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Case Number 05300

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Man On Fire

Fox // 2004 // 146 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge David Johnson // October 4th, 2004

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All Rise...

Judge David Johnson just thought of a great joke—"I wanted to spend the night at Man on Fire's house, but I didn't want to put him out."

Editor's Note

Our review of Man On Fire (Blu-Ray), published January 24th, 2008, is also available.

The Charge

Um, I don't think I want to go to Mexico City.

Opening Statement

One of two super-violent revenge sagas released in theatres early this year (The Punisher being the other), Man on Fire chronicles the slow burn of Denzel Washington's Creasy, a bodyguard with a dark past. Hey kids, watch the nice man go nuclear!

Facts of the Case

This Creasy fellow is a man with more skeletons in his closet than a creepy high school biology teacher. An unshaven, drunken wreck, on the verge of becoming fully unhinged, Creasy lands in Mexico City, hooking up with a long time friend (Christopher Walken, The Rundown). He lands a job as a bodyguard, charged to protect young Pita (Dakota Fanning, The Cat in the Hat), bringing with him an extensive résumé of combat and counter-terror experience, and a blustery personality.

A rash of kidnappings has plagued Mexico City recently, as a shadowy crime outfit of corrupt cops and thugs has developed a sure-fire scheme for getting money: kidnap the children of the wealthy and exploit the parents' "kidnapping insurance."

Creasy is hired to prevent this from happening to little Pita. As he spends time with her, she breaks through his icy exterior, and, as Walken's character notes, "gives him a reason to live." Suddenly, there is potential contentment for this tormented soul—until the fit hits the shan.

Pita is snatched from the side of the road, and despite Creasy's valiant efforts (mowing down four bad guys and taking a couple of slugs himself), she disappears. While Creasy partially recuperates, Pita's parents attempt to negotiate her release, but the deal goes wonky.

When Creasy heals, he leaves behind the sunny disposition and does what he does best—kill lots of people to death. One by one the scumbags that had their hands in Pita's kidnapping are dealt the brutal cards of Justice, with Creasy as the dealer. But as he digs deeper into the dark organization, leaving body upon body prone and lifeless and newly-ventilated, he is confronted with something even darker than the charred corpse he left under the overpass—the truth.

The Evidence

Being a gigundo Denzel fan, I was excited about this movie. "Denzel-as-bad-ass" is one of my favorite pleasures in the movies. Be it bad bad-ass like his Oscar-winning role in Training Day, or good bad-ass like his Ying to Gene Hackman's Yang in Crimson Tide, the guy has me at "hello." I have friends who feel that Denzel plays the same character in each movie, and perhaps an argument can be made that there isn't much differentiation in his roles—but I know I'd rather see a trash-talking, gun-toting Denzel than a hilarious slapstick day-care worker Denzel.

Well, if you feel the same, then you're probably going to want to check out Man on Fire, a good flick that is kept from noteworthiness by some serious problems.

Revenge sagas are always a nice diversion, but for the films to work, you need to have a couple of key pieces in place. First, you have to empathize with the revenge-taker. We've all been brought up with the general notion that mortal vengeance on your enemy may not be the most loving thing to do, and many of our Judeo-Christian values are rooted in the concept of forgiveness. So when a character shoves a bomb up another guy's rectum, as Denzel does in Man on Fire, said anal-explosive-recipient better have deserved it.

If Creasy started mowing down folks because he wanted vengeance on the guy who threw a Snickers wrapper on his front lawn, we'd be dealing with an entirely different movie. It's doubtful the audience would respond well to that. Here, our protagonist certainly has the motivation, and kidnappers and child killers don't rank way high up on the "I Like Those Kind of People" meter, so witnessing Creasy torment and dispatch them may not be as unsettling.

And there are plenty of unsettling scenes in the movie. This is an extremely violent film, not merely because of the vividness of the violence, but because of nature of it. The most violent sequence in the film has Creasy interrogating one of the kidnappers in a stuffy car. The villain has his hands taped to the steering wheel, his fingers splayed apart. Creasy asks questions, and upon hearing lies or silence, calmly cuts the fingers off and cauterizes the wounds with a cigarette lighter. You have to admit, that's pretty friggin' brutal. This methodical torture, the sort of routine that Creasy repeats with other folks using varying methods of destruction, runs throughout his revenge path.

I wasn't disturbed by (and even took morbid pleasure in) this violence, mainly because I'm a sick, desensitized bastard. But also because I was pretty pissed at these scumbags. "Go Creasy, make that guy suffer!"

