Man on Fire Review
I've wanted to revisit Scott's Man on Fire now for a couple of months. When I reviewed it over two and a half years ago now, I was hugely impressed and have watched it many times since. But I've been getting a hankering to watch it again so when I saw the release schedules from Fox and Man on Fire was amongst them I decided to save myself and wait for the HD version. Of course my opinions of the film have not changed at all since I originally saw it, if anything they've grown, so this review incorporates large parts of my original, though it has been tweaked and polished in a few places and is presented here as a final cut.
It never ceases to amaze me just how good the medium of film can be when the audience is treated with respect. We have been listening to stories since time immemorial and how we interact with any story depends upon the story teller. A good story teller will pull you into the moment, draw out your emotions and take you on a journey to wonderful, spellbinding situations full of rich characters and believable places. Story tellers may come and go, but the story they tell remains forever. At times I wonder how some stories manage to survive; whilst style plays an important part, there needs to be substance; a hook to reel you in and keep you enthralled. Take, for example, Lucas' 1977 Star Wars, a pinnacle in story telling; an age old tale exceptionally told. And yet it is tarnished by the prequels that are everything opposite; nothing but looks and no substance. Conversely or alternatively, Man on Fire, tonight's feature, is an exercise in substance, style and maturity; exactly the terrific story exceptionally told that I'm talking about. And what makes this tale so engaging are the hints of truth that are woven through out. Come then, let me take you on a journey through the dark and sinister world of kidnapping and extortion where the only light is a burning desire for vengeance.
Creasy (Denzel Washington) is a near burnt-out special-ops soldier, trained in assassination, more a friend to the bottle than to his fellow man. He travels to Mexico City, a place with the rather horrific statistic of having a person kidnapped every 60 minutes, to visit his one and only true friend Rayburn (Christopher Walken) in search of employment. He is pointed in the direction of body guarding and hired by Samuel and his (trophy) wife to protect their daughter Pita (Dakota Fanning). Creasy with his “hired to protect, not to be friends” attitude tries to stay detached from his charge, however Pita is unrelenting in her enthusiasm and charm, and when the two are forced into a closer relationship due to her parents constant business trips, Creasy allows himself to warm to her affections, becoming a father figure, never more so than when training for a swim final. When the inevitable happens and Pita is kidnapped, despite a valiant effort by a wounded Creasy, he is unable to save her. During his recovery, the parents agree to pay the ransom for their daughter, but things go wrong with the drop and a phone call from the kidnappers informs the distraught parents that their daughter is with God. Creasy, having allowed himself to feel, returns to his detached mindset with one simple goal - to inflict vengeance on all those responsible for Pita's kidnap. He employs the assistance of Rayburn to obtain weapons and with the connections of a journalist, Marian, he starts to track down the culprits, dispatching them with a cold, calculated passion. In doing so he uncovers a huge conspiracy involving police corruption in the process. Nothing is quite what is seems, except the bullet which “never lies”.
Tony Scott, like his brother Ridley, has a fantastic sense of style, but unlike Ridley, it has been known for that style to outstrip the substance. Thankfully, in the case of Man on Fire, that cannot be further from the truth. Based on the novel by A.J.Quinnell and reinterpreted from the 1987 version from Elie Chouraqui and starring Scott Glen, this version moves the action from the former kidnap capital of the world, Italy, to resident kidnap capital of the world, Mexico, thus giving a very contemporary feel to the movie. Scott makes no apologies for the different film stock used to convey mood and the actions of the characters. Often three or four different cameras were set up on the same scene and treated differently to produce a unique look once cut together. For the most part this works, especially for the abduction scene. But, personally, I think he over done it towards the end, the flashy inter-cutting and 'video' look of some cuts distracting from the narrative and pulling one from the movie.
No such qualms about the choices of actors though, each and everyone putting in a spellbinding performance. Special mention to Washington, whose portrayal of the burnt out Creasy is a joy to watch, from husk to love to vengeance, his is a journey most won't want to take. Little Dakota Fanning is an absolute delight, totally infectious, one cannot help but warm to her exactly as Creasy does and it is genuinely horrifying when she is snatched and even worse when you come to realise her fate. Chris Walken's part is more of a cameo but he comes across well, the scenes he shares with Washington are lovely to watch as the two old pros share a chemistry that make you believe they actually are the old soldiers they play. Mickey Rourke is wonderful as the sleazy lawyer, his devastating looks and silky yet gravely voice really adding something special to what is essentially a two minute scene. There is a truth to all the performances that hammers home that reality that this sort of horror is actually happening, even as you read this.
Moralistically there is a little bit to question; the role of the vigilante is always questionable, from depictions like the Exterminator (1980) to those of Batman; one man should not be above the law. Creasy exacts his revenge with a cold cruelty, using torture to obtain his goals and murder with no chance of redemption or escape for his victims. Scott sets up the mindset that all the 'baddies' are reprehensible and as such our loyalties should lie with the 'good guys' especially when Creasy is out for the sake of little Pita. And worst still it works, we do feel for him, we do cheer when he exacts his revenge, but it is a bitter cheer and one soured by the sordidness of it all. As conspiracies go this one is well told, even though most will guess half way through the protagonist(s), Scott does do a good job of hiding the truth, even to the point of removing many scenes (sadly not included on this release) that gave the game away too early and forcing the audience to guess and work out back-stories etc. something I think more Hollywood films should do.
Man on Fire, then, is a roaring success, with enough action, drama and pathos to appeal to just about everyone and wrapped up in a stylish manner that few can emulate. It is an adult story and like the best stories very well told. I'm glad I waited that extra month or two to re-watch it, as it brought a new sense of expectation and excitement; it drew me in and spat me out as it did the first time I watching it and will, no doubt, do so for many years to come.