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Christopher Walken: A man can be an artist… in anything, food, whatever. It depends on how good he is at it. Dusty’s art is moderately informative movie reviews. He’s about to paint his masterpiece.
Director: Tony Scott
Writers: A.J. Quinnell, Brian Helgeland
Stars: Denzel Washington, Christopher Walken, Dakota Fanning
Release Date: April 23, 2004 (United States)
Run time: 2 hours, 26 minutes
Former CIA SAD/SOG officer John W. Creasy visits his old friend Paul Rayburn in Mexico. Rayburn convinces him to take a bodyguard position with Samuel Ramos, a Mexico City automaker whose young daughter Lupita “Pita” requires a bodyguard for her kidnapping insurance policy to take effect. Struggling with alcoholism, burnout, and guilt over his actions with the CIA, Creasy tries to commit suicide but his gun misfires. Calling Rayburn in the middle of the night following this attempt, Creasy is reminded by his friend of their saying “a bullet always tells the truth” and begins to consider that he was not meant to die. Seemingly revitalized, Creasy commits to his newfound purpose as Pita’s protector, reducing his drinking and finding comfort in the pages of his Bible. Creasy begins coaching Pita to become a more confident swimmer, bonding with her through the process.
Waiting outside Pita’s piano lesson, Creasy recognizes a car that followed them earlier, as two Federal Police officers block the street. Realizing that Pita is about to be abducted, Creasy kills four of the attackers including the officers but is critically wounded and Pita is taken. Recovering from his injuries, Creasy is declared a suspect, but reporter Mariana Garcia Guerrero questions the story. AFI agent Miguel Manzano relocates Creasy to a veterinary clinic to protect him from corrupt police.
“The Voice,” leader of the kidnapping ring, demands a $10 million ransom and Samuel complies, with the help of police lieutenant Victor Fuentes. However, the kidnappers are ambushed at the ransom drop and the Voice’s nephew is killed. Holding the Ramos responsible, the Voice informs them that Pita will be lost to them forever as retribution. Guerrero warns Creasy that the kidnappers belong to a powerful “brotherhood” called La Hermandad that consists of corrupt officials, police, and criminals, but Creasy promises Pita’s mother, Lisa, that he will kill everyone responsible for Pita’s death.
With Rayburn’s help, Creasy obtains a small arsenal of weapons and equipment. He brutally interrogates and kills the getaway driver, who points him to a club where he confronts three of the kidnappers. Killing middleman “Jersey Boy” and another criminal, Creasy recovers an incriminating ATM card and another kidnapped girl. He turns both over to Guerrero, who reveals that Fuentes is part of the brotherhood. Manzano interviews Rayburn, who describes Creasy as an “artist of death”, about to “paint his masterpiece.”
Guerrero convinces Manzano to help Creasy wage war against the kidnappers. Waylaying Fuentes’ motorcade with a rocket-propelled grenade, Creasy abducts the officer, who admits that he had his officers ambush the ransom drop, but discovered afterward most of the ransom money had already been stolen by Jordan Kalfus, Samuel’s lawyer. After killing Fuentes with a bomb in his rectum, Creasy searches Kalfus’ home and finds his decapitated body and a fax with bank account information leading to Samuel.
Creasy confronts the Ramos, and Samuel confesses that Kalfus suggested they arrange Pita’s kidnapping to claim the insurance payout to pay his father’s debts, though they were promised Pita would be returned unharmed. When Fuentes interfered with the drop, Samuel blamed Kalfus for Pita’s death and killed him. Lisa, now aware of Samuel’s involvement, angrily tells Creasy to kill her husband or she’ll do it herself; he leaves Samuel a gun and the same bullet he attempted suicide with, and a remorseful Samuel successfully shoots himself.
Guerrero and Manzano trace the ATM card to the Voice’s wife and find her address, allowing Manzano’s officers to infiltrate her home and obtain a photo of the Voice. Despite the brotherhood’s threats, Guerrero publishes the photo and passes the address on to Creasy. Taking the Voice’s wife and his brother Aurelio prisoner, Creasy is shot in the chest but learns the ringleader’s real name is Daniel Sanchez. He calls Daniel and threatens his family, but Daniel reveals that Pita is alive, offering to trade her for his brother and for Creasy, which Creasy accepts.
Instructing Lisa to join him at the exchange, Creasy reunites with Pita in the middle of an overpass, assuring her that he loves her before sending her to her mother. He and Aurelio are taken by Daniel’s men, but Creasy succumbs to his wounds. Manzano tracks Daniel down later that day and shoots him dead “during the course of arrest.”
