Friday, September 28, 2012

"Man on Fire" (2004)

Starring Denzel Washington, Dakota Fanning and Christopher Walken
Written by Brian Helgeland
Directed by Tony Scott
Rated R - Language, violence
Running Time: 146 Minutes

Former Marine and CIA operative John Creasy (Denzel Washington) is in a funk.  He drinks, and he doesn't have much else going for him.  His friend Rayburn (Christopher Walken) offers him a job as a bodyguard for a young girl in Mexico City, one of the kidnapping capitals of the world.  Creasy is hired by Samuel Ramos (Marc Antony) and Rita Ramos (Radha Mitchell) to protect their daughter Lupita (Dakota Fanning).

Despite his initial reservations, Creasy and "Pita" end up forming a friendship.  After taking her to a piano lesson, Creasy is ambushed by corrupt police officers.  He manages to kill some, but kidnappers make off with Pita.  Samuel negotiates a $10 million ransom with the kidnappers for Pita while Rayburn and Miguel Manzana (Giancarlo Giannini), director of the Mexican federal police, hide Creasy from the corrupt police force.

Unfortunately, the ransom drop goes wrong and the money is stolen.  Rayburn informs Creasy that Pita is dead, that the whole situation has gone south, and Creasy decides his next step will be revenge.  With guns supplied by Rayburn, Creasy vows to kill everyone who had anything to do with Pita's kidnapping.  He joins forces with a journalist, Maria Guerrero (Rachel Ticotin) who also works with Manzana, to track down the rest of Pita's kidnappers and expose their corrupt organization.  But the clock is ticking: Creasy is wounded, and the work he's doing could kill him before he's finished making his enemies pay.

"Man on Fire" didn't fare too well with critics on its release, but I'm not sure why.  I think it's full of compelling drama and laced with some cold, vicious revenge.  The late Tony Scott directs with a sure hand, taking his time to develop the characters and the plot.  He holds his camera steady at the right moments, but injects his wild music video style more and more as the film goes on.

Denzel Washington, as always, is an electric, engrossing presence.  At the beginning of the film, Creasy is a damaged, depressed man who doesn't see much of a future for himself outside of a bottle.  But over the next few scenes, he slowly develops a real rapport with Pita, ably performed by a young Dakota Fanning.  The two share a great chemistry, so that the relationship between the two is solid and Creasy's decision to torture and murder his way through the Mexican police to avenge her supposed killing is full and believable.

Scott fills out the supporting cast with some great names.  Radha Mitchell and Marc Antony do very well as Pita's parents. Christopher Walken has some pep in his step as Creasy's old friend who helps him out, and Giancarlo Giannini is also a fun presence.  Neither of them get a great deal of screen time, but they make their presence known with what little they have to work with.  Rachel Ticotin is Creasy's connection to Manzana, and she helps him track down a lot of information that hee needs.  She's looking to tell a story, but she helps Creasy because she knows that while his motives are personal, the people he's targeting are the ones she's been trying to bring down as well.

"Man on Fire" isn't a particularly action-packed thriller.  Creasy's quest for revenge is methodical and cold.  He's not in any shape to go into situations guns-blazing, so he sets up his tortures to get information from people that will lead him to the next link in the chain.  Here is both where Washington gets to show his chops as the wounded, driven Creasy, and also where the script sets up a series of viciously clever interrogation sequences.  There's a scene involving a C4 suppository that's just too good to be true.

As Creasy's condition worsens and as he's wounded further in his quest, Scott's control over his images loosens.  The film becomes more abstract, the colors less natural.  It's an intriguing process, which lends the second half of the film a sort of drug haze quality.  But Scott never loses control of it, and the film never gets as ugly or aggravating as "Domino."  Quite the opposite, despite it's lengthy runtime and slower pace, "Man on Fire" is always watchable and even fascinating.

Though it didn't quite resound with critics, I think "Man on Fire" is a fine thriller, with some great performances and set pieces.