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Man on Fire (2004)

Directed by:

Tony Scott

Rating: 6/10

Running Time: 146 minutes

US Certificate: R UK Certificate: 18

Haunted by his past and ravaged by alcoholism, John Creasy (Denzel Washington) drifts down Mexico way where he takes on work as a bodyguard to Pita (Dakota Fanning), the daughter of aristocratic Mexican Samuel (Marc Anthony) and his American wife Lisa (Radha Mitchell). Gradually a bond develops between Creasy and his young ward, but just as Creasy begins to rediscover his lost humanity, it is snatched away, along with Pita, by a group of professional kidnappers and crooked cops who leave Creasy for dead. After the pay-off goes wrong, Creasy vows to take revenge on all those who have contributed to Pita’s death, turning to Federal Investigations chief Manzano (Giancarlo Giannini) and upright journalist Mariana (Rachel Ticotin) to guide him through all the sleaze and corruption – and, being an ex-assassin for the CIA, Creasy knows a thing or two about the business of killing – or, as his friend Raymond (Christopher Walken) puts it, “Creasy’s art is death; he’s about to paint his masterpiece”.

‘Man on Fire’ is an oddity, and you may well find yourself spending at least half of its (very long) duration trying to work out whether it is a bog-standard genre piece trying to pass itself off as a serious masterpiece, or the other way around. Screenwriter Brian Helgeland is known for the subtlety of his plotting and dialogue in films like ‘L.A. Confidential’ and Mystic River, but here his adaptation of A.J. Quinnell’s novel ‘Man on Fire’ (originally set in Italy) resorts to tough-guy cliché and kiddie pathos. Similarly director Tony (brother of Ridley) Scott has at times shown an ability to deliver films of oddball quality (‘The Hunger, ‘True Romance’), but ‘Man on Fire’ is an unadulterated celebration of vigilante justice from way right-of-centre which seems to signal a return to the reactionary sensibilities that made his earlier ‘Top Gun’ such a brainless popcorn-pusher. Never once calling into question the morality of Creasy’s ultra-violent actions (which include brutal torture, merciless mutilation, extrajudicial killing, etc.), the film’s examination of the dynamics of revenge makes little advance on the cartoonish philosophy of Jonathan Hensleigh’s recent ‘The Punisher’. In both films, any means to getting the job done seem justifiable, offering viewers a dangerous fantasy version of the world where all problems and injustices can be sorted out simply by a strong will and a lot of ammunition (ignoring the fact that this is how many of the world’s problems and injustices actually begin). In all its unreflective oversimplification, this is easily recognizable as the ideology behind the current so-called War on Terror, and it is surely no coincidence that ‘The Punisher’ and ‘Man on Fire’ both feature vengeance-seeking protagonists who are born-again Christ figures (note John Creasy’s initials) of the gun-toting variety, and who have explicitly learnt their lethal trade working as agents in counter-terrorism.

When Quentin Tarantino opened his first volume of ‘Kill Bill’ with the words “Revenge is a dish best served cold”, he ascribed them to an “old Klingon proverb”, setting the wryly postmodern tone for the two films to come; yet when Creasy delivers a similar line in Scott’s film, he does so without any accompanying irony, making ‘Man on Fire’ seem a bizarre dinosaur of a revenge movie, told completely straight. Corresponding to this misplaced earnestness is the presence of Denzel Washington, who brings to the murderous Creasy a strange gravity – and the film’s extraordinarily high aesthetic values, composed of handheld, oversaturated shots cut together with dizzying rapidity, and featuring the smartest set of integrated subtitles I have ever seen, make ‘Man on Fire’ look more like the work of Steven Soderbergh or Oliver Stone at their artiest rather then like the trashy pulp piece that it is, or at least ought to be. So, in the end, ‘Man on Fire’ sends out a mixed message.

It's Got: A lot of sadistic violence and cartoonish ethics, extraordinary production values, Christopher Walken playing a (relatively) good guy, the ever dependable Dakota Fanning reprising her rôle of kidnap victim from ‘Trapped’, and the most stylish subtitles ever seen.

It Needs: Less cliché, and a more equivocal perspective on the nature of revenge.


'Ransom', 'The Punisher', 'Trapped'


A beautiful-looking, well-acted revenge movie, but too big and dumb-assed to be so serious.