Man on Fire
by Del Harvey
Forgiveness is between them and God. It’s my job to arrange the meeting.
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John W. Creasy (Denzel Washington) is a man on a mission, only he doesn’t know it at first. He’s a soldier, a lifer who doesn’t know how to change his stripes, and he’s running from himself. He runs to his old friend, another former solider and mercenary for hire, Rayburn (Christopher Walken), now living the good life in Mexico City. Rayburn knows his friend is suffering and needs something to do, and he knows about a job that should be easy for a man who’s lost his way and turned to the bottle - a wealthy Mexican businessman needs a new bodyguard for his little girl. Creasy takes the job, reluctantly.
The spin is that the businessman’s (singer/actor Marc Anthony) wife is an American (Radha Mitchell). It seems their daughter Pita (Dakota Fanning) has picked up most of Mom’s genes, for she is a very blue eyed blonde. She is also very wise for her age, holding some very adult conversations with Creasy, who quickly becomes “Creasy Bear” to her, even though our lost tough guy has a difficult time accepting and admitting someone into his heart at first. Once little Pita is in, there is no shaking her. And Creasy’s joy is palpable.
The first day he drives her to school, Pita tells Creasy that there have been 24 kidnappings in Mexico City in the past 6 weeks. Creasy is surprised and impressed, as are we. As the days progress, Creasy helps Pita improve her swimming, so she can compete in the swim meet at her school. Pita’s mother is grateful to see the bond between her daughter and this American bodyguard, especially since her husband’s business dealings pull him away from home so much of the time.
When the inevitable finally does happen, there is a very surprising twist which throws Creasy offguard at first. Being a good bodyguard, and being concerned for Pita’s safety, he recovers fairly quickly. But the action has begun, and what follows satisfies and pays off for those who have come to see the latest ultimate revenge flick.
Where Man On Fire succeeds and where contenders on the same release schedule have failed (The Punisher, Waking Tall) is by investing us in strong characters who don’t feel as though they’ve just stepped from the pages of a comic book. Don’t get me wrong; I’m a huge fan of the comic book film genre, but some of the most recent renditions have been sadly lacking in the character development department. Director Tony Scott, working from a Brian Helgeland script, pushes his characters into the center of his numerous cameras, and the result is genuine and positive investment in these people and their story. As Creasy digs deeper into little Pita’s disappearance, and the distasteful state of corruption in the police department becomes clearer, we all cheer on this vigilante’s reprehensible actions from the safety of our viewing chair.
The cinematography is some of the best I’ve seen in recent memory. The film was shot by Paul Cameron, who also photographed Gone in 60 Seconds and Swordfish. Scott, who has directed such hits as Top Gun, True Romance, Enemy of the State, and Spy Game, adds another to the positive column on his resume with this film, a tightly spun, well-executed character story with a deliberate heart-on-its-sleeve style. All of the actors are outstanding, especially Washington and Fanning as the odd couple at the heart of our Shakespearean tragedy. Notable among the supporting players are Giancarlo Giannini and Rachel Ticotin as the “good guys” and Mickey Rourke and Jesus Ochoa as fence-sitters.
Man on Fire is already at the top of my list of American films for 2004. I recommend you see it and am willing to bet it will make you’re A-list, too.
Del Harvey is the founder of Film Monthly. He teaches screenwriting at Columbia College Chicago.
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