Man on Fire is a revenge fantasy and a redemption story, with incredible acting performances that pull the audience all over the emotional map… and it was mostly excellent. My primary gripe with the film lies in a lot of its editing decisions – unique and cool at the time – that are now dated and annoying. The cinematography and the frame transitions are not usually something to which I pay much attention (I’m more of a story and performances guy), but Man on Fire forces you to notice those things and not in a good way. This does not ruin the film, but it does leave the audience in a state where we cannot forget that this movie was made in the early 2000s.
Man on Fire is extremely violent. I am apparently unbothered by such things – in fact, I quite enjoyed watching the government protected brotherhood of child kidnappers meet increasingly creative sticky ends – but I would not recommend the film to anyone queasy or young.
The premise of the movie felt almost ahead of its time. It was filmed and released in an era where U.S. Intelligence services were still mostly well-liked in the United States, and before crime in Mexico had become a larger topic of conversation in the United States. Yet in this film, the protagonist Creasy has done so many bad things around the world for the CIA that he is suicidal when the movie opens. While working to protect the innocent and precocious Pita, Creasy warms to her and finds his own humanity again. Then she is taken, the focus of the film shifts to the aforementioned crime in Mexico, and the revenge fantasy portion of the movie starts. I suppose Man on Fire needed to be made, when it was made, otherwise the story would probably have been modified to reflect a more politicized view of the underlying plot issues.
The story was interesting and powerful and the actors delivered performances that made me feel things. The still very young Dakota Fanning was absolutely delightful in her performance as the precocious Pita. Her realistic panicked screams for Creasy, while she is being kidnapped, will probably haunt me forever. (Did the director pretend to really kidnap her to get those screams out of her body? Geez.) Christopher Walken’s Rayburn having a long friendship with Denzel Washington’s Creasy felt real. I would not have guessed before watching the movie that Christopher Walken and Denzel Washington would have great on-camera chemistry, but they definitely did. That feel of authenticity is what sold Walken’s “a man can be an artist” monologue so effectively. The story and performances so effectively establish their long friendship, prior to that monologue, that it imbued the scene with power. Walken conveys so many things in that one scene, too. He is angry on behalf of his friend. He knows his friend is about to kill a lot of people and he is happy about that. He is staying out of it himself. None of those things are said overtly. It’s just unbelievably good acting. Denzel Washington also gave one of his best performances in this role. “Creasy” was wide-ranging with respect to the emotions he displays while also being subtle, limited largely to his eyes. Creasy is outwardly cool, whether haunted, sad, suicidal, happy, or enraged. I was impressed that Washington navigated the limitations of the character without giving a wooden performance. Creasy felt believable, which is a real achievement considering how easily that character could have fallen short of feeling realistic.
Redemption and revenge are great fodder for story-telling, and the performances were great, so why do I think critics hated the movie so much? The editing and cinematography do not account for the reaction, especially at the time when many of the film’s choices in those areas were in style. The musical score was mostly good, and I will probably be humming Blue Bayou for the rest of the week, though using Lisa Gerrard vocalization near the end credits was a misfire because it sounded distractingly too much like her earlier performance in Gladiator. The “how does he do this to professional killers” question is answered well within the story, including Creasy’s background, his help (Rayburn and Guerrero), and he takes his share of injuries along the way, too. I never felt like Creasy ventured too far into “superhero” territory. My best guess about the film’s negative reception is that the professional critics class did not connect with the outrage of the story’s core scene – the kidnapping. If the professional critics were unable to connect to that enough on an emotional level, the long sequence of revenge likely felt tedious.
Critics: “Well, yeah, the child being kidnapped was awful and sad, but blowing that guy up felt a bit much.”
Normal people: [nomming popcorn] “You kill ’em all.”
The other viable critique of the movie is that the dialogue resorted to clichés in a couple of spots.
Elderly Man: In the church, they say to forgive.
Creasy: Forgiveness is between them and God. It’s my job to arrange the meeting.
Creasy: [Creasy to Rayburn in Rayburn’s truck regarding punishing those who kidnapped Pita] Revenge is a meal best served cold.
I enjoyed that dialogue and did not think it felt out of place or distracting, but the writers could probably have relayed the same message in those moments without resorting to well-worn lines.
As you can surmise, I disagree with the professional critics class. Man on Fire was an enjoyable action / redemption / revenge movie, packed emotional intensity, violence, quotable lines, and multiple great acting performances. In particular, I enjoyed Creasy’s story arc of struggle with his past, his search for forgiveness (both from God and himself,) and then the peace he finds in his self-sacrifice near the close of the film. I recommend it, but only to adults who can handle a story with a lot of visual brutality.