out of Five
Running time: 146
With great performances, a strong script and impressive direction, this is an action-packed return to form for Tony Scott.
Tony Scott’s latest film is based on a novel by A.J. Quinnell, adapted by screenwriter Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential, Mystic River). Bizarrely, the novel has already been filmed once before, in 1987, when it starred Scott Glenn and Joe Pesci. (One wonders which of them played the Dakota Fanning role).
At any rate, Man On Fire marks a welcome return to form for Scott after the disappointing Spy Game and it also features another terrific performance from Denzel Washington.
Set In Mexico City
The film takes place in Mexico City, where kidnappings are apparently a daily occurrence. Denzel Washington plays John Creasy, a burned out ex-CIA assassin who accepts a job as a bodyguard to Pita (Dakota Fanning), the nine year old daughter of an wealthy industrialist (Marc Antony) and his wife (Radha Mitchell).
Initially, Creasy is more interested in drinking himself into oblivion, but pesky little Pita keeps chipping away at his hard-as-nails exterior until some humanity starts to shine through again and in no time at all, he’s become her friend and swimming coach. Then it all goes horribly wrong and Pita gets kidnapped after all – d’oh! - sending Creasy on the time-honoured rip-roaring rampage of revenge…
Man On Fire is not your typical revenge drama – indeed it starts out as a heartwarming story of a tough guy being thawed out by a cute moppet. The lengthy running time allows Scott and Helgeland to give you time to really care about the characters, so that when Creasy loses Pita we understand exactly why her loss tips him over the edge.
Be warned, however, Man On Fire fully deserves its 18 certificate, as the second half is extremely violent. Oh yes, if you want to see Denzel Washington shove a bomb up someone’s arse and set it off, then this is the movie for you.
Obsessive Quality And Internal Darkness
Scott and Washington previously worked together on Crimson Tide and Scott has noted Washington’s “obsessive quality and internal darkness” – watching him in Man On Fire, you can see exactly what he meant. Washington is superb here; he manages to make both sides of his character believable, so that the emergence of his humanity is genuinely moving, particularly when balanced with the deadly, take-no-prisoners assassin he becomes.
There’s also great support from the likes of Mickey Rourke and Giancarlo Giannini, as well as Christopher Walken, as Creasy’s best friend who lands him the job and gets to utter lines like, “Creasy is an artist. His canvas is death and he’s about to paint his masterpiece”. Dakota Fanning is also extremely good – thankfully she’s more “I Am Sam” cute than “Uptown Girls” annoying.
What really sets the film apart, however, is the direction. Using different stocks and multiple cameras, Scott employs his array of flashy directorial tricks in a way that actually works, creating a tension-filled atmosphere that you correctly sense could go off like a powder keg at any moment. He also uses subtitles in a completely original and interesting way, so that they almost seem to interact with the characters, like speech-bubbles.
In short, Man On Fire is an extremely enjoyable thriller, with a powerhouse central performance from Washington. Recommended.