Based on the novel of the same name by the pseudonymous AJ Quinnell, which is itself alleged to be based around true events, Man On Fire has previously been brought to the big screen in a 1987 European production by French director Elie Chouraqui. At it's heart, a simple revenge fable, Man On Fire follows the fortunes of a formerly accomplished military man known simply as Creasy, that's Creasy with a C, not a G as it sporadically sounds in the movie. Portrayed in this adaptation by Denzel Washington, Creasy is an amiable if evasive character, clearly troubled by a shadowy past of contentious moral value. This exhibits itself in a pervasively melancholy facial expression and an eagerness to spend rather too much time with his good friend Jack Daniels. It's only through the ever watchable Christopher Walken's character Rayburn, a friend and former colleague, that the viewer is afforded any insight into Creasy's character or past. After we're explicitly informed of the prolific rate of kidnappings in South American states, a bearded, bottle hitting Creasy is cajoled by Rayburn into taking a job as a bodyguard in his adopted home, Mexico. He's immediately hired by the unconvincing couple of Samuel and Lisa Ramos, played by Jennifer Lopez casualty Marc Anthony and Neighbours alumnus Radha Mitchell, to protect their little girl Pita, played by Dakota Fanning. Of course Pita is summarily abducted, Creasy is riddled with bullets, and the subsequent ransom drop is botched, ostensibly meaning curtains for the little girl. Well Creasy needed something to burn about, you didn't think it was about visit to the clap clinic did you? The rest of the film depicts a largely irrelevant criminal network being dispatched in creatively gruesome ways until the inexorable showdown with the architect of the kidnapping.
The first half of the film plods along with a pleasantly restrained pace, allowing us to enjoy some truly memorably scenes between the excellent Washington and Fanning. Creepily precocious in previous appearances, c.f. the saccharine I Am Sam, Fanning is charming as a convincingly bright youngster with maturity beyond her years, and a penchant for oral hygiene, rather than some kind of miniaturised twenty-something. Washington performs admirably as a character that is detached and distant, not least because he clearly has little back story to speak of. Walken is used sparingly and his performance is restrained. His only foray into his usual trade of scene stealing dramatic monologues even ends with the assurance "I don't have anything else to say". Mickey Rourke puts in a brief performance as a lawyer that appears as though the word bar has no legal connotations to him at all, and all the other supports are of a generally high standard. Anthony and Mitchell, however, fail to convince as either spouses or parents. Mitchell manages to be pert and distressed at the appropriate junctures, but Anthony clearly struggles to make his character credible as an actual human being.
The second half of the film, and it does start almost exactly half way through the two and half hour runtime, sees Scott abandon all directorial restrain and turn up the affectation to 11. In a scene which had the potential for Washington and Mitchell to display a deeper emotional side to their characters, Creasy flicks through his departed charge's diary while sitting on her bed, and is interrupted by the grieving MILF. After some cursory navel gazing, Lisa concedes that she doesn't know what to do and solicits Creasy's plans for the future, "What are you going to do?" "What I do best. I'm gonna kill 'em. Anyone that was involved, anybody who profited from it, anybody that opens their eyes at me (!?)" This statement of murderous intent comes complete with an irritating musical cue courtesy of Nine Inch Nails, and Lisa's response? Clearly suffering from a bout of the ever popular Lady Macbeth syndrome, barely batting an eyelid, she offers "you kill 'em all", pecks him on the cheek and sends him on his merry way. The inevitable 'tooling up' montage follows promptly.
From here on in, the film resembles some unholy mash of Stone and Soderbergh via Akerlund, filming a Tarrantino script without the dialogue or stylistic aplomb. The soundtrack proceeds to irritate, offering the abrasive cheese-grater on a guitar posturing of Nine Inch Nails to let us know when the action is suitably 'hardcore', and the pseudo mystical foreign female vocals popularised by Scott senior in Gladiator, when something 'poignant' is occurring. The subtitles, required by virtue of the Mexican locale, fade, grow, wipe and move across the frame in manner initially intriguing, but quickly distracting. These two aberrations, on top of the 'kid in a sweet shop' approach to visual effects, serve to totally distance the viewer from any connection they may have established in early scenes. On top of this we're offered a fearless journalist who can seemingly find out anything, Creasy attracting and taking bullets like Rocky does punches, and yet another ridiculous club scene. Aren't there any normal night spots in Hollywood? The violent set pieces are generally well executed, no pun intended, the most memorable being a Reservoir Dogs style extremity deprivation to the strains of the radio. The climax, when it finally arrives is surprisingly subdued, though a tacked on final moment of retribution caused the film to leave me rolling my eyes in irritation.
The main problem with Man On Fire is that it's a thin, simplistic story, prolonged to 146 minutes by a desire to show off stylistically. After Creasy sets off on his killing spree, the only thing left is to sit back and count the bodies. There isn't really any interest left in the characters, and the shadowy criminal network offers little more than greedy Creasy fodder. On the whole, it's a good quality action film, so long as you don't mind the bloated run time. Man On Fire is a predictably undemanding, enjoyable piece of entertainment from Tony Scott.
12 out of 12 found this helpful.
Was this review helpful? Sign in to vote.