Man on Fire (2004) / Action-Thriller

MPAA Rated: R for strong violence and language
Running Time: 146 min.

Cast: Denzel Washington, Dakota Fanning, Marc Anthony, Radha Mitchell, Christopher Walken, Giancarlo Giannini, Rachel Ticotin, Jesus Ochoa, Mickey Rourke
Director: Tony Scott

Screenplay: Brian Helgeland (based on the book by A.J. Quinnell)
Review published April 25, 2004

Man on Fire is the second time A.J. Quinnell's novel has been adapted for the big screen, with the first time coming back in 1987 in an unsuccessful version starring Scott Glenn.  This 2004 version sees better actors all around, a much more mature Tony Scott (Top Gun, Spy Game) at the helm, and a post-9/11 world that has Americans crying out for merciless vengeance against all those who would terrorize us.  You can see these feelings in the plethora of vengeance films coming out of late, from The Punisher to Kill Bill to Walking Tall.  We are sick of the bad guys and need to see them pay in vicious, unrepentant ways, and Man on Fire is about as cold-hearted a dishing of unadulterated retribution as there has been since the Death Wish and Dirty Harry days.

Denzel Washington (Out of Time, Antwone Fisher) stars as Creasy, a former Special Ops agent now struggling with alcoholism, suicidal thoughts, and a painful past.  He consents to taking a gig as a bodyguard for Lupita (Fanning, i am sam), a young daughter to a wealthy family in Mexico, where kidnapping have been running rampant, and very few of the children taken survive.  Creasy finds solace in he relationship he forms with Lupita, but the inevitable happens, and Creasy isn't going to stand back and see the one reason he has found to live for suffer.

Man on Fire reunites Scott with Washington, star of his best film (arguably) Crimson TIde, to mostly successful results.  Scott's choppy camerawork takes some getting used to, and his lackadaisical, slow-motion style does make the film feel as if it is going nowhere for a while.  This feeling is deceiving, as all along there are elements that serve for much-needed character development, and the grittiness of the story does keep you on the edge of your seat, wondering what terrible acts will await us as Creasy goes on his one-man rampage of vengeance.

It's riveting stuff once it gets going, and very well executed in how uncomfortable it makes us in seeing Creasy come alive.  We're exhilarated watching him show no mercy, as he does serve justice to a situation that would see children slaughtered needlessly, and the only semblance of authority is a police force that is rotting from corruption.  Still, there is much in Creasy's actions that is repulsive, as he seems to take great pride in making his intended victims suffer cruelly in their final moments, as if it isn't enough for them to die -- they need to die horribly.  It's a sadistic, stomach-turning film in many ways.

Just a warning: although Washington and Scott ultimately make Man on Fire work on many levels, this is not a film for everyone.  If you are squeamish when it comes to acts of torture, whether you feel it is just or not, there are a few scenes that will probably have you covering your eyes in shock.  It is also a dark and depressing film, as it deals in the abduction and killing of small children, and the tone is always deadly serious.

However, there is no question that Man on Fire is an effective film, even if it just makes you angry and sickened, and for a primal, visceral revenge film, the goods are delivered with a wallop.  It's long and bitter, but the payoff is big enough to justify, and if you crave a bit of the ultra-violence, you'll get what you seek here.

Qwipster's rating:

2004 Vince Leo