We are informed at the beginning of Man On Fire that there is a kidnapping in Latin America every sixty minutes, and 70% of those kidnapped do not survive. These are frightening statistics indeed, but also set the tone for the gritty and grim Man On Fire.
Following in the footsteps of this year’s theme of revenge (see The Punisher and Kill Bill Vol. 2), Man On Fire stars Denzel Washington as John Creasy, an alcoholic loner who needs a job. He is hired by Samuel Ramos (Anthony) to protect his daughter, Pita (Fanning). Ramos’ wife, Lisa (Mitchell), has no issues with the decision and soon welcomes Creasy into their home.
Creasy at first rejects getting attached to young Pita, who is full of smiles and admiration for him. She begins to see him as a father figure in place of Samuel, who is constantly away on business. Creasy soon faces the fact that he really likes the girl, and begins to give her swimming lessons to train for the big meet at her school.
Tragedy strikes when, despite Creasy’s best efforts, Pita is kidnapped. The outburst of kidnappings in the city is believed to be linked to organized crime. After recovering from several gunshot wounds, Creasy takes it upon himself to get to the bottom of things, using whatever means necessary.
Man On Fire emerges as both a successful revenge tale, as well as emotional tale. The first act is very long, but does a great job of developing the characters into people we actually care about. By the time we get to Pita’s kidnapping, we are fully involved in the story and can root for Creasy. The film does become extremely violent and torturous for its last ninety minutes, but as the audience we feel justice is being served. Given the harsh and horrific conditions of the environment, Creasy’s actions are done by a man with love for the girl he was hired to protect. In his mind, he has nothing to lose.
The film’s greatest strength is its acting. Washington again plays a vulnerable, yet determined character. His performance is very tight, especially in the scenes where he really has to lay it on thick. Impressing once again here is young Dakota Fanning, who is not only very cute but also a great actress. She is really the key to the film. If we do not care about Pita, then what’s to care about? Also faring well in a smaller role is the always-dependable Christopher Walken, who plays Rayburn, Creasy’s longtime friend. The line, “death is Creasy’s art, and he’s about to paint his masterpiece” will go down as a true Walkenism.
The film does run into problems in two areas: length and direction. Man On Fire is nearly two and a half hours, and this could have been cut down by tightening up the first act. After an hour into the film, the audience is ready for some action.
The second problem, and bigger one in my opinion, is the way the film was shot and edited. Director Tony Scott has gone nothing short of style-crazy here, making for an exhausting view. I do not think the camera every stays still, and he has even opted to stylize subtitles. The editing around the action scenes makes it difficult to tell what is going on at times, and by the time we reach the two hour mark just watching the film becomes as exhausting as the story unfolding. I will never be a fan of this type of erratic film making, which just ten years ago would have been dumped in favor of a re-shoot. The MTV generation (hey I’m part of it) seems to be getting their way.
Despite this, I cannot dock the film much. Man On Fire still boasts superb performances with a very fine story. Sure it runs a bit long and may be dizzying to watch for some, but it’s still a solid revenge film. Recommended for those who have just had a bad day.
Studio: Twentieth Century Fox
Length: 146 Minutes
Rating: R for language and strong violence.
Theatrical Release: April 23, 2004
Directed by: Tony Scott
Written by: Brian Helgeland. Based on the book by A.J. Quinnell.
Cast: Denzel Washington, Dakota Fanning, Marc Anthony, Radha Mitchell, Christopher Walken, Giancarlo Giannini