Man on Fire (2004)
This review contains spoilers.
A story of love and a mission of revenge. Denzel Washington and Dakota Fanning redeem what would have been a mediocre film without them.
Man on Fire is a perplexity. Dakota Fanning is a prodigious wonder; Denzel Washington has been one of my favorite actors since Crimson Tide; and Christopher Walken is a demigod. The same-titled novel by A.J. Quinnell on which the movie is based is an extraordinarily intelligent, well-written, and provocative story. Yet, somehow, Tony Scott's film adaptation of Man on Fire is less than the sum of its parts. But not much less.
I can't help but feel that the visual style of Man on Fire is pretentious. Many sequences are filmed using a hand-crank camera, or are cross-processed to produce a high-contrast, highly saturated look. Artsy subtitles ooze onto the screen – sometimes even when the characters speak English, just in case the audience is too daft to notice when something important is said. It felt like Scott was going for that trendy, European techno flair, but it seemed misplaced and overdone.
This might be the biggest flaw of Man on Fire, and it's something I can overlook, because this film also gets a lot of things right.
The story of Man on Fire revolves around John Creasy (Denzel Washington), a washed up ex-mercenary with a penchant for killing, whose only solace is found at the bottom of a bottle of Jack Daniels. In Mexico City, he meets his old comrade Rayburn (Christopher Walken), who convinces him to take a low-paying job as a bodyguard to the family of a near-bankrupt socialite named Samuel Ramos (Marc Anthony). Creasy is forthcoming about his alcoholism when interviewed by Ramos, but he is specifically instructed not to divulge that fact to Ramos' wife, Lisa (Radha Mitchell).
Creasy's true charge is Pita, played by the beautiful Dakota Fanning, who portrays the kind of character Dakota does best: intelligent, wise, and compassionate. Creasy is a curiosity for Pita, although despite her best efforts to befriend him, Creasy maintains an emotional distance and professionalism. Naturally, Creasy's detachment only serves to fuel Pita's determination to pierce his crusty shell.
Pita's series of methodic and surgical strikes against Creasy's emotional barrier begin in the form of innocuous questions during her rides to school. She chooses to sit in the front seat, making the psychological statement that she considers Creasy, on some levels, to be an equal. To her more benign questions, Creasy is evasive, but when Pita eventually asks him about the scars on his hand, it strikes a nerve, and he lays it out to her: "I am not being paid to be your friend. So no more questions. That's it. Period."
Later that evening, Creasy again turns to solitude and alcohol. Tormented by the violence of his past, Creasy's psychological state spirals, and although he is resolved to shoot himself, his pistol misfires. Confused, he extracts the bullet from the chamber, fully intact. Creasy wanders outside in the thundering rain while an effective contrast of Debussy's Claire de Lune rings in the background, and he calls Rayburn. Creasy cryptically asks Rayburn about a failure to fire, to which Walken expertly delivers the line, "Like we used to say, the bullet always tells the truth."
With the odds of a failure to fire being 1 in 10000, Creasy realizes the misfire was some karmic message that there is still a purpose. There is no darker place for a man than that where he gains the will to end his life. And having just come from this place, having made the decision to rethink his life, Creasy looks up and sees Pita watching him from her room. This moment is a turning point, and marks the beginning of the love story between Pita and Creasy.
The evolution of the relationship between Creasy and Pita is an absolutely critical element of the story, and I am happy to say that nearly the entire first half of the movie was devoted to this vital character development.
The two form a rapport as Creasy trains Pita for her upcoming swim meet. And Creasy becomes more involved in Pita's life in other ways, such as sitting with her while she does her homework, taking her out for lunch with Rayburn, or coaching her to burp in order to shirk her piano lesson. In one scene, the two exchange some late night dialogue from across their bedroom windows. Pita gauges Creasy with small talk, and is visibly satisfied with his new attitude toward her. She flashes him a gentle, caring smile and tells him goodnight, and spins around her room, leaping onto her bed like a girl in love. She kisses her teddybear (whom she later names Creasybear) and blissfully falls asleep. If we're unsure about the strength of Creasy's affection for Pita, here it becomes very obvious that Pita is herself falling in love with Creasy.
Through their relationship, Pita shows Creasy what it means to be alive. And as their mutual happiness heightens to new levels, the audience can't shake the foreboding: after all, the movie's not even half over. The inevitable happens, and Pita is kidnapped while Creasy very nearly dies defending her. Negotiations with the kidnappers go awry, and Creasy, who is bandaged and bedridden, learns that Pita has been executed.
Man on Fire is a story clearly divided into two parts. The first half is a love story, and the second half is a story of revenge. There is a certain emotional purity that I admire about this story as it has been crafted by A.J. Quinnell: pure and innocent love between Creasy and Pita, and pure and calculated hate from Creasy toward all those involved in Pita's death. In his last appearance, Walken delivers a line that aptly describes the latter act of the film: "Creasy's art is death. He's about to paint his masterpiece."
The scenes that follow earn this film its R rating. Creasy begins interrogating his first lead: a member of La Hermandad, the group that orchestrated Pita's kidnapping. Once Creasy has acquired the information he needs, he moves on to the next person, intent on climbing the ladder of authority until he reaches the top, killing anyone who had a hand in Pita's death.
Creasy is brutal, ruthless, relentless, and also quite inventive in how he obtains information. He is also systematic, detached, and professional, and we begin to appreciate the nature of Creasy's past training. I was so emotionally connected with Pita that I too lusted for revenge. Each finger hacked off and each body blown up was a small emotional release. But being of the generation that's been tempered in Hollywood violence and Internet gore, it wasn't enough. I wanted more. There was no fate gruesome enough for those responsible for Pita's death.
The film's final scene delivers a rapid-fire sequence of strongly cathartic moments. The powerful soundtrack composed by Harry Gregson-Williams with Lisa Gerrard's beautiful but haunting vocals in no small part heightens the emotional intensity. I find I am simply incapable of keeping a dry face during this scene.
I remember vividly the first time I saw Man on Fire. It was in a fairly crowded theatre and, as the movie ended, I stoically walked to my car while a lump the size of Texas developed in my throat. Once sitting in the driver's seat, cloaked in the privacy of night, I wept. I didn't shed a few tears or get a little choked up. I wept. I cried because, like Creasy, I fell in love with Pita. And because I identified and connected with Creasy. Whatever Man on Fire's faults might be, very few movies have had (and continue to have) this level of emotional impact on me.
For those of you who have read A.J. Quinnell's novel, you will find that Tony Scott's version of Man on Fire differs in many respects. The story takes place in Mexico, rather than Italy; the entire middle act of the book (where Creasy spends months at the farm to recover and train) was understandably not included in the film; Pita is 3 years younger than her character in the book, which serves to emphasize the innocent nature of Creasy and Pita's love; and, most importantly, the ending of the film was completely rewritten. Also, interestingly, Pinta's character was renamed to Lupita, because the Mexican vernacular for "pinta" means "whore." (And considering Dakota played Pita, I certainly agree with this divergence from the book!)
Dakota is almost entirely absent from the second half of the movie, but her performance in the first half easily compensates. Dakota was naturally charming and lovely, as she always is, and I especially enjoyed the interplay between Denzel and Dakota during their first drive to school. And, as usual, her colleagues speak nothing but praise of her. Tony Scott adds, "She is an extraordinary little thing: intelligent and so grand and so honest in terms of her response to what she does in her life and the people around her." Denzel Washington attributes Dakota with "watchability" – a quality he has said of only one other actor (Gene Hackman).
It is worth noting that on the Man on Fire DVD, Dakota participates in a commentary along with screenwriter Brian Helgeland and producer Lucas Foster. This is mandatory content for any fan of Dakota's. She is both adorable and interesting to listen to, and she has much to say. It's also extremely touching that during the final scene Dakota cries. Sniffling, she says, "It's so sad." I dare you not to love her!
Man on Fire fails to deliver its potential, but in spite of its faults, it's still an extremely solid film. Although not as good as Lucy in I Am Sam, Pita is an excellent role for Dakota, allowing her to push her range as an actor. No part of her performance feels forced, and she handles her scenes with Denzel Washington and Christopher Walken with poise, refusing to be upstaged. Man on Fire is not a cinematic masterpiece, but it still comes strongly recommended.