlo Giannini (Hannibal) and Rachel Ticotin (Total Recall) are also excellent as the Mexican police and reporter on the trail of the kidnappers.
The music in the film is an eclectic mix of tunes. At times it sounds like Hans Zimmer’s Gladiator soundtrack. At other times there are bizarre remixes of Linda Ronstadt songs. Then later it switches to Mexican guitar music. It all comes together to give the movie a unique sound. One bizarre moment I’ll never forget is when Creasy is torturing a man and a Mexican version of “Hey Mickey” is playing on the radio. It was totally surreal and made other people and I laugh.
One of the other unique things about Man on Fire is the use of subtitles. They appear literally all over the screen almost like comic book word balloons. They not only translate Spanish to English, but they highlight key phrases in the dialogue. I didn’t like this at first but by the end of the movie it didn’t bother me. In fact, I thought it was a nice divergence from the traditional subtitles at the bottom of the screen in a straight line.
In the end, though the commercials didn’t hook me, I was also glad that they didn’t ruin the story either. The movie takes a few twists and turns that make Man on Fire all the more appealing.
What Didn’t Work:
The main thing I didn’t like about Man on Fire was the camerawork. The camera zooms in and out. Images are grainy and flash by at a quick rate that is likely to induce epileptic seizures. The picture moves so much and so often that it can cause motion sickness. While this is hip, trendy, and stylistic, it wasn’t to my tastes. I recognize that they were trying to create a certain mood with the look, but I didn’t find it necessary.
The next thing isn’t necessarily a gripe from me, but I imagine it’s something that the PC Police is going to latch onto and complain about. Man on Fire is set entirely in Mexico City and most of the bad guys in the film are Mexican while most of the good guys are American. The Mexican police are shown as being corrupt and evil. The Americans are the ones that end up having to come in and shake things up. At one point Pita’s mother even says that she’s glad her daughter’s new bodyguard is American. After basically showing Mexico City as a corrupt hellhole, the first credit at the end of the movie thanks the city and says it is a “very nice place”. After what we saw, it seems to be sarcastic even if it isn’t intended that way. While none of this bothered me, I bet some Mexicans will be very upset by it.
The Bottom Line:
Man on Fire is one of those rare movies that comes out of nowhere and really surprises you. While I wouldn’t call it a movie for everyone (thanks to the disturbing violence), it is an engrossing tale of revenge that is well worth checking out.