moviebuff801: Time Capsule Reviews: Man on Fire (2004)

Posted: December 13, 2012 by moviebuff801 in moviebuff801's Movie Reviews, Time Capsule Reviews

Release Date: April 23rd, 2004

Running Time: 2 hours and 26 minutes

Written by: Brian Helgeland

Based on: The novel by A.J. Quinnel

Directed by: Tony Scott

Starring: Denzel Washington, Dakota Fanning, Christopher Walken, Radha Mitchell

Note: I had originally meant to review this film sooner after director Tony Scott’s suicide this past August, but I got sidetracked.  Better late than never, though.

Unlike the majority of perfunctory promises of retribution uttered by a wealth of other hardened badasses in action movies, when John Creasy (Denzel Washington) vows he’ll “do what I do best – anybody who gets in my way, anybody who profited from it, anybody who opens their eyes at me — I’m gonna kill ‘em,” his words carry real weight.  We can tell he means it, and by that point in director Tony Scott’s Man on Fire, we want to see him fulfill that promise.  And that, fellow readers, is part of what makes this film work so well.

John Creasy (Washington) is a burned-out CIA operative who seems content spending his days drowning his memories in alcohol.  One day, Creasy’s old CIA buddy Paul Rayburn (Christopher Walken) offers him the position of bodyguard to nine year-old Pita Ramos (Dakota Fanning), daughter of businessman Samuel Ramos (Marc Anthony), who makes his living alongside his family in Mexico City.  Pita is the usual precocious sort of little girl who just wants to be friends with the man protecting her, and despite Creasy’s attempts to remain detached from his charge, he eventually finds a friendship blossoming between them.  This connection is so strong, in fact, that when Pita is eventually abducted by kidnappers, Creasy takes it very hard and personally vows to Pita’s mother (Radha Mitchell) that he will do whatever it takes to exact revenge on those who took her.  What follows is a trail of violence and carnage that only a man of Creasy’s status is capable of.

I consider Man on Fire the true highlight of Tony Scott’s career.  It’s a film that not only takes advantage of the visually unrelenting style that was a trademark of Scott’s later efforts, but it also serves as a prime example of just how good of a storyteller he could be.  Usually, Tony Scott injected most of his movies with breakneck, and sometimes aggressive pacing, but here he actually showed a surprising deal of restraint.  Rather than getting into the revenge element of the story as soon as possible, Man on Fire instead takes its time getting to that and spends the first hour really bringing us to care about everything.  So by the time Pita is abducted and the story takes its inevitable turn, it actually means something other than jump-starting all the explosions and gunplay.  The amount of restraint that Scott displays during this first half is somewhat of a surprise from him, and it serves to be rewarding for the film in the long run.

That first hour mainly focuses on building the relationship between Creasy and Pita, and through the top-notch performances of Denzel Washington and Dakota Fanning, it’s something that feels tender and sweet, but especially touching.  Not once does it come off as creepy or forced.  Washington handles Creasy’s transition from worldweary and detached to caring and retributive with the kind of skillful grace that reminds us exactly why he’s such a good actor in the first place.  There’s never any point in this film where it feels as if this is all just the work of story requirements, instead you just buy this evolution every step of the way.  Not only is this the best performance Tony Scott ever got out of him during the pair’s many collaborations, I also consider this one of Washington’s best performances, period.  Then, there’s Dakota Fanning, who could have easily overplayed that cuteness factor other young actresses would have fallen victim to, but rather makes Pita’s childlike curiosity naturally likable and charming.  It’s really the strength of the bond between Creasy and Pita that helps this film be so good.

Part of that is also owed to the script by Brian Helgeland, adapted from the novel by A.J. Quinnel.  As I’ve already mentioned, Man on Fire feels very balanced, and Helgeland is as worthy of praise for that as Tony Scott is.  I can’t speak for how good of an adaptation of Quinnel’s source material this film really is, but what I can say about this script is that it reaches beyond just being a run-of-the-mill revenge tale by treating the characters smartly and pacing the plot well, while also wisely showing Creasy’s acts of violence as business-like instead of pleasurable for him.  Denzel Washington obviously accomplishes a lot of that through his acting, but it’s the way Brian Helgeland writes his dialogue and actions in these scenes that solidify it.  In lesser hands, I think there would have been a temptation to show a savage delight on Creasy’s part, but this movie thankfully avoids that.  Helgeland also isn’t afraid to shy away from the brutality that Creasy shows his victims, thus adding to the queasy reality.  Overall, the script is surprisingly well-written, and while the story may have one or two twists that I find either predictable or simply one-too-many, it’s still more involving than most others in the genre.

So, I mentioned earlier that I think Man on Fire is Tony Scott’s best film.  Better than Top Gun, you ask?  Well, considering that I think Top Gun is overrated, then yes, but that’s a conversation for another time.  To me, Man on Fire is Scott’s best blend of story and style, but I want to focus on that style for a second.  When the action starts up in the second half, this film becomes pretty hyper-kinetic, allowing Scott to make some very interesting choices.  For example, in a scene where Creasy announces the remaining time on a bomb, Scott cleverly shows the readout on the edge of the screen as the seconds gradually tick down.  Also, subtitles don’t just appear on the bottom of the screen whenever a character speaks in another language – they appear beneath the corresponding characters themselves.  Sure, these are little things, but I appreciated them a lot.  Now, some may find the energy the film takes on in this second half to be exhausting and/or annoying, but I really enjoyed it.  This would start a trend where Scott’s films would feature the same kind of style, but Man on Fire remains the movie that uses it best.

While not a perfect film, Man on Fire is still a piece of high-grade entertainment that tells a compelling story and delivers intense action.  It’s the movie that shows that when he was at the top of his game, director Tony Scott really was a man on fire.

***1/2 /****

  1. Man, it’s been a while since I’ve seen this. I do remember loving it, though.

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