U.S. Release Date: April 21, 2004
Distributor: Fox
Director: Tony Scott
Writer: Brian Helgeland
Producer: Arnon Milchan, Tony Scott
Composer: Harry Gregson-Williams
Cast: Denzel Washington, Dakota Fanning, Radha Mitchell, Christopher Walken, Mickey Rourke
Running Time: 2 hours and 26 minutes
MPAA Rating: R (for language and strong violence)

Revenge Redeemed
by C.A. Wolski

What has clearly become the season of the revenge picture has a new offering in Tony Scott's Man on Fire, which is a bravura example of style over substance.

The Denzel Washington vehicle is a remake of a 1987 movie of the same name and source material (a novel by the enigmatic author A.J. Quinnell) and details the revenge taken by burned out ex-CIA man John Creasy (Washington) after his young charge, Pita (Dakota Fanning of I Am Sam), is kidnapped and presumably murdered by Mexican gangsters. The action takes place in Mexico City, which Scott—according to press notes—wanted to treat as another character in the movie. He does, and the ancient, overbuilt and overburdened city has probably never gotten better treatment in an American movie. Too bad Man on Fire isn't as interesting a story.

The first half of the movie, which chronicles the alcoholic Creasy's relationship with Pita is handled well—almost as a character study of a spiritually spent man who finds he has something to live for. The pacing is a bit languid, but Washington gives such a compelling performance, and Scott does such a good job portraying this character's inner mind without dialogue that it doesn't matter. But then the kidnapping occurs, and the movie veers into the tried and true territory of the mindless action flick.

Wounded during the kidnapping, Creasy vows revenge on everyone and anyone who stands in his way, including crooked cops and the "voice" who engineered the kidnapping. There is something visceral about the revenge section of the movie, and, to be fair, the violence leading to the denouement does serve a purpose, but after awhile it just becomes too over-the-top and more vulgar than compelling. Creasy, a veteran expert of "anti-insurgency" methods, has no problem graphically torturing and murdering the men responsible for Pita's kidnapping, leading him both to the man at the top of the heap and his own redemption.

Scott paints a picture of Mexican society that is not pretty. In his world, almost all officials are corrupt and those who aren't use the same methods on the same sliding ethical scale to fight corruption. It's a rather depressing—and probably realistic—portrayal of the Mexican power structure and gives the picture a grim, hopeless feeling. Creasy may stop this kidnapping cell and knock off a few corrupt officials, but there is a sense that the void will be filled by another hand waiting to have a chance at the till of society—at best by an "honest" cop like Manzano (Giancarlo Giannini) who is helping Creasy exact his revenge.

There are a couple of twists towards the end that show the weakness of the material and will have those moviegoers who like to dissect their plots asking a couple of fundamental questions, but ultimately the kidnapping and revenge aspects are not what the movie is about. It's about Creasy's redemption. Man on Fire wears its religious overtones on its sleeve, which Washington and Scott do a good job exploiting.

The cast is solid, though Fanning is a little too precocious at times, too much the "movie kid," but she and Washington have a good chemistry. Christopher Walken as Creasy's old buddy Rayburn is welcome, but he doesn't have much to do other than explain his friend's obvious motives to Manzano. Marc Anthony as Pita's father Samuel Ramos does well playing a man tortured by both his past and present, but, like Walken, he has little to do.

Man on Fire is Washington's movie, and he brings all of his talent to bear, and, in turn, is the primary reason to see it.

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