A film review by Craig J. Koban

MAN ON FIRE jj

2004, R, 142 mins.

Creasy: Denzel Washington / Pita: Dakota Fanning / Samuel: Marc Anthony / Lisa: Radha Mitchell / Rayburn: Christopher Walken / Manzano: Giancarlo Giannini / Jordan: Mickey Rourke

Directed by Tony Scott /  Written by Brian Helgeland, based on the novel by A.J.Quinnell

Man on Fire Original Movie PosterMAN ON FIRE was a really, really frustrating two and a half hours.  It's one of those great conundrum pictures, one that is, undoubtedly, well acted, but permeated by such visual overkill in terms of its aesthetic style that it took away from the overall dramatic effect.  Truth be told, it’s a truly superb exercise in filmmaking craftsmanship and style, but it’s partly the film’s very style that ruins it.  We at first become really entranced by director Tony Scott’s use of quick pans, tight and kinetic editing, and bold use of subtitles and graphics.  But, as the film wears on, his vain artistic indulgences grow old and tiresome, maybe in an effort to mask the film as being more than it really is. 

The film is your basic DEATH WISH-esque revenge story with a narrative that’s not altogether surprising, nor revealing.  The real surprise is the fantastic performances in the film, especially by Denzel Washington and the young Dakota Fanning.  Yet, the film is never carried to a larger, more meaningful level beyond the performances and it soon becomes enslaved by its visuals and a conclusion that, let’s face it,  really ended on a  false note, especially when you think the film had the nerve to be bold.  From the recent crop of revenge films (2004 has had many, from the stylish and exuberant KILL BILL series to the dark comic adaptation THE PUNISHER), MAN ON FIRE is the most disappointing. 

People who have done truly outstanding work in the past made MAN ON FIRE.  The screenplay (based on the novel by A.J. Quinnell) was written by Brian Helgeland (who wrote the Mel Gibson revenge film PAYBACK, and also co-wrote masterpieces like MYSTIC RIVER and LA CONFIDENTIAL) and directed by Tony Scott (who directed one of 1995’s better thrillers, CRIMSON TIDE,  and one of the most underrated film’s of the 90’s, the Quentin Tarantino scripted TRUE ROMANCE).  The film has lush and visceral cinematography by Paul Cameron, who also this year gave a gritty realism to LA in Michael Mann’s COLLATERAL. 

Washington, a two time Oscar winner who’s as good as DeNiro at playing edgy characters with forcefulness and fiery conviction, plays the film’s main protagonist.  Clearly, this is an all-star effort, but the film left me feeling kind of empty.  The script is not as inquisitive or insightful as Helgeland’s previous masterworks, as it goes for cheap conventions and contrived payoffs rather than moments of tension or shocking reveals.  And the visual style by Scott (who often paints his film with his trademark use of lighting and camera work) seems so force-fed that I felt like I was not giving an opportunity to let the film play out within me. 

The film takes place in Mexico City (well realized by Cameron’s photographic eyes) where, as a title card tells us, that kidnapping is a frequent daily occurrence in the City.  Enter Creasy (Washington) an ex-Special Forces operative who now is an emotional recluse and an alcoholic.  Having great difficulty dealing with his past traumas (amazingly, the film’s absorbent running time does not allow for his past to be really fleshed out that much) he drifts south to Mexico and looks for some meaning.  He hooks up with an old pal named Rayburn (played by Christopher Walken – it's nice to see him play a larger character here than his typical Walken-esque cameo).  Rayburn, in an attempt to help out his troubled friend, gets him a job as a bodyguard.  The job, considering his pervious experience, is relatively easy: he is to protect, on a constant daily basis, the young Pita (Dakota Fanning), who is the young daughter of a successful and rich Mexican businessman, Samuel (Marc Anthony) and his American wife (the usually resourceful Radha Mitchell).  Obviously, since there is kidnapping occurring all the time in Mexico, Pita is a good target, considering her rich family ties.     

Creasy, being as emotionally vacant as most stressed-out anti-heroes are in these kinds of films, keeps his distance from his work, especially from the young and charming Pita.  Pita, of course, really likes Creasy and desperately wants to be his best friend, but he feels that it’s his job to be her bodyguard and nothing else.  Of course, with predictable results, Creasy grows increasingly more open with the girl.  I liked how the screenplay exhibits great patience with the developing and maturing relationship between this hardened and experienced killer and the young and whimsical child.  Their mutually bonding is predictable, but the screenplay allows it to develop slowly and does not feel the need to rush through a hasty exposition.  Within some time, he is so warmed over by her that he eventually becomes her swim coach (marine style) and helps her overcome her own low self-confidence in athletics.  The developing of this relationship is crucial, especially if the rest of the film will play out with any type of emotional resonance later. 

Then the inevitable happens -  young Pita is, indeed, kidnapped, with Creasy taken several bullets (a few too many, in my mind, to allow for a later and quick effective recovery).  While in the hospital, the transfer of ransom is completely botched with disastrous results.  Creasy, like the quintessential figure in revenge films, plots his…well…revenge…on the kidnappers with one single goal – kill every last one of them mother F'ers.  Eat your heart out, Frank Castle.  Creasy is not a total loner on his quest for absolute and timely revenge; he does have a few allies.  He depends on a Lois Lane-like reporter named Mariana (Rachel Ticotin) while she, in turn, relies on an ex-Interpol expert named Manzano (Giancarlo Giannini).  Of course, with these type of pictures, the anti-hero can only really trust “one person”, and that brings Creasy back to his old pal Rayburn who, despite his initial protests, decides to help his friend one last time.   In a city filled with people Creasy either does not know or trust, Rayburn is a means to an end for him. 

