Director Tony Scott’s 2004 revenge-soaked thriller “Man on Fire” has a weird allure despite being jarringly formulaic and drowning its audience in a deluge of visual excesses. There is hardly anything about it that feels original and the story evolves into something utterly implausible. Yet there is something about it that has always kept me steadily entertained.
Denzel Washington plays John Creasy , an ex-Marine Special Forces officer turned boozing assassin-for-hire. He has bounced around Central America doing shady contracts and wrestling with sins from his past. An old friend who runs a Mexican security outfit (Christopher Walken) encourages Creasy to take a bodyguard job in the wake of a series of politically-motivated kidnappings. It should be easy work and easy money. Yeah right.
Creasy is hired by Samuel Ramos (Mark Anthony), a well-to-do entrepreneur who lives lavishly in Mexico City with his beautiful American wife Lisa (Radha Mitchell) and their precocious young daughter Pita (Dakota Fanning). Creasy is strictly business: keep an eye on Pita, drive her to school, bring her back home. At night he tries to drown his demons with more alcohol while even contemplating suicide.
But he didn’t expect for the tender and persistent Pita to soften him up. The two form a sweet bond. You know, a ‘child and her bodyguard’ kind of bond. Pita gets a more present father figure. Creasy begins to remember what it’s like to enjoy living. But sadly this isn’t that kind of movie which means that bad things have to happen. Pita is kidnapped and Creasy is severely wounded trying to save her. As he recovers, her abductors make their ransom demands – $10 million.
Ramos agrees to pay but things go terribly wrong during the drop off. Creasy recoups and sets out to enact his own brand of vengeance and justice. With the help of Pita the old Creasy had been suppressed. With her gone he resurfaces with guns, rocket launchers, and a simmering bloodlust towards anyone who participated in or benefited from Pita’s kidnapping. And you quickly understand why he would be battling with demons.
I like the idea of a man struggling with a torturous past that resurfaces, forcing him to confront it. The conflict between ‘old self’ and ‘new self’ amid such a strong thirst for revenge is intriguing stuff. Unfortunately the movie wants to have to have its cake and eat it too. Early on the movie gives several scenes to Creasy’s boiling inner tumult. But once the stylish big screen killing begins any sense of personal struggle goes out the window. I would have loved to have seen a more psychological dig into his troubled psyche.
As it is “Man on Fire” stays on a pretty conventional path. It features a ton of Denzel and a sweet child/bodyguard dynamic (both strengths). The action (often shot like a fever dream) lands somewhere in the middle. At times it’s thrilling, other times it’s overbearing. Worst of all it ends up smothering out the interesting character work we’re teased with early on. It wouldn’t be such a bad thing, but at almost two-and-a-half hours the film really needs more meat on its bones.
VERDICT – 2.5 STARS