Should I Watch..? 'Man On Fire' (2004)
What's the big deal?
Man On Fire is an action thriller film released in 2004 and is an adaptation of A.J. Quinnell's 1980 novel of the same name. Directed by Tony Scott, it stars Denzel Washington as a former CIA agent now working as a bodyguard in Mexico when his charge, played by Dakota Fanning, is kidnapped. The film's supporting cast includes Christopher Walken, Mickey Rourke, Marc Anthony and Radha Mitchell. The film topped the US box office when it was released and took a total of $130 million worldwide, despite the film receiving a mixed critical reaction at the time. Quinnell himself was impressed with the film as it used more of his dialogue than an earlier French-Italian production in 1987. It also spawned a Bollywood remake the following year.
What's it about?
Burnt-out ex-CIA operative John Creasy reunites with his old colleague Paul Rayburn in Mexico where Rayburn operates a private security firm. With kidnappings in Mexico becoming ever more prevalent, local businessman Samuel Ramos hires Creasy via Rayburn's agency to protect his nine-year-old daughter "Pita". Despite suffering from depression and alcoholism, Creasy strikes up a friendship with Pita which is interrupted when she is kidnapped after a piano lesson and Creasy is shot several times and left to die.
Samuel and his wife Lisa Ramos agree to pay the kidnappers a ransom of $10 million as per the instructions of someone calling themselves "La Voz". Arranging payment through their lawyer Jordan Kalfus, things go wrong when the ransom is taken by members of a local gang instead. Creasy recovers from his injuries and swears to Lisa that he will hunt down and kill everyone involved in Pita's abduction and he sets about his mission with brutal, horrifying efficiency...
What's to like?
Washington is one of those rare actors that manage to captivate and hold your attention regardless of the quality of the film he finds himself in and Man On Fire is arguably one of his best performances. The troubled Creasy could have been any action hero but Denzel does a fine job of portraying a desperate man doing desperate things. Alongside him, the young Fanning delivers a stunning performance as the vulnerable victim - dwarfing almost everything she's done since. Throw in Scott's trademark assuredness with it comes to shooting action scenes and you'd be forgiven for thinking that this film is an outright winner.
Oh, yes - I forgot about the action. The film is a veritable cornucopia of torture scenes, shoot-outs and bloodied bad guys that actually leave a bitter taste in the mouth - this isn't the Denzel Washington we're used to. It almost feels more akin to the likes of Taken at times with fingers and other body parts seemingly chopped off for fun. It might take its time to get going but fans of this sort of stuff will get their sick kicks eventually.
- Screenwriter Helgeland watched the original 1987 version after walking into a video store in Los Angeles and asked the clerk for a recommendation. The clerk in question was none other than a pre-fame Quentin Tarantino.
- Scott originally tried to direct a film version way back in 1983 but because he had not directed any significant hits at the time, the studios walked away from the deal.
- The novel is set in Italy which couldn't be used as a setting because kidnappings were much less common. Pita's original name was Pinta but had to be changed because "pinta" is Mexican slang for a whore.
What's not to like?
Unfortunately, I'm not one of those people. Call me old-fashioned but I prefer my heroes to be noble and honourable, not blood-thirsty butchers who maim first and ask questions later. And as much as I like Washington, I never really invested myself into the story which doesn't feel that deep. It's a dirty, grubby tale of nasty people getting a violent comeuppance and to be honest, I wanted more. Much more.
It doesn't help that the film is relentlessly bleak and oppressive despite the shimmering Mexican sunshine. If Y Tu Mamá También made Mexico feel bright, inviting and mysterious then Man On Fire makes Mexico feel dirty and overpopulated by murderous criminals and lawless gangs. There's little joy in the film to be found, even in the ending. If I wanted to see and hear about Mexicans killing and maiming each other then I would have turned on the news instead. It's a difficult film to enjoy and a harder one to like. It kinda feels like the entire enterprise was made because of contractual obligations - one wonders if Scott had grown less fond of the material in the years between his original attempt at making the film and the eventual outcome.
Should I watch it?
Depends. If you like your action on the wrong side of "brutal" then Man On Fire will reward the patient viewer. It gives Washington a decent character to get his considerable talents into while Fanning gives the sort of performance that makes me question my usual resistance to bratty child actors. And yet, the film badly misses a moral compass as it spirals into ever-challenging acts of brutality in the name of doing justice. Here is a man doing highly questionable things in order to do something right and so long as you're OK with that then you'll enjoy the film more than I did.
Great For: sickos, Fanning's admirers, action junkies
Not So Great For: Mexico's tourism industry, do-gooders, Washington's nice-guy reputation
What else should I watch?
The vigilante is one character guaranteed to split an audience who will either approve of their actions or not. Of course, not every vigilante goes as overboard as they do here - take the likes of Dirty Harry where Clint Eastwood's borderline-psychotic hero is a cop doing whatever he needs to get the job done. I've already mentioned Taken as another example of someone possibly going too far in a violent and memorable fashion but few go as far as Eric Draven in The Crow who not only comes back from the dead but whose cruel and unusual punishment for his killers is... well, you make up your own minds.
Denzel, of course, is one of the most successful actors of our time and has appeared in films as diverse as runaway train thriller Unstoppable which was also directed by Tony Scott, goofy sci-fi mystery Virtuosity and gritty crime drama Training Day, the last of which where he won his Best Actor Oscar. Antoine Fuqua's dark tale of an undercover narc going too far over the line remains Washington's finest hour to date alongside Ethan Hawke as the bewildered rookie realising too late just how far his colleague has taken things.
John W. Creasy
Guadalupe "Lupita" Martin Ramos
Lisa Martin Ramos
Brian Helgeland *
Release Date (UK)
8th October, 2004
Action, Crime, Thriller
© 2015 Benjamin Cox