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Man on Fire Print E-mail
Tuesday, 01 April 2008
Image“Man on Fire” has quite the history cinematically.  The book came out in 1980, written by A. J. Quinnell, a writer with an interesting past and a talent for banging out actioners.  In 1987, the book was made into a movie starring Scott Glenn and Joe Pesci, both rising stars at the time.  Danny Aiello also starred, as well as several Italian actors and actresses because the movie was set there.

The ironic thing is that Tony Scott, who was a young director back then with an impressive future ahead of him, was initially picked to direct the film.  Then the studios elected to replace him with Elie Chouraqui, who also wrote the script.  Scott was thought to be too inexperienced at the time.

Evidently the story and the idea stayed with Scott because he was green lighted to do the film again for a 2004 release.  He surrounded himself with successful talent, from the skilled writer Brian Helgeland (“L. A. Confidential”) to Denzel Washington (always money in the bank as a leading man) to Christopher Walken (a cult favorite among movie enthusiasts). The setting for the movie was changed from Italy to Mexico.  Part of that is due to the rash of stories about Mexican drug lords and the violence south of the border that seems to fill the news.  The change provided a lot of background detail lovingly captured on film and displayed in beautiful detail on the Blu-ray disc.

The video for the movie is amazing.  The lush landscape jumps out at the viewer over and over again, and the metropolitan sequences are represented in squalor and decadence.  Once the film moves into the violent second half, when John Creasy (Denzel Washington) cuts loose the dogs of war and goes after the men that kidnapped his young charge, explosions and chase scenes fill the screen and jack up the viewer’s adrenaline.  This is one of those movies that make home theater buffs glad they plunked down the bucks for a Blu-ray system, and action junkies are doubly rewarded.

The audio portion of the film is equally outstanding.  The first half of the movie tends to be quiet, filled with long, calm conversations and background music.  Nine Inch Nails provides a number of the songs, joined by Clint Mansell (who also scored the movie), Linda Ronstadt, and other performers and musicians.  Sound is a big part of the movie’s overall experience, and the Blu-ray disc pumps it through the surround sound system.

Denzel Washington is a favorite of moviegoers, though he doesn’t usually play the kind of man ex-CIA agent John Creasy is.  Creasy has seen hard missions, lost friends and faith, and has ended up tied to a bottle.  He’s burned out and used up.  He doesn’t care about anything anymore.  Truthfully, just about any Hollywood actor with a strong jawline and piercing eyes could have carried this role, but having Denzel do it provides an extra kick.  Denzel makes everything look easy, but the role is really a two-note performance:  alcoholic and avenger, with a bare moment of transition between.

Christopher Walken plays Paul Rayburn, Creasy’s friend and the man who gets Creasy the job of watching Lupita “Pita” Ramos (Dakota Fanning), the young daughter of Mexican businessman Samuel Ramos (Marc Anthony).  Walken is a dream to watch any time he’s onscreen.  There’s something fabulously mesmerizing about him whether he’s playing a straight role or something completely off the wall.

Fanning as Pita is a heartbreaker.  At the time of filming, she was about nine, and already had wonderful poise and a sense of timing.  Anytime Denzel is interviewed, he talks about his kids, and seems like an enthusiastic father.  The chemistry he has with Fanning is real and entirely believable.  When Pita wins over Creasy’s heart, she also wins over the audience.

The plot starts out slowly.  The film makes use of the background and the large house, but not a lot goes on.  Although it feels like too much time passes while the audience is getting to know Creasy and that he doesn’t care about himself or anything outside his skin, the viewers have lived with his loneliness and despair, and they know the weight of both is crushing him.

However, Pita keeps trying to make friends with him, and he rejects her for a time.  It’s an old strategy but it works well, mainly because the two stars involved are so skilled.  Denzel looks like a paid thug while he follows Pita around and learns her routine, and some of his missteps as he’s learning are fun to watch.

Later, Ramos and his wife Lisa (Radha Mitchell) leave on an extended business trip, allowing Creasy to notice how lonely Pita is.  In her own way, she’s as trapped by her world as he is in his.  Neither one of them can help being who they are, and it’s left them both bereft of friendships.

Helgeland’s script and Scott’s direction make the most of that relationship, exploring it in understated conversations as well as action sequences during the swim meets.  And just as Creasy and Pita reach a true friendship that buoys them both, disaster strikes.  It’s the perfect place to make the break, and Scott moves into those action scenes with authority.

Denzel is a fine action star.  His moves look lethal and real.  But Creasy has been set up and doesn’t stand a chance against the kidnappers because he’s outflanked and outnumbered.  He sees Pita taken from him as he goes down under a hail of bullets after killing some of the kidnappers and two corrupt police officers.

Later, after his recovery in the hospital and under Rayburn’s care, Creasy learns that the ransom was bungled and Pita was killed.  His sadness engulfs the viewer.  Then the movie stumbles a little bit, like a rollercoaster reaching the top of the big hill.  Viewers know how the story is going to progress, and some will be looking forward to all the ensuing violence while others will miss Creasy’s sensitive side so soon after they finally got to see it.

Creasy makes the action hero promise that he’ll get the people responsible for Pita’s death.  The second half of the movie shows Denzel giving his all as the violent, unstoppable force of vengeance.  Any action hero from the 1980s could wade through this part of the movie, but to Denzel’s credit he really looks good doing it.  His anger is a palpable thing, and the scenes resonate with the terrible retribution he’s demanding.

But it’s predictable.  Every twist and turn the story takes from that point on is nothing new.  Maybe that’s a good thing because it pays off the viewers that plopped down in front of the movie to watch that.  However, a lot of people might want more from a picture Denzel stars in.  In his movies, for the most part, it isn’t simply about the violence.  Story, character sacrifice, and a certain amount of innocence is lost and knowledge gained.

The special features, other than trailers for a handful of movies, are nonexistent.  Maybe their addition to the film wouldn’t have added a lot, but a lot of movie enthusiasts like to buy added value with the discs they put into their personal libraries.

“Man on Fire” is a decent action flick, and Washington’s presence makes it even more palatable, but the movie is definitely one for fans of the actor or the genre only.  And those people are going to love every minute of it.

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