The film does have some strengths, and this is mostly apparent in the film’s first third, as we are introduced to the Creasy and Pita.  Creasy seems like a stock revenge anti-hero (God, everyone of them in the movies seems to be an alcoholic), but in the enormously capable hands of Washington, he carries the character to a higher level.  There’s a bit more complexity and range to his character than other clichéd figures in these film – he’s part loner, part emotionally removed, but he also has a keen sensitive side to him as well, not withstanding his unique ability to dispose of enemies in the oddest manner possible (a scene involving a bomb in a particular body cavity has grizzly results).  I liked the fact that Scott and Washington don’t feel the need to hold back with the character or warm him over to the point where he does not come across as malevolent.  When he wants to kill, he does so, and does not engage in those long, expository speeches before he inflicts pain.  Creasy is not passive, but a man of action. 

His early scenes with Pita are crucial to establishing his willingness to flaunt with revenge and his willingness to do so.  Pita is played with a stunning maturity by Dakota Fanning, who has such a natural charm and effortless approach – she feels like she’s been an actor decades longer than her ten-year-old frame would dictate.  Fanning is fantastic, and an actor that will definitely go far.  The great Walken, of course, is always a wonderful addition to any film, and he has much more to work with here than his previous cameos in other films have given him.  However, he still manages one fantastic monologue that only he knows how to deliver: “Creasy’s art is death, and he’s about to paint his masterpiece.”  Fantastic stuff. 

Despite the film’s great performances, it fails on a lot of other levels.  MAN OF FIRE sort of dies a slow death after the kidnapping and engages in, more or less, the anticipated formulas of these kinds of pictures.  It does not really have the dark and goofy charm of THE PUNISHER and is played much more seriously and earnestly than both that film and KILL BILL.  Maybe that’s a problem - the film’s own inherent tone.  The plot kind of languishes in scene after scene of ghastly revenge, where Washington seems to appear and disappear at will and do things to people so heinously (and in broad daylight) that it’s a miracle that no one ever notices or apprehends him.   There are some elements to the story that are borderline ridiculous, like how Creasy (who apparently shot and killed two cops during the kidnapping of Pita) is allowed to walk around willfully in and around Mexico, gain entry to establishments, and shoot, punch, kick, dismember, hell, even blow up people without being arrested?! 

There is one inane moment where he whips out a missile launcher and fires away at the targets.  For a film that tries to be grounded in reality, MAN ON FIRE has a hard time making me believe in it.  Not to mention, the tangled and complex plot leads to one character that I spotted a mile away and then leads to a reveal that is not so much shocking as it was forced and contrived.  The end of the film also makes no sense logically and made me question, over and over again, the mindset and strategy of Creasy (for more detail on this, see my comments after the review, which contains spoilers). 

The most nerve-wracking element of MAN ON FIRE is its wickedly overdone visual style.  When are directors going to realize that sometimes the best way to simply tell a story is to tell it simply?  Scott, to his credit, has always been a gifted visual director, and some of his past films have, indeed, looked sensational.  There is no doubt that Mexico takes on a real character in this film, but it's is Scott’s increasingly obsessive use of MTV-like images, editing, and cutting that grows so extreme that it builds to a crescendo of complete annoyance.  Visual style often works to a film’s overall effect (i.e. REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, NATURAL BORN KILLERS), but here it's just mindless eye candy that only appears to serve the purpose of distracting the audience from the real meat and potatoes of the film, which should be the story.  His visual flair becomes so questionable, with an abusive use of subtitles when not warranted, that it produced some unintended laughs on my part.  It's funny, as the film’s first third plays out wonderfully, but the remaining churns out looking like a perverted music video that I’ve seen countless times on TV.  The visuals are made all the more perplexing if you consider the overall running time of the film.  Perhaps, in its two hour plus running time, the film could have spared us less useless visual eccentricities and focused more on a plot that I believed in.  The film had patience early on, and then lost its way. 

MAN ON FIRE is not a bad film, just a severely misguided effort.  Washington plays a very effective protagonist and Dakota Fanning is really winning as the little girl with a big heart for her bodyguard.  It’s just a shame the film was not more, and especially for a film that is too long for its own good and where its lack of development proves itself to be even more disappointing.  It suffers from too much gloss on its surface and not enough investment on what’s inside of it that makes it truly tick.  Slick and polished to be sure, but MAN ON FIRE is not much more than a well-acted, overwrought and predictable revenge thriller. 

There is a moment in the film  where Creasy sets a remote detonated bomb (set off by his watch) to kill a man.  At the end of the film, after the rescue of Pita, he seemingly gives himself over to the kidnappers.  If his thirst for revenge was THAT great, and he knew he was going to die, why not set a remote bomb on himself and detonate it with his watch and take them out with him??

 

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