It's been a while since I've seen an action flick so relentlessly intense as Man on Fire. I don't know if "action" is really the appropriate word, though.
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Revenge is a dish best served cold...
From a certain point of view, there are two kinds of action films out there. The first is -- bad guys are about to do something terrible and the good guys fight to stop it from happening (Air Force One). The second is -- bad guys do something terrible, and the good guys get revenge for it (Independence Day). Of course there are variations and combinations of the two themes, but Man on Fire definitely falls into the second set.
Running at 145 minutes, the film doesn't necessarily have a lot of bases to cover, it just covers each base very carefully. First is, of course, the introduction. John W. Creasy (not to be confused with John Q or John G) is visiting his good friend Rayburn (Christopher Walken) who is "living like a king" down in Mexico City. Creasy is at the end of his pitiful rope, having little to do with his life at the moment, and Rayburn tells him he should go back to work.
Next thing you know, Creasy is being interviewed by families looking for bodyguards, and his resume is quite impressive. All kinds of military and counter-terrorism experience. Creasy finds himself working for a poor family so that they "won't be the only ones in the neighborhood without a bodyguard". Samuel (Marc Anthony) and Lisa (Radha Mitchell) are accommodating, as is their daughter Pita (Dakota Fanning) who becomes a central character.
Of course, Pita is one of those "perfect little girls" who would "love" Count Dracula, as her father explains to Creasy, who is uncomfortable with Pita's childlike desire to form a bond with her bodyguard, not to mention her vast knowledge of recent kidnapping statistics. As time goes on, though, a bond does form, and Creasy finds himself training Pita to be a better swimmer, arguing with her over who smiled first, helping her with her homework, and making sure she can belch properly.
But then one day, it happens. Pita gets kidnapped, and Creasy gets shot, putting him in the hospital for over a month. The parents negotiate a ransom to be delivered to the kidnappers in exchange for their daughter's life, but something happens at the place where the ransom is dropped off, and now the kidnapper is really PO'd.
So Denzel gets better, and he goes on a wild rampage, replete with every cliche in the book right down to man walking toward screen unfazed by huge explosion behind him. Denzel cuts off fingers and castrates them with car lighters, drives guys off of cliffs, ties them up and shoves makeshift bombs up their butts... literally. All in the name of cold hard revenge, because as far as we know, Pita is dead. But is she?
I was actually taken in by Denzel's performance. I didn't like him at all at the start, and started to really love him in the middle, then toward the end, thought I was watching Will Smith.
Christopher Walken is always a pleasant surprise. His role is more or less one of the supportive friend, and though he does get a pretty decent block of screentime, that's not saying much with a 145-minute film.
Rachel Ticotin, the babelicious beauty from Falling Down, has aged quite a bit, but she still has the chops. Here, she plays a news reporter who assists Creasy in his pursuit of the kidnapper, the boss, then "The Voice".
Dakota Fanning was getting caught up in some real prissy roles there for a bit, but here she seems a lot more back in I Am Sam mode. She's only in the film for about half of its running time, maybe not even that. Check out the way she "freezes" when Creasy pulls out the gun and tell me she couldn't kick the Olsen twins' asses.
Here comes the downfall
While the acting is just a notch above average (with just a notch above half of the credit due to the supporting players), I think the film as a whole spent too much time on Denzel's badassness and not enough on the development of his relationship with Pita. They could have either cut out 20 minutes of the last half or they could have extended the first half to 10-15 minutes longer and this would've all worked a lot better. As it is, you don't know what's happening at all on Pita's side of things for at least an hour, so consequently you start to forget about her, visual flashbacks notwithstanding. Meanwhile, Denzel starts to sleepwalk through one torture scene after another, prying for information and getting nothing but name droppers. You just have to assume that he's getting closer each time, until an eventual twist which is surprising but not all that original.
Speaking of flashbacks, that's another thing I found troublesome about the viewing -- the whole thing is just way too flashy. A lot of times, watching Man on Fire is like looking at a strobe light. Images of the past, of previous gunshot sequences or some such thing will flash across the screen, edited almost to look as though the reels were burned by one too many Marb menthol lights. To some extent, this "effect" can work, but I'm not a big fan of it and it was used way too liberally here.
A lot of times, subtitles were used when characters spoke in Spanish, which they do a lot more slowly than most of the ones I've heard elsewhere. The way some of the subtitles would "disappear" behind a character as he walked in front of them or show up in different fonts and sizes, or in all caps, that was kind of fun to watch.
You will probably find yourself emotionally invested in the film by the time the kidnapping occurs. What happens is that you'll be "set up" like a group of ten bowling pins, and the first proverbial bowling ball that gets thrown will be a strike. Then there's nothing left to throw the ball at, but the balls continue to fly. And after all that time, we see that the movie has been dedicated to Mexico City, "a very special place". Just so nobody gets too ticked that the movie portrayed it, ya know, accurately or anything. (Not that I could really tell ya)
Unless you are a huge fan of Denzel & Dakota, I'd say wait for the video. And if by some chance Man on Fire edges out competitor 13 Going On 30 this weekend, buy stock in Advil.
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