Scott’s tense drama delivers compelling
With “Man on Fire,” Tony Scott, the director of “Enemy of the State” and “Top Gun,” has crafted a sharp, visually-striking film with a resolutely grim and compelling mood. Denzel Washington and child-actor Dakota Fanning, give the story unexpected depth and
heart with their unique chemistry and strong acting.
Washington plays ex-undercover operative John Creasy, who has pretty much given up on life, spending his time drinking and immersing himself in feelings of guilt from his past. Rayburn (Christopher Walken), a successful old friend of Creasy lands him a job as
bodyguard for ten year-old Pita (Fanning), whose wealthy parents feel threatened by a recent wave of kidnappings.
Creasy doesn’t make a great first impression with Peta, refusing to talk to her and pounding Jack Daniels at night like he was Keith Moon. Eventually the incredibly-charming child brings him out of the darkness and rekindles the fire of his spirits.
When Pita finally does get kidnapped, Creasy goes berserk, unleashing his fiery vengeance on anybody and everybody who can be linked to the kidnapping.
The film is reminiscent of “8 MM” in the gritty, violent journey that Creasy goes on in his quest for justice. Instead of the porn industry we are thrown into the dark world of kidnapping in Latin America, run by desperate men who are above all evil and deserving of the violence that Creasy bestows on them.
Tony Scott maintains a low-key tone throughout the story. He chooses to make killing mournful and unpleasant instead of triumphant. The violence, such as the removal of someone’s fingers in order to extract information, is presented as a sickening, detached act, that has severe emotional and spiritual consequences.
Early segments with Creasy and Pita resonate over the rest of the film and help to justify the unrelenting rage. Because Washington and Fanning are individually terrific, have a winning chemistry and are given a full hour to establish their relationship before things turn ugly, we understand why Creasy would want to risk himself for her and there’s more of an overall sense of meaning.
This is one of Washington’s best and most underrated performances. Denzel Washington creates a believable, sympathetic character here, complex enough to carry the film throughout its different segments. As John Creasy, he makes us believe in his depression and deep hopelessness. He is also able to balance scenes of a tender friendship with a ten year-old girl with those of blinding rage and violence.
It’s also worth noting that the screenplay allows Walken to deliver the ridiculous, yet highly enjoyable line, “He’s an artist. But his art is death. And he’s about to paint his masterpiece.”
This is the kind of average film that will turn up on TBS or TNT in several years. It’s received mixed reviews and should make only a modest profit. But like the underrated “8 MM”, stories of compromised men who must go into a seedy underworld for vigilante justice and revenge are very appealing to me. Because of the strong themes of redemption and sacrifice, along with a great performance by Washington, I would not hesitate to recommend the film.