that in Man On Fire, Denzel Washington himself is never
actually on fire. But in the course of events, several men
who catch the attention of his driven bodyguard John Creasey
do, as the result of his questioning, catch fire. Being no
pyrotechnics expert, I cannot tell if that's technically before
or after their bodies explode.
caught in a strange glut of decent revenge movies, but Man
On Fire stands apart as being the one with artistic aspirations.
Fortunately for us, as his friend Rayburn (Christopher Walken)
matter-of-factly observes, Creasey's art is death, and he's
about to paint his masterpiece.
Tony Scott's art, of course, is filmmaking. Usually his movies
are pulse-pounding audience-pleasers that may one day look
as dated as a Nagel painting. But with Man On Fire,
working from a Brian Helgeland script, Scott actually seems
to be trying to say something with his art. It may not be
his masterpiece, but it comes close.
On Fire also won't be for everyone. Scott's editing jumps
about manically, not a new trick, but here it underscores
the struggle it is for Creasey to focus through his emotional
pain. In a move that owes much to graphic fiction, the director
throws in subtitles that move around the screen, changing
size for emphasis and not always there to translate into English.
More than once, Creasey's demands appear in gorilla bold,
even though we know perfectly well what he said.
not the only technique borrowed from comics, either. Scott
peppers sequences with grainy still photos, occasionally juxtaposed
for greater effect. Each panel seethes with emotion, though,
granted, that emotion is usually rage. Again, not the first
time the technique has been used; it's like Hulk,
only with Denzel Washington instead of a green behemoth, and
seen it before. In fact, a lot of Man On Fire, though
based on a decades old novel by A.J. Quinnel, would seem to
play like any one of a dozen revenge films, including last
week's excellent The Punisher.
But Helgeland has turned out a slyly relaxed script that sets
up its relationships so naturally, so kindly, that we almost
might be willing to sit through it without any action.
there is action. Though Creasey's past violence has deadened
him, or maybe it's the alcohol, venturing into a Mexico City
racked by the terror of random kidnappings is no way to stay
out of the mix. The former assassin finds cheap work as a
bodyguard to young Pita (Dakota Fanning), the daughter of
auto factory owner Samuel (Marc Anthony).
what you pay for," warns Anthony's lawyer Jordan, played by
Mickey Rourke with the same slick naugahyde attitude that
matches his face. If professionals try to kidnap Pita, Creasey
warns, he probably won't be able to stop them. But if amateurs
try, he promises to kill them.
Helgeland maps out the slow build of a relationship between
Creasey and his charge. With intelligent dialogue, their pairing
moves from stiff to moving. When the inevitable kidnapping
happens, it's a shock. We'd been drawn into a film about a
girl and her bodyguard only to find ourselves back in an action
of an action movie, by the way. Once Creasey recovers and
swears his vengeance, there are sequences of great creativity
and extremely high tension. Bombs show up in the most uncomfortable
places, and Creasey, promised to be a man of relentless violence,
does many things that will make the audience squirm. But it
should also be noted that he spares some; he may cry "vengeance!"
but even the non-corrupt police, led by Manzano (Giancarlo
Giannini), recognize that Creasey achieves justice.
not agree. But there again, this film presents the case so
three-dimensionally that at least you can understand.
you can lay money on a couple of Academy Award nominations,
if you care about such things. Washington gets to play many
shades in this role; it would be nice to see him not Oscar-baiting
for a change, but unlike guys like Kevin Spacey that have
fallen into that trap, Washington at least has excellent taste
real shine comes from Fanning; precocious but not cloying,
her Pita is absolutely someone that sparks paternal feelings.
Child actors do not often come along this assured.
have been just another riff on vengeance. But Man On Fire
may mark the first great film of the year.