Revenge is one of those movie vehicles that can take a movie down easy street with little provocation. Simply kill off someone’s family member and everything is fair game. That’s sort of “Man on Fire” in a nutshell, but don’t write it off yet. You’ll be missing out on two fantastic performances and some truly shocking violence.
Broken down after years of service in the CIA, John Creasy (Denzel Washington) heads to Mexico to meet up with long time friend Rayburn (Christopher Walken). Here he learns of a bodyguard job for a wealthy family that is worried about their daughter after a string of recent kidnappings. Through their young daughter Pita (Dakota Fanning), Creasy learns the value of his life. When things go awry and Pita is kidnapped, Creasy swears vengeance on those who have taken the girl and will stop at nothing until everyone involved is dead.
Based off a book, which in turn was already made into a movie back in 1987, “Man on Fire” is another over-the-top revenge film, one done well with incredible performances. It’s not a perfect movie as it runs a little too long and the cinematography is jarring at times, but this is a movie with strong believable characters in the lead. That makes all the difference.
The first hour or so of this film does an amazing job of building character, putting the audience in the proper mind set and preparing them for what’s to come. Washington undergoes a transformation from depressed CIA agent to secondary father figure in believable fashion. It carries the movie for some time and not a single scene can be considered a waste. His motive is fully understood when the time comes.
Young Dakota Fanning firmly makes herself a star with this film. Right alongside Denzel, she holds her own even with some dialogue that seems a bit old for her character. It’s incredible for a girl under 10-years old. The rest of the cast rounds out nicely, including the always-excellent Christopher Walken.
Changing pace, the second hour becomes more of a murder-mystery, unraveling in slow fashion. Brutal violence and torture ensues as Creasy begins his revenge filled rampage through the Mexican underworld. This is nasty stuff and it’s not meant for the squeamish. It’s easy to follow even if you are the type who has to look away once in a while and still surprising in the end.
Only the oddball cinematography/camera movements ruin everything. Director Tony Scott has done fine with his previous work, but here he has created an epileptics nightmare. Quick zooms, fast edits, flashing screens, and swift camera movements are not artsy, they’re jarring. In fact, it’s almost nauseating at a few points. Once everything slows down it’s fine, fantastic even, with some really unique viewpoints. If this is what cinema will become at some point in the future, a large portion of the population is done for.
For the most part, “Man on Fire” is fairly formulaic until the nice twist ending. It’s one of those movies that is made by the performances of the lead actors. Put anyone else in these roles (and they tried; Will Smith and Bruce Willis were offered the role of Creasy) and it would likely fall flat. