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Lest you think the makers of “Man on Fire” is exaggerating about the plague of kidnappings for ransom in Mexico, you would be wrong. “Official numbers” claim 214 such events between 2001 and 2003, but private security groups estimate there were 1,200 in 2003 alone. In Mexico, as well as most Latin countries, kidnapping for ransom is a growth industry. Even director Guillermo Del Toro (“Hellboy”) couldn’t escape it, as his own father was kidnapped for ransom in 1997, forcing the family to relocate to Texas. As Del Toro puts it, “Basically, we paid the ransom twice”.
Tony Scott’s “Man on Fire” is set in Mexico City, where a broken-down Creasy (Denzel Washington) finds himself. An ex-Government agent, Creasy’s attempts to forget his past have left him a miserable drunk unable to care about anything, much less himself. Creasy reacquaints himself with long-time friend Rayburn (Christopher Walken), who sets Creasy up as the bodyguard for the young daughter of Mexican businessman Samuel (Marc Anthony), who is married to American Lisa (Radha Mitchell). Creasy reluctantly accepts the job, but his attempts to stay uninvolved in the life of his charge (Dakota Fanning) prove impossible.
After a long time of keeping himself closed off, Creasy slowly starts to give in. Young Pita’s charm, innocence, and spirit help the wounded soul to embrace life again, and soon Creasy is attending her swim meets as — as one of Pita’s teachers put it — her “father for the day”. But with involvement comes heartache when kidnappers snatch up Pita for ransom. Creasy is badly wounded during the kidnapping, but recovers enough to go on a warpath, determined to kill everyone involved in the kidnapping after a botched money exchange by the authorities cost Pita her life.
“Man on Fire” clocks in at over 2 hours long and more than half of that is devoted to Creasy and Pita’s friendship. It’s a good idea by screenwriter Brian Helgeland (“L.A. Confidential”) and director Tony Scott (“Spy Game”) to let the film slowly develop, so that when Pita is eventually kidnapped, we understand and even embrace Creasy’s determination to slaughter half of Mexico on his quest to get to the man at the very top of the criminal organization responsible.
Of course it helps that young Dakota Fanning (“The Cat in the Hat”) is perfectly cast. At once intelligent, innocuous, and yet never precocious to the point of being annoying, Fanning is immensely likeable. We understand why Creasy easily embraces her, because we already have. As hard as it is to believe, Fanning sometimes owns the screen even when she’s opposite Denzel Washington. Next to these two powerhouse actors, it’s no surprise that everyone else fades into the background, including Radha Mitchell (“Visitors”) as the mother, who may or may not have a Texas accent, depending on what scene she’s in.
As the determined killer bent on a single, mindless purpose, Washington (“Training Day”) is on the mark. Wounded and damaged in more ways than one, Creasy has no qualms about killing everyone who gets in his way. Rounding out the cast is Rachel Ticotin (“Total Recall”) as a crusading journalist and Giancarlo Giannini (“Hannibal”) as a Mexican federal agent. The presence of Ticotin’s character brings up an obvious question: why is she so hell bent on assisting Creasy’s murderous spree? The script could have helped her cause by giving her character some background as it relates to the kidnappings. Maybe she’s gone through it herself?
If the movie feels too inspiration and bright in the first half to action junkies, fear not, because “Man on Fire” delivers the goods in the second half. The action is stylish and oftentimes confusing, with Scott throwing every camera and editing trick he knows at the audience. There are times when Scott threatens to go overboard, and on some occasions he does. The script by Helgeland is simple and effective, and the only real knock on it is its clumsy third act, which is disappointing and anti-climatic. The filmmakers also throw in a last-minute plot twist that threatens to torpedo the movie’s entire purpose, as well as a downbeat ending that, one suspects, was in response to the ludicrous plot twist that came before it. In this case, keeping the film simpler would have been the better, and more effective, way to go.
Fans of this 2004 version might be interested to know that there was another “Man on Fire” made in 1987 starring Scott Glenn. Both movies were based on the novel by A.J. Quinnell, who went on to write three sequels all starring Creasy. Alas, fans of Quinnell’s novels shouldn’t expect to see the further adventures of Creasy coming to the big screen anytime soon…
Tony Scott (director) / A.J. Quinnell (novel), Brian Helgeland (screenplay)
CAST: Denzel Washington …. Creasy
Dakota Fanning …. Pita
Marc Anthony …. Samuel
Radha Mitchell …. Lisa
Christopher Walken …. Rayburn
Giancarlo Giannini …. Manzano
Rachel Ticotin …. Mariana
Mickey Rourke …. Jordan