MAN ON FIRE
Burnt out ex-special agent John Creasy (Denzel Washington) is drifting aimlessly and drinking himself into oblivion when he catches up with his old partner in assassinations, Rayburn (Christopher Walken) in Mexico. Organised crime kidnappings of rich kids in Mexico City opens up an opportunity to work as a bodyguard, a job Rayburn helps him find. Creasy's client is 9 year old Pita (Dakota Fanning) daughter of industrialist Samuel Ramos (Marc Anthony) and his American wife Lisa (Radha Mitchell). At first resistant to Pita's probing into his personal life, Creasy gradually opens his heart to the innocent and endearing girl, and is devastated when she's kidnapped by a gang including corrupt police. He is badly wounded, but his fury keeps him going as he begins to hunt down the perpetrators, like a man on fire.
Review by Louise Keller:
A gritty and affecting drama about revenge and redemption, Man On Fire fires from all barrels with its engaging, albeit flawed characters, and an abundance of atmosphere on Mexico's corrupt streets. Director Tony Scott (Spy Game, Enemy of the State) combines a fictional narrative with spasmodic documentary-like footage, making effective use of a mix of eye-catching cinematic styles. Footage has been speeded up and slowed down, while film stock is occasionally reversed, resulting in harsh, stark visuals. This all works towards the building of tension, which comes to a startling climax in the third act. It's an outstanding and tough screenplay by Academy Award winner Brian Helgeland (LA Confidential), while Harry Gregson-Williams's music is anything but predictable.
Efficiently made with strong performances, Man On Fire is long at 146 minutes, and it's not until Denzel Washington's John Creasy takes matters in his own hands that the film really starts to crank up the heat. Washington's Creasy is a man haunted by his demons, who believes that "revenge is a meal best served cold". When we first meet him, it's as though he has given up on himself. Married to his bottle of Jack Daniels and his own inner torment, Creasy is impenetrable. Until he lets his heart be touched by the honest emotions of a nine year old, that is. Scott takes great pains (and quite a long time) to make sure we understand that Creasy does change, but certainly not overnight. Dakota Fanning (I Am Sam, The Cat in The Hat) has made a name for herself playing precocious youngsters, and here she is exceptional in her ability to underplay 'cuteness' to deliver a mature performance that is rich in its emotional depth.
Emotionally Washington is a master at delivering multi-layered tormented characters, and here he keeps it close to his chest. If the 'Denzel magic' works too well in the first scenes, we are given a shock reminder that Creasy is first and foremost an assassin with no conscience - "an artist who is painting his masterpiece". There are disturbing scenes indeed, as Creasy interrogates and brutally tortures those involved in the kidnapping. One of the most terrifying scenes is the one set above a seedy nightclub, where pulsating rhythms of the disco below conceal the noisy violence taking place above.
Radha Mitchell is a standout as Pita's distraught mother Lisa, and her delivery of several crucial scenes offer a rawness that touches a nerve. There's Christopher Walken - always a joy to watch - injecting plenty of business into Creasy's 'I don't kill anymore' friend Rayburn, Mickey Rourke's cigar-chomping attorney, and I especially liked both Rachel Ticotin's matter-of-fact journalist and the eminently charismatic Italian star Giancarlo Giannini, the honest cop drowning in a sea of corruption. His is the kind of role that might be played by Tcheky Karyo, and Giannini's 'lived-in' face displays a man whose experiences are mirrored by the lines on his face.
The camera may linger a little too long on Creasy's good-luck charm of St Jude, patron saint of lost causes, but for the most part, Scott has managed to avoid over-sentimentality. Shot for the most part in Mexico City, you can almost taste the corruption in the air - this is one of the film's great strength.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
The buddy movie meets revenge action drama in this carefully adapted screenplay by Brian Helgeland (LA Confidential), in which the buddies are a burnt out assassin who once worked for some agency, and a smart, warm hearted, bi-lingual 9 year old daughter of Mexican-American parents. The reason for the film's unusual length (for an action drama) is the importance of this relationship. Clearly the filmmakers wanted to pack the film with character and context. The result is a film of bleak moods and savage violence, juxtaposed with the warm, emotionally interesting relationship between the two central characters.
The fact that little Pita (young Dakota Fanning in another grown up role) provides the humanity to salvage Creasy the lost cause is a crucial part of the story if we are to care for any of it. And considering Creasy's brutal revenge tactics, this is good insurance so we don't get turned off him. The stinking cops who plunder their own countrymen and the vicious, selfish criminals who execute these crimes are shown the same mercy they show their victims: zero.
Revenge movies are risky business in moral terms, which is why this screenplay works so hard to balance Creasy's moral books. If it weren't for the inherent decency that Denzel Washington brings to Creasy, the movie would be doomed to ugliness. In fact, it could be argued that he is miscast as a ruthless killer capable of cutting off the fingers of crims to elicit leads to the crime bosses.
More suitable for his snaky, slimy role as a family lawyer is Mickey Rourke, and Christopher Walken is enjoyable as the dry old stick who knows Creasy inside out. Dakota Fanning is terrific as the cute kid with a big heart and a brain to match, while Australia's Radha Mitchell makes a strong impression as the distraught young mother.
Tony Scott injects cinematic flourishes to enhance the visual power of the film, ranging from zooms and optical effects to multiple screens. But his best work is in keeping up the tension in the first act, when there is not much action per se, as the characters are established. Assisted by a fine score from Harry Gregson-Williams, the film's tone is downbeat, apt for a work that doesn't shy away from the depths of Creasy's depression. This is the pit from which he must rescue his soul, and he does it in a great, ironic leap, which provides the film's most potent dramatic theme.
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MAN ON FIRE (MA)
(USA / Mexico)
CAST: Denzel Washington, Dakota Fanning, Marc Anthony, Radha Mitchell, Christopher Walken, Giancarlo Giannini, Rachel Ticotin, Jesús Ochoa, Mickey Rourke
PRODUCER: Lucas Foster, Arnon Milchan, Tony Scott
DIRECTOR: Tony Scott
SCRIPT: Brian Helgeland (novel by A.J. Quinnell)
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Paul Cameron
EDITOR: Christian Wagner
MUSIC: Harry Gregson-Williams
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Benjamín Fernández, Chris Seagers
RUNNING TIME: 146 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Fox
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: August 5, 2004
VIDEO DISTRIBUTOR: Fox Entertainment
VIDEO RELEASE: January 19, 2005