After spending 16 years in the military and doing extensive counter- terrorism work, John Creasy (Denzel Washington) finds himself at the end of his rope, an alcoholic has been who wonders whether God will forgive him for the horrors he’s done for his country. Then one day when he’s down in Mexico to visit old army buddy Rayburn (Christopher Walken), he’s introduced to a wealthy industrialist (Marc Anthony) who needs a new bodyguard to protect his young daughter Pita (Dakota Fanning).
And what do you know, our broken antihero reluctantly befriends the little girl and finds redemption in the process. She makes him remember how to smile and love and… Ok, this sounds like grande cheese-o, but these early scenes are pretty good. Nothing great, but it works. Washington is solid as always, and we can see how Fanning brightens this troubled soul’s days. Some critics are really harsh on her, saying she’s creepy and annoying, but she doesn’t bother me. In fact, she’s got some of that young Jodie Forster spunk, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
What I found more problematic is Brian Hegeland’s writing. Like his overrated Mystic River screenplay, “Man on Fire” lacks subtlety and has a tendency to indulge in contrived metaphors. After Tim Robbins’ ridiculous “vampires and wolves”, here we get little Pita comparing her bodyguard to her Teddy Bear: “He’s like a bear, too. A big sad bear.” Creasy Bear also reads the Bible, talks about God and has scars on his hands. He’s a bona fide Christ figure but he doesn’t know it (like Schwarzenegger in End of Days) and if you know your Jesus, you know what choice he’ll make when given the opportunity to give his life to save another.
I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by telling you that Pita gets kidnapped and that Creasy spends the second half of the film bringing a world of hurt to the scumbags responsible. As mentioned, the bonding scenes are ok, but after an hour of them you become eager for the little girl to get kidnapped already so the action can begin – Commando did this in two minutes then went straight for the bloodbath!
“I’m gonna do what I do best. Kill ‘em.”
“You’re talking about a war, Creasy.” “Exactly.”
“Forgiveness is between them and God. It’s my job to arrange a meeting.”
“Creasy’s art is death. He’s about to paint his masterpiece.”
These kind of lines are gravy for an action movie fan like myself, promising tons of thrills and excessive violence. Unfortunately, what follows is just not that badass. There are some inventive torture sequences, Denzel makes good use of his shotgun a few times and there’s a couple of nice explosions, but is that a “war”? A “masterpiece of death”? I don’t think so. Instead of getting the epic massacre promised, we get a couple of really lame twists and a spectacularly unsatisfying ending.
Still, there are things I enjoyed about “Man on Fire”. Tony Scott directs the hell out of it, so much that it will give some headaches. Myself, I enjoy how Scott is endlessly speeding up or slowing down images, messing with the focus, multiplying fast cuts and flashes… He does this awesome thing with subtitles too, moving them across the screen or making them really big, like captions in a comic book. The film also makes great use of Nine Inch Nails’ The Mark Has Been Made as a recurring theme that echoes Creasy’s slow-burning rage. Fanning and Washington work surprisingly well together and Christopher Walken is a joy every time he’s on screen. Good stuff, but not enough to make up for the film’s flaws.