So here I arrive at a Catch-22. I was raring to see some bad-guy torture because I felt Creasy's pain, and shared in some of it. This little girl was nice and cute and saved him from suicidal tendencies and binge-drinking, but all that took time to manufacture. A lot of time. And this is the first problem: the movie is just too long. Clocking in at a touch south of two and a half hours, that's about fifty or so minutes longer than I want my escapist action flicks to be. I'll grant that director Tony Scott perhaps wished to take it beyond just an "escapist action flick," but when your plot is pretty much guy-meets-nice-girl, guy-loses-nice-girl, guy-kills-lots-of-dirtbags, it's hard to validate an epic-length runtime. Creasy doesn't get jiggy with the baddies until about an hour or so in. But maybe it's necessary to build the initial relationship in that amount of time, so the vengeance is earned. Catch-22. For me, the film was unnecessarily long.

Back to the action. Here's the second big problem: Scott's filming style. When the action gets rolling, Scott employs a buffet of camera tricks, opting for a kinetic mish-mash of color saturations, quick cuts, and shaky shooting. The style, used in abundance in other parts of the movie, was just too distracting. While unique, it seemed to serve itself, not the movie. Many times—especially the convoy ambush scene—I yearned for Scott to just play it straight.

Enough harping. Folks pay their money to watch what they were promised in the title—this guy taking a flying leap off the deep end and opening fire. I don't think you'll be disappointed. When Creasy rampages, he does so with gusto, making the second half of the movie almost worth the semi-tedium of the first. Explosions, rocket launchers, Christopher Walken talking about how mean Creasy is, amputations by shotgun, and of course the aforementioned rectal-bomb…that should be enough to keep you action hounds sated.

The acting is strong, though odd at times. Denzel excels as usual, especially when he goes atomic. Walken is fun, but his presence is almost unnecessary; he gets Creasy the guns, acts a sanity foil, and then takes off. Dakota Fanning is talented, yes; but she didn't act like a little girl. Some scenes she would dance around with her teddy bear and play with a puppy and emit cute little girl vibes, and then sometimes she would engage Creasy like an aged psychotherapist.

My final comments on the flick are two lines that are an illustration of the film's unevenness. The first comes courtesy of Walken's character: "Creasy's art is death. And he's about to paint his masterpiece." Sorry, too glitzy, too contrived, much like parts of the movie. The second is Creasy's: "Forgiveness is between them and God. My job is to arrange the meeting." Simply bad-ass. And it's the bad-ass sections that make the slog worth it.

The disc looks and sounds great. A 2:40.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is vibrant. It handles both the dingy, earthy tones of Mexico City and the brightness of the fireballs with ease. Both a DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 track bring the violence to life. The first half is dialogue-heavy, but the soundtrack pushes the system nicely. The nitty-gritty of the second, action-centered half makes solid use of the surrounds, though not as hectic and balls-to-the-wall aggressive as I would have preferred. (In a sound-related aside, Man on Fire featured that solemn vocal music from Gladiator. Why do studios do this? A movie's score will produce memories from that movie, and the recycling of this score kept pulling me out of Man on Fire and dropping me into Russell Crowe's stagger towards Elysium.)

Two commentary tracks comprise the extras. The first, from Scott, is largely technical in nature. But the second is bizarre. It features producer Lucas Foster and screenwriter Brian Helgeland, and Dakota Fanning(!) Dakota's presence is surreal, since this is NOT a movie for kids, and is one of the more exceedingly violent of the year. The two adults assured the audience that she was covering her eyes during the scary parts…but, seriously, come on!

"No kids, you cannot watch that movie! It's too violent!"

"But Dakota Fanning watched it!"

The Rebuttal Witnesses

The absolute goofiest part of the film comes at the very end. As the screen fades to black, an acknowledgment pops up, saying how the film was shot in Mexico City, "a special place." After watching 150 minutes of kidnapping and death, I thought, "Sure, if by 'special place' you mean 'Hell on Earth.'"

Closing Statement

A solid revenge film, marred by some faults. But where else can you see Denzel Washington detonate ass grenades?

The Verdict

Not guilty. And keep your damn kids away from this.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 95
Audio: 95
Extras: 80
Acting: 85
Story: 85
Judgment: 88

Perp Profile

Studio: Fox
Video Formats:
• 2.40:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• DTS 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (French)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (Spanish)
• English
• Spanish
Running Time: 146 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Rated R
• Crime
• Drama
• Thriller

Distinguishing Marks

• Commentary by Director Tony Scott
• Commentary by Producer Lucas Foster, Screenwriter Brian Helgeland, and Co-star Dakota Fanning.
• Previews


• IMDb

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Review content copyright © 2004 David Johnson; Site design and review layout copyright © 2016 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.