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MAN ON FIRE (R) (2004)

20th Century Fox

Official Site

Director: Tony Scott

Producers: Lucas Foster, Arnon Milchan, Tony Scott, Conrad Hool

Written by: Brian Helgeland; from the novel by A.J. Quinnell

Cast: Denzel Washington, Dakota Fanning, Christopher Walken, Marc Anthony, Radha Mitchell, Giancarlo Giannini, Mickey Rourke


Click, click, boom.

Let the bodies hit the floor.

I tried so hard, and fell so far.

Those lyrics, maddening products of the rheumatically lingering rap-metal/whine-metal/men-in-masks-or-makeup-metal movement have hung like sonic pesticide over innumerable action film trailers for the past several years, inescapable save by the deaf. Apparently, nothing makes a potential audience go all Pavlovian for hella-sick action like experiencing the marriage of derisory CGI, Vin Diesel snowboarding atop any snowboardable (and not-so-snowboardable) surface, and tricked-out rides with def ground effects, all cut together with epileptic urgency and set to “click, click, boom!”-esque aural savagery. Somehow, in some paradoxical, bastardized manner, the genre’s oft-repeated music has become more “visible” than the images, and has contributed greatly to the unsavory parturition of the stillborn modern action film. (Go ahead, try and separate any action film you’ve seen in the past two years from any of the songs sampled at the head of this review). Your Daredevils, xXxs, and 2 Fast 2 Furiouses have dispatched the anima and awkward charm of the Die Hards, Bloodsports, and Commandos of yore in the most deliberately Xtreme fashion possible, as Linkin Park unceasingly growled anthemically in the background. Man On Fire, helmed by frequent oiler of the Bruckheimer machine and the lesser-talented Scott brother, Tony, and bearing a trailer which possessed an uncanny resemblance to the already-forgotten A Man Apart, did nothing to indicate a departure from current slick and soulless action fare. Visions of Denzel Washington strutting before vast walls of fire in hardcore slow-motion to Drowning Pool accompaniment plagued me like premonitions of my own death. Inevitably, I thought, before the whirring of the projector, the only body to hit the floor would be mine, post-suicide.

But the unforeseeable occurred as the film played on and on, and after 30 minutes not a single gunshot had yet been fired: Its heart, so absent from so many films today, regardless of genre, was revealed. When the killing, maiming, dismembering, and torturing did begin (as it always does), I must admit, with slight schoolgirl-ish embarrassment, that I was engaged.

Creasey (Washington), an ex-Marine fallen upon hard times and consoled only by Jack Daniels, accepts a job suggested by an old friend (Walken) as a bodyguard to the young daughter (Fanning) of a well-to-do Mexico City couple (Anthony and Mitchell). “Easy money,” thinks Creasey, with an alcohol-glazed smirk. Unfortunately, as Creasey is a character in the film and unable to read the title cards which sport useful, contextual facts, he does not realize that Mexico City is home to something like six kidnappings per day, and that bodyguards must do more than wallow in self-pity and binge-drink. To complicate matters, the daughter, Pita, wishes to forge a friendship with Creasey, whom she likens to a “big, sad bear,” but Creasey is so unaccustomed to human social interaction that he initially attempts self-termination as an alternative to conversation and friendship (the bullet misfires). Taking that as a sign, Creasey decides to retain bodyguard duties, and eventually bends to Pita’s dimpled cuteness and candid-but-innocent lines of questioning. Pita fills a (presumably) non-romantic void within Creasey that he had thought unfillable, and he turns to the Holy Bible over Jack, laughter over brooding, and helping Pita train for her swim meet over staring pensively out the window. The good times go bad, though, when Pita is kidnapped, and Creasey takes a couple of rounds to the torso while trying to prevent the abduction. After waking from a tiny coma, Creasey is informed that Pita has been killed and, with nothing to live for, he vows to make all who were involved in her death suffer, in the way that only a metaphorical man on fire can.

What divides Man On Fire from the present glut of blasé action cinema is the quality of its script, courtesy of Brian Helgeland, scribe of last year’s much-lauded Mystic River. Although eschewing the deep exposition of any individual character—much of Creasey’s past is shadowy and impressionistic, to the character’s benefit—Helgeland allows the relationship between Creasey and Pita to develop and blossom long enough to erase any notion of forced sentimentality. This storytelling cliché, the formed friendship between the most unlikely of participants, is the crux of Man On Fire, and the fine line that it successfully (and surprisingly) strides. Against all odds, Creasey, the archetypal troubled hero, is made sympathetic. Pita, the improbably erudite and cough-syrupy sweet child character comes across as charming rather than grating, and their formulaic friendship floats like the softest, most billowy cloud across territory that is genuinely affecting. It shouldn’t all work, but under Helgeland’s confident hand, it does. When Creasey finally reaches for his rocket launcher, a connection—no matter how tenuous—has been made, and the shared want for vengeance infuses meaning into what should have been a by-the-numbers vendetta picture.

Likewise, the large cast is uniformly excellent and adds an almost unprecedented depth to a genre flick. Washington is simultaneously intimidating but vulnerable, and carries the film like Atlas—the world upon his golem-broad shoulders. Young Fanning, whose role is the most challenging and pertinent, avoids most groan-worthy child-actor pitfalls and more than holds her own with her Oscar-winning co-star. The remainder of the cast, though not given much room for development, succeeds in creating idiosyncratic half-characters who might just be interesting if we were given the chance to know them. Walken skates the grotesquely fascinating line between creepy and aloof, as always, while Giancarlo Giannini, playing a high-ranking Mexican police officer, delivers his dialogue in such an entertainingly confident matter that, despite his character’s lack of overall importance to the plot, he’s unfailingly fun to watch.

The strained “uniqueness” of Scott’s directorial vision, however, undercuts much of the story’s potential verve, and often leads Man On Fire into a regrettably familiar and banal stylistic province. Hell-bent on emulating every trick of Se7en’s groundbreaking-in-1995 opening-credits sequence and sustaining them over the course of two-and-a-half hours, Scott sabotages the quiet, sickening helplessness evoked by Helgeland’s script with needless jump cuts, superimpositions, and, of course, the juggling of varied, mostly-washed-out film stocks. Scott’s adherence to chaotic presentation creates a rift between the characters and the audience, and, at no time, offers a more complete glimpse into his characters’ psychology, nor does it serve the story. Instead, it simply calls attention to itself. Although not compensatory by any means, Scott is thankfully willing to use the “R” rating and does punctuate Man On Fire with appropriate and satisfying violence. Not since Robocop have so many graphic hand injuries been glorified to this agreeable an extent.

Man On Fire does not spread, apocalyptic, like an irrepressible California blaze, but burns steady and slow, popping occasionally, then softly dies out, campfire-like. Hindered only by the ever-generic sensibilities of Tony Scott, it now carries the torch of quality amidst quagmire of the contemporary action film. I cannot help wondering what heights might have been reached by a more meditative director. Know with confidence, however, that you will hear no rap-mask-whine metal laments to convey how concurrently badass and tough it is to be a modern action hero. And really, that should be enough, shouldn’t it?

—Nathan Baran


hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

Take a pal and pay full price for both tickets.

Itís worth a full-price ticket.

Itís worth a matinee ticket.

Wait for video rental.

Check out the video from the library, if you must.

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