Denzel Washington and Dakota Fanning in Man on Fire (2004)


(director: Tony Scott; screenwriters: from the novel by A.J. Quinnell/Brian Helgeland; cinematographer: Paul Cameron; editor: Christian Wagner; music: Harry Gregson-Williams; cast: Denzel Washington (Creasy), Dakota Fanning (Pita Ramos), Marc Anthony (Samuel Ramos), Radha Mitchell (Lisa Ramos), Christopher Walken (Rayburn), Giancarlo Giannini (Manzano), Rachel Ticotin (Mariana), Gero Camilo (Aurelio Sanchez), Jesus Ochoa (Fuentes), Mickey Rourke (Jordan Kalfus), Angelina Peláez (Sister Anna), Gustavo Sánchez Parra (Daniel Sanchez), Gero Camilo (Aurelio Sanchez); Runtime: 110; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Lucas Foster/Arnon Milchan/Tony Scott; 20th Century Fox; 2004)
“Incredibly revolting!”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Tony Scott’s incredibly revolting and meaningless Man on Fire is a sadistic revenge film that cannot be forgiven for its so-called string of righteous payback murders, but in the name of religious tolerance can be forgiven for being a film that is so easily forgettable. It is written by crime author maven Brian Helgeland of LA. Confidential fame and is based on a novel by A. J. Quinnell; it was previously filmed as a satire with just as rotten results in 1987 with Scott Glenn as Creasy. Without Denzel Washington we are talking about a made for television movie. With him, we are talking about a violently dismal flick that raises itself up from the dead to barely reach mediocrity. It wastes the talented skills of Christopher Walken with a bit part where he has nothing to do, but he draws some comedy from his joviality and habit of smacking his fingers to his lips after eating the local Mexican delicacies. But the writer couldn’t even come up with one funny line for him to utter.

The filmmaker after an almost bearable start, loses any track of coming up with a sensible story as he lets it become a disingenuous revenge bloodfest. The film’s second half settles in as a grim visual bloodbath with a steady wave of non-stop jerky camera action shots, speeded up montages, jump cuts and a rush to gore. Scott does his best to damage the reputation of Mexico City as a safe tourist vacation spot. The locale is given the full treatment as an out-of-control crime spot similar to Bogota, also a haven for kidnappers. We are informed that every sixty minutes someone in Mexico City gets kidnapped and that seventy percent of the incidents end up as fatal. Also, that the Mexico City kidnappings are done by organized crime, while in Colombia they are done for political reasons.

Creasy (Denzel Washington) is a former United State military intelligence agent who has become weary of his past top-secret role as an assassin and has in recent times become a down-and-out alcoholic who can’t find a reason to live any more. He crosses the border at El Paso and meets in Juarez his old war friend Rayburn (Walken), a retired assassin working a legit bodyguard business across the border. He helps secure for Creasy a bodyguard job with a wealthy local family, the Mexican Sam Ramos (Marc Anthony) and his American wife Lisa (Radha Mitchell), who are worried about their cute blonde elementary school aged daughter Pita (Dakota Fanning) being kidnapped. The wife is unaware that the factory Sam inherited from his dad comes with debts he must pay off and that hubby is in big financial trouble. Trying to help hubby smooth things out is his lawyer Jordan Kalfus (Mickey Rourke). Needless to say if Rourke is your lawyer, you can imagine what kind of help will be given.

We have to wait about 45 minutes before Pita gets kidnapped, but in the setup pieces the girl bonds with the despondent Creasy and gives him a will to live again after he lets down his guard and is seduced by her sweetness. He in turn coaches her to win a swimming meet. This sentimental scenario seemed to work because the actors had good chemistry together, even though Washington’s part was written as an overworked noir cliché– and, it was hard to believe either character was a real person.

When cutie-pie Pita is snatched coming out from her piano lesson in a hailstorm of bullets and Creasy gets hit before taking down two corrupt cops in on the kidnapping, the only question left in this heavy-handed predictable film is how the kidnappers will get their comeuppance as the soon-to-be recovered Creasy decides to become the lone avenger going after the kidnappers whom he believes killed Pita. Washington goes into action-hero mode and pulls out an arsenal of pistols, shotguns, and grenade launchers, as he launches his attack in a superhero style. This hard-boiled motivation for revenge comes after he starts reading the Bible and supposedly has returned to again being a religious believer (Umm!).

Walken gleefully tells the authorities to let his man alone to carry out justice, something the courts would not be able to do as efficiently. He goes on to say “He’s an artist of death and he’s about to paint his masterpiece.” We soon see his artistry, as he nabs one of the lowlife kidnappers and cuts off his fingers one by one to get info–as such a deed goes for painting a masterpiece in this pic. The film then ratchets up the violence even further and Washington goes after the corrupt police and the crime gang terrorizing the community, helped only by a crusading journalist (Rachel Ticotin) and, her lover of convenience, the city’s lone honest law enforcement official from the Mexican Agency for Federal Investigation (Giancarlo Giannini). To make things sappy and justify the revenge as some kind of weird biblical redemption, there are warm and fuzzy images of the innocent Pita continuously flashed on the screen — so that when her slimy abductors get ripped apart and tortured we as viewers can get our jollies from seeing such nasty creeps suffer. The point of the film seems to be to arouse in the viewer a bestial thirst for blood. It’s the kind of film that stoops to the basest level to be entertaining and has no respect for the viewer’s intelligence or for the serious nature of the very real child kidnappings that plague the modern world.


REVIEWED ON 4/25/2004 GRADE: C –