What can I say? You don't want to get Denzel mad. He becomes a man on fire.
Denzel Washington's 2004 action thriller, "Man on Fire," is at its heart a straightforward revenge picture with plenty of concurrent dumb action, but what it adds is more straightforward heart, too. The thing that separates this film from something like, say, Big Arnold's "Collateral Damage" is that we actually care about the character Washington is playing and we care about the cause he's involved in. None of which entirely justifies the sheer carnage the movie depicts, but it's a credit to the moviemakers' skill that we are willing to overlook the blood and gore for the sake of the characters involved. In other words, the movie works despite itself. So long as one continues to repeat under one's breath that "It's only an action thriller; it's only an action thriller," the film can be an action fan's delight.
I couldn't help thinking afterwards how harebrained the whole adventure was. Yet Washington is so charming, so charismatic, and so heroic in his role, he makes the movie. He brings it to life as I doubt any other actor could have done.
Washington plays John Creasy, a broken-down, washed-up, drunken ex-CIA assassin who has quit his post and is contemplating suicide. His best friend, Paul Rayburn (Christopher Walken), also ex-CIA, persuades him to stop feeling sorry for himself and get a job. He recommends one in Mexico, as bodyguard to the nine-year-old daughter of a rich young couple living in Mexico City. Creasy decides to go for it, giving life one more chance.
The couple, Samuel and Lisa Ramos, are played by Marc Anthony and Radha Mitchell, their daughter, Pita, played by Dakota Fanning. Turns out, the father hires Creasy because Creasy comes cheap, and the father is mainly concerned about the insurance premium on his family, given that the prologue tells us "There is one kidnapping every 60 minutes in Latin America. 70% of the victims do not survive." Ramos's lawyer, Jordan Kalfus (Mickey Rourke), tells him he can get a lower rate if he has a bodyguard for his daughter.
The movie is divided almost evenly between Creasy's getting acquainted with the little girl and Creasy's revenge when the little girl is kidnapped. The former part of the story is touching but overlong. The second part is far-fetched, intensely violent, and overlong. The movie is almost two-and-a-half hours in length and could have been edited by a good half hour or forty-five minutes.
Nevertheless, the movie kept me engaged, even when I knew full well I was being mercilessly manipulated. Creasy, you see, just wants to be left alone to do his job. But the little girl is both precocious and friendly and insists upon getting to know her chauffeur and bodyguard better. At first he wants no part of it; he's not keen on talking to anyone, especially a kid. But she preserves, and as we might expect, wins his heart. Eventually, the little girl, a Bible, and a faulty firing pin conspire to turn Creasy's life around. There are some poignant moments between Washington and Fanning that are hard to resist, with none of them ever becoming particularly cloying or sentimental.
Naturally, the girl does get kidnapped, and that scene is one of the most harrowing in the movie. When it's over, Creasy vows revenge. He becomes a one-man army of vengeance in a series of scenes that are so filled with ferocity and brutality you'd think they belonged in a different movie from the first half altogether. Yet, they are gripping, suspenseful, and occasionally exciting, too, so it's hard to fault them.
Just be careful you don't believe too much of what you see. After the kidnapping, Creasy is wounded but makes a miraculous recovery. People get shot right and left, but nobody seems to notice. Creasy takes up with a crusading newspaper woman, Mariana Guerrero (Rachel Ticotin), who seems never to actually write a story. He also gets able assistance from a federal investigator, Miguel Manzano (Giancarlo Giannini), who is more than willing to let Creasy liquidate every person in Mexico City involved in any way with the kidnapping plot. By the end of part two, the movie has turned into one of those "Friday the 13th" slasher flicks where we're more interested in how the victims are going to die rather than about any of the characters or the circumstances themselves.
The film should have been even better than it is, though, coming from the capable hands of director Tony Scott ("Top Gun," "Days of Thunder," "Enemy of the State," "Spy Game") and screenwriter Brian Helgeland ("L.A. Confidential," "Payback," "Conspiracy Theory," "Blood Work," "Mystic River"). But this one sort of got away from them as they apparently tried to throw in everything but the kitchen sink. Maybe they tried too hard to follow all of the details of A.J. Quinnell's novel. Maybe having both Christopher Walken and Mickey Rourke in the same movie was overkill, making us distrust everybody. Maybe Scott's over-the-top, stylistic gimmickry, like his wild, swirling camera movements and his oversaturated color schemes, got out of hand. I don't know. What I do know is that had the filmmakers trimmed the excesses, which they could easily have done, they would have gotten an excellent 8 or 9/10 movie rating from me instead of the merely good 7/10 I'm giving it. Oh, well.
Be this as it may, Washington and Fanning, specifically, are so unaffected, so sincere, you actually forget the nonsensical plot they're involved in. I mean, how can you resist lines like this one from Creasy's friend, Rayburn: "Creasy's art is death. He's about to paint his masterpiece." Or this one from Creasy as he explains why he's about to blow away several baddies: "Forgiveness is between them and God. It's my job to arrange the meeting."
Corny? Yeah, probably, and harsh. But it helps make the second half of the movie pretty intense, in any case.
The color saturation I mentioned earlier does not make for the most pleasing visual experience, but it was obviously done to heighten the movie's edge. The result is a visual image that has a dark, hard, glassy appearance, with the darker areas of the screen failing to admit much detail. There is, however, very little grain in this anamorphic transfer, and only a few instances of shimmering lines. The wide, 2.13:1 screen dimensions across a standard television capture most of the film's original aspect ratio.
In English, the sound is available for playback in either Dolby Digital 5.1 or DTS 5.1 Surround. I listened in DD 5.1, where the bass makes itself known straightaway, tempting the listener to turn down the volume. I advise against it, however, as voices will be too soft. Instead, live with the deep response and the enormously wide dynamic range, and hope your neighbors won't mind. The surround speakers are used mainly for musical ambiance reinforcement, but there are also the occasional gunshots, claps of thunder, and helicopter flyovers to consider.
There are only two serious extras on the disc, and they are both audio commentaries. The first is with director Tony Scott, and the second is with actor Dakota Fanning, producer Lucas Foster, and screenwriter Brian Helgeland. There is also an Inside Look at Fox's "Taxi," but I don't count that as much of an extra. Beyond the commentaries, there are twenty-eight scene selections; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; and English and Spanish subtitles.
"Man on Fire" presents its story so earnestly that it makes you forget much of the time just how preposterous it all is. It's not a great action thriller because just about the time you DO start taking it seriously, it goes overboard on you and makes you shake your head. Had the filmmakers attempted to evoke greater credibility, it might have worked better. But whatever the film's shortcomings, it kept me interested most of the time, which is all I expect a film worthy of its salt to do. Not great, as I say, but good enough to keep action fans happy.