I find it ironic that I am reviewing Man on Fire on the same day that I've seen the new Star Wars film. For whilst that film did manage to invoke a little of the wonder so prevalent in my seven year old mind in 1977, I still came away thinking where was the substance, looks aren't everything, no matter how good. Conversely or alternatively, Man on Fire is an exercise in substance, style and maturity. Just how good the medium of cinema can be when the audience is treated with respect, just like the original Star Wars, is a terrific story exceptionally told.
Casey (Denzel Washington) is a near burnt-out special-ops soldier, trained in assassination, more a friend to the bottle than to his fellow man. Travelling 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 Walker) 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). Casey 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, Casey allows himself to warm to her affections, becoming a father figure, never more so when the training for the swim final. When the inevitable happens and Pita is kidnapped, despite a valiant effort by a wounded Casey, 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 phone call from the kidnappers informs the distraught parents that their daughter is with God. Casey, 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 the journalist Marian, he starts to track down the culprits, dispatching them with cold, calculated passion uncovering a huge conspiracy involving corrupt police 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 the 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 former kidnap capital Italy to resident kidnap capital Mexico giving a very contemporary feel to the movie. Scott makes no apologies for the different film stock used to convey mood and actions of the characters, often three or four different cameras are set up on the same scene, treated differently to produce a unique look when cut together. For the most part this works, especially for the abduction scene. But I did 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 Casey 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 Casey does, and it is genuinely horrifying when she is snatched from Casey and worse when you come to realise her fate. Moralistically there is much to question, the role of the vigilante is always questionable, from depictions like the Exterminator to those of Batman; one man should not be above the law. Casey exacts his revenge with cold cruelty, using torture to obtain his goals and murder with no chance of escape for the 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 Casey 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 a good job of hiding the truth, even to the point of removing many scenes (included in the deleted section) 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 wrapped up in a stylish manner that few can emulate; better than the new Star Wars? My adult mind says so.
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