Man on Fire
Man on Fire

USA, 2004. Rated R. 146 minutes.

Cast: Denzel Washington, Dakota Fanning, Marc Anthony, Radha Mitchell, Christopher Walken, Giancarlo Giannini, Rachel Ticotin, Jesús Ochoa, Mickey Rourke, Angelina Peláez, Gustavo Sánchez Parra, Gero Camilo
Writer: Brian Helgeland, based on the novel by AJ Quinnell
Original Music: Harry Gregson-Williams; additional music by Justin Caine Burnett and Toby Chu
Cinematography: Paul Cameron
Producers: Lucas Foster, Arnon Milchan, Tony Scott
Director: Tony Scott


Grade: C Review by Carlo Cavagna

R eleased just one week after the vigilante-on-a-revenge-fueled-rampage flick The Punisher, the vigilante-on-a-revenge-fueled-rampage flick Man on Fire is the same movie, with delusions of dramatic grandeur taking the place of The Punisher's much more modest comic-book sensibilities. That Man on Fire fails even to provide the basic escapist thrills offered by The Punisher is inexcusable, given that Man on Fire has something The Punisher does not. It has Denzel Washington.

When you cast Denzel Washington as a seriously flawed antihero, it's a good idea to let him just play the seriously flawed antihero. Avoid directorial masturbation that results in the camera never holding steady on him for more than a couple seconds at a time. This is Denzel , ferchrissakes! Just roll film and get out of the way.

Tony Scott (Top Gun, Spy Game) apparently has not read the Denzel Manual, because he spends the film aping his brother Ridley, John Woo, and other, much better action/thriller directors. Scott tries to add his own imprint with pointlessly flickering, jittery editing. Rather than underscoring and enhancing the narrative, the style obscures and distracts from what is actually happening. Playing with the editing machine must have felt better than smoking crack, because Scott and editor Christian Wagner could not lay off, and ask us to endure the jarring fruit of their endeavors for a whopping 146 minutes—kinda long for a vigilante-on-a-revenge-fueled-rampage flick to begin with.

Denzel Washington on fire
Denzel Washington on fire in Man on Fire.

Then again, maybe distracting from the plot is a good thing. Since sharing a credit with Curtis Hanson on L.A. Confidential, screenwriter Brian Helgeland has put his name on The Postman, Payback, and The Order. Mystic River broke his streak of mediocrity, but Man on Fire starts a new one. Helgeland has made Washington's Creasy an Ex-Black Ops Guy Who Has Seen Too Much. Character development consists of sticking a bottle in Creasy's hand and having him ask his buddy Rayburn (Christopher Walken) whether he thinks they'll ever be forgiven for what they've done. Sound familiar? Yep, he's the stock action/thriller antihero, seen also in The Punisher and countless Clint Eastwood movies. If we're going to spend two and a half hours with this guy, it would be nice to get a little more nuance than that.

Creasy takes a job in kidnapping-happy Mexico City as a bodyguard for young Pita, played by Dakota Fanning, who despite being the offspring of pop star Marc Anthony is actually paler and blonder than her mother Radha Mitchell (Pitch Black). We should not complain too loudly, though, because Fanning (I Am Sam, Uptown Girls) may be an even finer child actor than Haley Joel Osment is (or was, at this point).

Pita gets kidnapped, of course. Otherwise you don't have a movie. However, there's an hour-long first act before we get to the kidnapping so that Helgeland and Scott can establish the relationship between Pita and the closed-off Creasy. Even though the end of the ponderous first act comes as a relief, Fanning's exit is a major loss to the film.

The kidnapping itself is a complex chain of events involving too many characters to keep straight, but if you can't guess the one twist, you probably haven't seen enough movies. In any case, Denzel's revenge is far too easily accomplished. Much is made of the fact that drinking slows the senses and dulls reactions, but in spite of all the footage of Creasy slugging whiskey, that information never becomes a plot point. At one point Creasy is supposedly under arrest, but he walks out of custody courtesy of an anti-corruption cop (Giancarlo Giannini) and a journalist (Rachel Ticotin) willing to look the other way. Creasy only gets into serious trouble when the story requires it for thematic reasons. After all, when an antihero goes searching for redemption in a Hollywood movie, certain things must happen.

While The Punisher takes place in some alternate comic-book universe where recovering junkies waitressing in greasy spoons look like Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Man on Fire tries to be about our world. But you can't make a great movie about the real world out of a stock script, even with a generous budget and actors like Denzel Washington, Dakota Fanning, and Christopher Walken on board. Better directors than Tony Scott have tried and failed. Yet you can feel Scott straining in every frame to accomplish just that. Had he contented himself with making a simple vigilante-on-a-revenge-fueled-rampage flick, Man on Fire might have truly caught fire.

Review © May 2004 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2004 20th Century Fox. All Rights Reserved.

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