Thank God for action directors like Tony Scott, who with one film can make up for all the evil done by McG and Jerry Bruckheimer these past few years. The genre of pure action film has been dying as of late, with miserable garbage like Charlie’s Angels 2 dragging it down. Sci/fi films, comic book adaptations, and Rush Hour-style comedies have been taking over the action realm, but Scott’s Man on Fire is the perfect example of what action filmmaking should and can be.
Man on Fire stars Denzel Washington as Creasy, a burned out government assassin with a drinking problem and nothing left in his life. His friend Rayburn, played by the consistently remarkable Christopher Walken (Catch Me if You Can), gets him a job as a bodyguard for a family in Mexico City.
Creasy’s real job is to protect the family’s daughter, a likeable, intelligent nine-year-old American named Pita. The film reports early on that there is a kidnapping every hour in Latin America, and that there have been 24 kidnappings in Mexico City in the past four days alone. Grabbing the kids of wealthy parents and then demanding a hefty ransom seems to be the most popular form of kidnapping and it has come to the point where Pita’s parents won’t let her go to school until they hire a suitable guard. Despite his alcoholism, Creasy has an impressive resume and gets the job as Pita’s bodyguard.
The film’s plot, based on a book by A.J. Quinnell, gets fairly complex, but Man on Fire turns into a revenge film about half way through, something that’s become popular in Hollywood this year. The Kill Bill movies, The Punisher, and even the upcoming foreign film Dogville all deal heavily with revenge.
Man on Fire is close to flawless in its technical precision and power. Scott has always been considered a top notch action director, with hits like Top Gun, Crimson Tide, and Enemy of the State on his resume. But Man on Fire is on a different level from these films, due largely to a terrific script by Oscar winner Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential, Mystic River).
Scott is one of the most original and dazzling visual directors around, and he’s especially great at blending awe-inspiring visuals with a solid story, instead of just relying on explosions and swooping camerawork. Scott uses sharp focus changes, quick cuts, and heavily filtered colors to keep viewers on edge, which works well for Man on Fire and most of his previous work.
Washington is good as always, but is especially brilliant in scenes with Pita, played by up-and-comer Dakota Fanning (I Am Sam). Fanning and Washington appear to really bond in their time together on screen, which is perfect for their characters, who grow to be friends as the film progresses. Fanning has a bright future, as long as she can make the transition from adorable little girl to real adult actress. She shows no signs of being intimidated by sharing screen time with a legend like Denzel, and is deserving of the critical praise she’ll likely get upon the film’s release.
Man on Fire won’t make as much money as Top Gun, and it’s not as amazingly dramatic as Crimson Tide, but Scott’s directing, combined with good writing and great acting, make this one of his best, and likely one of the top ten films of 2004.
Shawn Wines can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.