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Dustin Putman

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Man on Fire (2004)
3 Stars

Directed by Tony Scott
Cast: Denzel Washington, Dakota Fanning, Christopher Walken, Radha Mitchell, Marc Anthony, Rachel Ticotin, Giancarlo Giannini, Mickey Rourke, Jesus Ochoa, Angelina Pelaez, Gustavo Sanchez Parra, Gero Camilo, Rosa Maria Hernandez, Heriberto Del Castillo, Mario Zaragoza
2004 – 146 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for strong violence and language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, April 24, 2004.

The fourth revenge thriller in as many weeks (following "Walking Tall," "The Punisher," and "Kill Bill: Volume Two"), "Man on Fire" is the best of the bunch as it takes a potentially derivative premise and makes it fresh again. Directed with invigorating style by Tony Scott (2001's "Spy Game"), the film creates a vivid setting and takes its time in developing the lead characters and their special bond so that the plot turns in the second half have a great deal more weight and urgency to them. Unlike in "The Punisher," where Thomas Jane hypocritically sought vengeance on John Travolta for something that he himself was just as much at fault for, it is completely understandable why Denzel Washington (2003's "Out of Time") does what he does and, in his own to-the-point, take-no-prisoners attitude, is strangely just in those extreme actions. Whereas "The Punisher" was sadistic, meanspirited, and exploitive for exploitation's sake, "Man on Fire" has a distinct heart, soul, and mind.

John Creasy (Denzel Washington), once a military man for a top-secret operation that went wrong, is a broken-down alcoholic on the verge of suicide when he travels down to Mexico City to visit old war buddy Rayburn (Christopher Walken). With Latin America experiencing an epidemic of kidnappings, wealthy married couple Lisa (Radha) and Samuel (Marc Anthony) wish to hire a bodyguard to protect their 9-year-old daughter, Pita (Dakota Fanning), a job Rayburn thinks Creasy would be suited for. Creasy accepts, basically because he has nothing better to do in between his Jack Daniels binges, but what starts as just a professional duty for him gradually turns into something more. Pita, a smart, precocious aspiring swimmer, works her way under Creasy's skin, and soon they have become tight pals. For Pita, who sees the sadness in her protector's eyes, it is something similar to a childhood crush. For Creasy, it's something more, as she gets him to see that his life is, indeed, worth living.

The opening hour of "Man on Fire" is deliberately deceptive, necessary for the following ninety minutes to have the impact director Tony Scott intends. In building up the platonic love story between young child Pita and bodyguard Creasy, Scott and screenwriter Brian Helgeland (2003's "Mystic River") tread dangerously close to mawkish sentimentality, but avoid such temptations in favor of something that feels authentic and true. It only helps to have two superlative actors in the lead roles. Denzel Washington, in his most focused and poignant turn in recent memory, and Dakota Fanning (2003's "Uptown Girls"), hands down the most astonishing and instinctive child actor working today, exude such warm, honest chemistry together that it is impossible not to feel despair when Pita is abruptly kidnapped and, after a drop-off gone terribly wrong, presumed dead. Creasy, utterly outraged to have Pita stolen and possibly killed purely out of someone else's bloodthirsty greed, vows to Lisa that he will make pay everyone even remotely responsible for her daughter's kidnapping.

"Man on Fire" was filmed on location in Mexico City, and never, or rarely, before has a country been portrayed in such a boldly negative light. With the aid of Paul Cameron's (2000's "Gone in Sixty Seconds") stark cinematography, Mexico City is viewed as a grimy, violent cesspool inhabited by crooked cops and vicious criminals. All other citizens, such as Lisa and Pita, live in constant fear for their safety. Director Tony Scott does a splendid job of using the rapid-fire, jittery editing and camerawork to throw the viewer off-balance, in a constant state of unrest as they are thrown into the mind of a man—Creasy—who has been forced over the edge. The way in which Scott employs subtitles, bouncing across the screen even during some of the English-speaking parts, is partially pretentious but nonetheless ingenious, reinforcing the vitality of the words in question while given the scenes that extra bit of memorable spark. As stylized and experimental as some of the filmmaking choices are, they only help to darkly personify a foreign setting that, when all is said and done, no viewer in their right mind would ever want to visit. The end credit dedication, thanking Mexico City for being "a very special place," comes off as sarcastic and morbidly funny—a glaring misstep that robs the preceding final moments of some of their very serious emotional fireworks.

Denzel Washington achieves what any great actor does; he wholeheartedly burrows his way into the body of his character, becoming Creasy as opposed to simply playing him. The depression, the anger, and the newfound hope suddenly taken from Creasy just when he has gotten it back is all fully realized by Washington, who brings three dimensions to a role that, in certain instances, is intentionally less rounded. Creasy is a man destroyed by his past who suddenly finds himself let down again with the present, and Washington's intensity in bringing this character's predicament to visual fruition is unblemished. When Pita abruptly vanishes from the screen, the viewer notices, and the black hole left by her disappearance makes Creasy's actions of revenge brutality all the more justified. Creasy may not be playing by the country's written laws, but he is playing by the rules of the thieves, who could bring themselves to kidnapping and torturing children for their own financial welfare. For that, what Creasy's payback is worth rooting for.

As Pita, 10-year-old Dakota Fanning is a marvel who only becomes more natural and nuanced with her every film role. Unlike most child actors, even the best of them, whom you can tell are just playing "make-believe," Fanning has the maturity and intuition of a performer three or four times her age. She builds Pita from the ground up, taking what is on the page and enriching it with palpable character traits and personal tics. Fanning is charming, yes, but she is also concentrated, unmistakably natural, and heartbreaking. There is an Academy Award in this actress' future, and it may well come sooner than later if she sticks with parts as good as this one.

At almost two-and-a-half hours, "Man on Fire" is a long motion picture, perhaps longer than need be for what is essentially a "point-A-to-point-B" revenge tale, but the time is used wisely and nothing seems extraneous. The opening hour is vital is getting the viewer to care about Creasy and Pita, which makes the second and third acts all the more urgent, discordant, and somber. Such a downbeat tone is needed, however, for the cathartic conclusion to pay off. "Man on Fire" may or may not be a fully accurate vision of the current environment in Mexico City, but it certainly works to the benefit of a film that is as uncompromising and plausibly compelling as this one.
© 2004 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman