By Marc S. Sanders
A movie that has eluded me until now is Man On Fire featuring Denzel Washington in another Tony Scott film. I say eluded because with this director/actor combination I’m usually satisfied with the finished product. That wasn’t the case here, though.
Washington portrays a hard drinking bodyguard named John Creasy. He’s recruited by his war buddy, played by an uninteresting Christopher Walken, to protect a young girl named Pida (Dakota Fanning), daughter of an automobile industrialist and his always fashionable wife (Mark Anthony, Rahda Mitchell). Creasy is a cold fish at first who refuses to accept Pida’s friendship. Jump to a couple of quick scenes later and he’s become her surrogate father and swimming coach. In a matter of seven minutes of running time, I’m supposed to accept that this guy has turned into a cuddly teddy bear for this kid. As soon as that happens, Creasy is ambushed and Pida is kidnapped following her piano lesson. We are not even a quarter of the way through the picture, but the remaining hour and forty minutes play like an awful how-to documentary on effective means of torture for bad guys before ruthlessly killing them.
Tony Scott is a director who always seeks to demonstrate that glossy film styles are more significant than the screenplays he directs or the characters who reside within. (Two exceptions come to mind though, Crimson Tide and True Romance. Maybe some of Top Gun too.) Man On Fire is a frustrating watch as Scott’s camera performs like a narrator with attention deficit disorder. It can never sit still. The movie jerks around so much with ridiculous quick cuts and deliberately grainy and distressed cinematography. Just when I’m trying to comprehend a new player who enters the fold, the camera jumps to something else like a street corner or a moving car or Denzel Washington’s sunglasses. There are subtitles for the Spanish speaking characters that appear in a block letter font that looks like it came from a karaoke machine. There’s also subtitles for what somehow appear to be “important” or “powerful” statements. A line like “pass the salt” might read like “PASS the SaLt…PLEASE!!!!” Tony Scott is obviously going for some kind of MTV music video approach, but it’s awfully distracting and downright annoying. As well, I must ask why. Why go through all this effort? The cameramen must have been getting motion sickness while fumbling and shaking around their equipment to shoot this picture. So why bother?
The most interesting plot point happens in the first three seconds of the movie. A statistic pops up describing how often kidnappings occur in Mexico (one every sixty seconds), and how as many as seventy percent of those incidents end up with a dead victim. That’s a shocking dilemma, worthy of attention. Through his career, Washington’s selection of scripts has allowed him to tackle important issues with moments of debate and smart dialogue, as well as suspenseful action if there is a call for it. However, Tony Scott and screenwriter Brian Helgeland are not interested in using these facts as a springboard with Man On Fire.
Once the expected kidnapping occurs, and following a very quick healing – as in less than two days – of multiple gunshot wounds to the chest and back, John Creasy goes on a war path of revenge when he learns that Pida is dead. Creasy doesn’t get to perform with much intellect here. Having only a partial license plate number, he’s able to follow the breadcrumbs that lead to a crime syndicate notorious for winning millions in ransom demands. Creasy simply goes up the food chain from one member to the next until he gets to the top of the pyramid. That’s the movie! That’s it!
He’ll cut a guy’s fingers off and cauterize them with a car cigarette lighter. He somehow has access to a rocket launcher to use within the city. Sadly, the most novel technique is to stick a rectal detonator (yes, I said rectal) up a man and set a timer for the guy to come clean with information before it goes off. We can thank Tony Scott for putting up a countdown digital clock on the screen to gauge how close this thug is to his demise.
My past experience with movies like these have taught me that there’s always a traitor. Someone set the plan in motion to abduct the little girl. That’s not hard to figure out. Once the character appears on screen, it could not be more obvious. The motivation is just as ridiculous.
Man On Fire is only imaginative in how the protagonist dispatches one guy after another. It lacks any effort in creativity towards its hero. The guy drinks. He torments his enemies. He’s got nothing interesting to say. There’s a neglect for a very real and common problem within the country of Mexico. The only design that is given attention is “artistic style” that Tony Scott adopts to mask away what is not there in any of the writing or character development.
I’d like to learn more about how the Mexican government responds to these kidnappings and maybe the experience that survivors endured. Show me the torment that the families go through. Can I see the method to the kidnappers’ plots or how they select their next target? A very real predicament was offered with Man On Fire, but then it was tossed aside so I could see the effectiveness of an explosive suppository. Now, is that really a movie that any of us want to see?