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Man On Fire

USA 2003
Directed by
Tony Scott
140 minutes
Rated MA

Reviewed by
Sharon Hurst
4 stars

Man On Fire

Synopsis: In Mexico there is one kidnapping every 60 minutes and only 30% of the victims get out. As a result wealthy citizens, especially parents have bodyguards and kidnapping insurance. Into this dark situation comes ex-CIA operative and assassin John Creasy (Denzel Washington) who has lost his way in life An ex-colleague Rayburn (Christopher Walken) convinces Creasy to take a job as bodyguard to Pita Ramos, (Dakota Fanning), the nine-year-old daughter of a wealthy  businessman. When she is kidnapped he becomes a “man on fire”.

Many elements are here of a standard Hollywood actioner and yet I found myself highly engrossed in this tense, and at times, moving film. Screenwriter Brian Helgeland has teamed up with director Tony Scott to create a film that is almost two rolled into one. The first is Pita and Creasy’s story; the “childhood innocence winning over damaged adult” thing that has been the theme of so many films, and the second is that of Creasy’s ruthless revenge-driven hunt for the perpetrators of the kidnapping, which of course involves a goodly number of corrupt Latino cops.

Filmed mostly in Mexico City, the film has a somewhat unusual, and at times almost overbearing, photographic style. Multiple cameras and exposures, artificially colored film stock, and jump editing are used to create the atmosphere of disorientation in specific scenes in order to portray Creasy's troubled mental state and is especially effective in conveying the seediness of Mexico’s corrupt underworld (in this Scott was influenced by Fernando Meirelles 2002 hit film, City Of God). It works to good effect at first but arguably is overused,. Despite this, Scott creates an sustained sense of tension and at times edge-of-the-seat suspense with the sequences of bloody brutality being underscored by Biblical portends of expiation and redemption.

Over and above the taut action it is the relationship between Creasy and Pita that reels us in. Washington is legendary for portraying tormented souls, and here he combines the bad-assed toughness Alonzo of Training Day with the moral commitment of the civil rights leader Malcolm Little in Malcolm X and brings to the role an] characteristic intelligence which is head and shoulder above that of the standard action movie. Young Dakota Fanning is a fine little actor with a true ability to make us believe in all her emotions.

The supporting cast is strong. Australian actress Radha Mitchell is convincing as distraught mother, Lisa Ramos although her characterisation and lines are quite stock, whilst a welcome appearance by Giancarlo Giannini adds a certain unexpected frisson of continental style. Christopher Walken is most engaging as the good guy (for once), with Mickey Rourke. Marc Anthony,and Rachel Ticotin adding good support in minor roles.

Ultimately Man on Fire adheres to the revenge move template, but if you’re in the mood for a well-honed display of righteous killing, lots of tension and a sprinkling of tear-jerking sentimentality, then check it out.




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