It sure sounded promising at first. Take Denzel Washington and Tony Scott, the star and director of 1995’s Crimson Tide, team them up with the screenwriter of LA Confidential and Mystic River and add a group of diverse character actors such as Mickey Rourke, Christopher Walken and Giancarlo Giannini in supporting roles to make a gritty revenge thriller set South of the Border – surely a recipe for winning entertainment.
As we all know though, promises are usually made to be broken. Man On Fire is every bit as heavy-handed and dismal as the little-seen original from the late 1980s that starred Scott Glenn (both were based on a novel by A J Quinnell). The potential for a great thriller is present, but Tony Scott and Brian Helgeland’s handling of the material smothers any and all chances this film has to come to life.
Denzel Washington plays former assassin John Creasy, who has had a bad go at life of late. He is suicidal, alcoholic and apathetic and is at the end of his rope when he shows up in Mexico City to visit his old friend, Rayburn (Christopher Walken). In an effort to help Creasy out, Rayburn gets him a job protecting the young daughter, Pita (Dakota Fanning), of an auto industrialist (Mark Anthony) and his wife (Radha Mitchell). Mexico City is, according to the film, a hotbed of kidnapping activity and is the main reason Creasy is being hired.
Given his current state in life, Creasy does everything he can to not get emotionally attached to Pita and her family. Of course, that doesn’t last and Creasy and Pita manage to become friends… Just in time for Pita to get kidnapped and Creasy to get shot several times and be left for dead. Creasy survives and when he comes to, he vows his revenge on those who committed this crime by any means necessary (no pun intended to Washington’s 1992 film Malcolm X). Let me tell you that John Creasy is a guy who can hold a serious grudge.
Man On Fire does have a few good things going for it, namely in the acting department. The role isn’t much of a stretch for him, but Washington does a solid job as Creasy. His scenes with Fanning, who manages to be cute but not cloying, are the highlights of the film. That is, next to the torture scene involving a penknife and a car cigarette lighter (sorry, it’s the romantic in me). I also enjoyed Walken as Creasy’s best friend, Giancarlo Giannini as the one honest law official in Mexico City and Mickey Rourke as a shady lawyer.
But these signs of intelligent cinematic life are crushed by director Tony Scott’s so-called “directing” and Brian Helgeland’s logic-defying, predictable and drawn-out screenplay.
Two things may have helped make this film better (okay, three if you count the option of not making the movie in the first place). Option one would have been to do some serious rewrites to the script. There is just enough character and story, however thin and predictable, to support a film that runs about 100 minutes.
Man On Fire goes on for 146 minutes, which only succeeds in diluting both the one-dimensional characters and by-the-numbers plot while making the film’s major gaps in logic all the more apparent (exactly how does a person, wanted by the cops for murdering two of their fellow officers, get to roam around Mexico City armed to the teeth?). It’s hard to believe that this is the same Brian Helgeland who also adapted Mystic River and L.A. Confidential for the big screen.
Option two would have been to put some restraint on director Tony Scott. The filmmaker has made some visually impressive, entertaining popcorn films in the past, such as The Hunger, True Romance and Crimson Tide, but he has also unleashed upon the world Revenge, Beverly Hills Cop II, The Fan and Spy Game. Whatever traits of competent filmmaking Mr Scott is in possession of, they decided to take a vacation when he was directing this mess.
Instead of building tension or character or letting any scene play out for more than five seconds, Scott uses every music video/film trick in the book to nauseating effect. If he’s not switching film stocks, he’s slowing or speeding things down, moving the camera around as if he was Abraham Zapruder so we can’t make out what is happening on-screen, or using unnecessary subtitles to hammer home a point to the viewer (something you have to see to believe). Scott’s visual rape posing as actual directing made me long for the subtler work of an auteur such as Michael Bay, or McG.
Man On Fire is the third revenge-themed film released in the past month, following Kill Bill Volume Two and The Punisher. Now, I have seen Kill Bill and know that it is the best of the trio. I also feel confident that The Punisher is a better movie as well, despite the fact that I have yet to see it. Why do I make such a claim? Simple. The Punisher runs 27 minutes shorter, which would lessen my suffering immeasurably.