Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 2 hour 26 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Language and Strong Violence
Directed by: Tony Scott
Written by: Brian Helgeland
(based on the novel MAN ON FIRE by A. J. Quinnell)
Starring: Denzel Washington, Dakota Fanning, Radha Mitchell, Marc Anthony, Christopher Walken, Giancarlo Giannini, Rachel Ticotin, Jesus Ochoa, Mickey Rourke & Roberto Sosa
The second adaptation of A.J. Quinnell’s novel of the same name, MAN ON FIRE is a movie that sounds like your average action flick on paper. You’d be mistaken though, because the film is actually an intense thriller with a heavy dose of humanity injected into it. Directed in flashy style by Tony Scott and maintaining a somber tone throughout, MAN ON FIRE is a special kind of revenge thriller that came out during a time when revenge thrillers were Hollywood’s latest fad (THE PUNISHER, WALKING TALL, both KILL BILL films, and a ton of low-rent action flicks). MAN ON FIRE may be far from perfect or amazing, but it’s a solid thriller and contains one of Denzel Washington’s best performances.
John Creasy (Denzel Washington) is a washed-up former CIA officer and Marine. Deeply depressed by his dark past, Creasy spends his days drinking himself to death and waiting for the sweet embrace of death to arrive. His life changes in Mexico City, when he’s hired by a rich family as a discount bodyguard. His charge is their nine-year-old daughter, Pita (Dakota Fanning). Though rough-around-the-edges Creasy is not looking to make friends, he soon develops a strong bond with Pita. The two get along famously as he helps her with school and competitive swimming, while she gives him a reason to live again. Their friendship comes to an abrupt end when Pita is kidnapped and Creasy is shot multiple times. Instead of taking time to heal, the rage-filled Creasy executes a chaotic revenge against all those who were remotely involved in Pita’s kidnapping…which takes him into some very dark places.
Instead of shooting in a traditional, steady format, director Tony Scott opts for frenetic cinematography in MAN ON FIRE (which also springs up in the Tony Scott’s later work). While the quick editing and flashes occasionally become detrimental and hinder a few potentially great scenes, this stylish approach is more effective than I initially expected it to be. MAN ON FIRE could have easily been a cheap, low-rent 80’s action flick (and actually was exactly that in 1987) in other hands. Scott’s style, Denzel Washington’s performance, and Brian Helgeland’s screenplay all add deeper layers to the film. Creasy isn’t simply getting revenge for the sake of showing intense on-screen violence. Instead, we frequently see Pita in the background and flash across his mind as a constant reminder for his motivations. As a result, we support his grisly mission whole-heartedly. These touches add an appropriately somber tone to a film that contains lots of gruesome torture, firefights, and explosions.
Washington plays the sullen Creasy in a way where I felt that I instantly knew this character…even before some exposition is delivered about his violent past. Washington’s body language and subdued line delivery clue us into the idea that Creasy is a severely damaged individual who’s worthy of sympathy…especially when his sole reason for living is stolen. Dakota Fanning plays Pita as a precocious, but likable, kid who has more knowledge about how corrupt her surroundings are than most other nine-year-olds. The convincing chemistry between Fanning and Washington is undeniable as their emerging friendship develops naturally…and makes the last 90 minutes of the film into an almost cathartic experience as Creasy inflicts brutal retribution upon everyone involved in Pita’s kidnapping.
On the supporting side of things, Christopher Walken shows up as Creasy’s former colleague turned friend. Though his character only exists to occasionally spout exposition, Walken does the most he can with the part. Another character who serves as a one-note plot device is Lisa Ramos (Pita’s mother), played Radha Mitchell. Ironically, two seemingly minor characters who are initially set up as obvious plot devices evolve into something more as Rachel Ticotin (playing a journalist with connections) and Giancarlo Giannini (playing an honest AFI agent) receive their own subplot that weaves in and out of Creasy’s main storyline. I won’t say much about the villains as their performances are brief, but they do receive satisfying comeuppances as Washington’s Creasy begins to catch and punish them. One interrogation scene involving a creative use of C-4 is especially cringe-inducing.
Narratively speaking, MAN ON FIRE feels far more like an adrenaline-filled mystery than a simple action flick. Creasy might be all about revenge, but he has to discover what happened in order to get that revenge. I have a big problem with the film though as a major plot twist is given away in the first ten minutes. Though some could argue that this early reveal adds extra suspense, I felt it compromised an otherwise effective surprise. For all my complaints (bland side characters, flashy quick editing, and a twist spoiled early on), MAN ON FIRE still gripped me from beginning to end. Denzel Washington is undeniably great as the somber, reserved Creasy. MAN ON FIRE puts a refreshingly emotional and believable human spin on an action formula that’s been used hundreds of times.