In yet another remake, Denzel Washington stars as a fallen bodyguard who goes on a quest to find the men responsible for kidnapping the little girl that he was hired to protect. Man on Fire has drama, violence and lots of camera tricks, but is too much of a good thing just too much?
The venerable Washington plays Creasey, an ex-military man with a drinking problem who heads to Mexico City under the advice of his friend (the venerable Christopher Walken) to become the bodyguard for a wealthy yet struggling family. Though he resists friendship at first, he falls in love with the little girl he is to protect, Pita (Dakota Fanning), but in an entirely non-Michael Jackson kind of way. One day, though, they are attacked, Pita is kidnapped and Creasey is left to bleed to death. Meanwhile, the ransom exchange goes bust and Pita is apparently killed. Unfortunately for the bad guys, Creasey does not die and goes on a rampage to destroy those who killed his friend.
There is nothing exceptionally new about Man on Fire, regardless of the fact that it is a remake of a Scott Glen movie. It is your pretty typical revenge fare, except that this one is fairly heavy-handed in the drama department. The movie spends a lot of time developing the relationship between Creasey and Pita, and looking at how this little girl helps Creasey overcome his longtime depression from some unnamed killing he did in the past. Amazingly, this first hour of Man on Fire is the best, thanks to the performances.
Fanning, who, understandably, gets most of her screen time in the first part of the movie, is impressive as the little girl. Though she hasn't become a household name, she is the equivalent of Haley Joel Osmet in terms of acting ability and look. She is cute, but she is also an incredibly gifted little actress, as long as you like the "wise beyond her years" kind of style. In reality, most children her age - 10 - are not that good at acting, and it is quite a catch to find an articulate kid that is seemingly as smart in real-life as she is on screen. In Man on Fire, she is likeable and seems not the least bit intimidated by as big of an actor as Washington.
Washington, non-surprising, is at the top of his game here. He isn't as vivacious as he was in Training Day, and don't expect an Oscar nod for his role here, but he still is incredible, showing magnificent range from being a "big, sad bear" to a loving friend to a ruthless killer. His last two big movies, Out of Time and Antwone Fisher, were okay but mark a rather inconsistent stretch in his long line of well-done movies. We will forget that John Q ever happened. Regardless, it is nice to see him back in form, even if Man on Fire itself will probably be forgotten in a matter of years.
The problem with Man on Fire may also be its selling point, and that is the direction Tony Scott. Scott, who also directed Washington in Crimson Tide, likes to play with the camera a lot; in fact, there isn't a second in the movie where the frame isn't moving, or when he hasn't placed several layers of film over one another. The result is a frenetic, almost beautiful sense of motion that works very well in some scenarios, but ultimately becomes overwhelming. The direction isn't bad, but Scott's incessant pursuit for a "different look" is a bit distracting. Most noticeable is the subtitles (some of the movie is in Spanish); unlike in most movies, where the subtitles appear at the bottom in standard text, Scott plasters the screen with subtitles, enlarging the words if they need more emphasis. For the most part, this style works, but after a while things go overboard and the whole production ends up feeling like an MTV production, and that is not a compliment. The worst moments were when Scott used subtitles when the characters were speaking English.
Aside from the direction, which fluctuates along the line between excellent creativity and distracting flash work (some people will say the former, others the latter), there are a few other little flaws that collectively are worth noting. Most of these problems arise in the third act of the movie, which, frankly, could have been done better. While the pace is fine in the first half of the movie (where there is no action), Man on Fire stumbles a few times near the end, even during the action-oriented scenes. Also, where does Christopher Walken go? Walken is one of the best actors alive, yet his character in Man on Fire seems to have absolutely no purpose. I was expecting to see him play some part in the final act of the movie, but apparently screenwriter Brian Helgeland forgot to include him. Third, the ending is just plain disappointing. While not necessarily bad, the conclusion is depressing, anticlimactic and a little confusing. Without giving away spoilers, it is hard to discuss the matter to any great extent, but it is difficult to understand why Creasey gets into the car. Surely, there are some deep, spiritual things at work here, but is that really what we want or need to see?
Man on Fire is a movie that works better as a drama than as an action movie. As a drama, the movie is at times quite powerful, thanks to the performances by the leading cast. As an action movie, Man on Fire is decent, but it never attains the level of suspense or excitement that is needed to finish off the story. All in all, Man on Fire is a good movie, but not a great one.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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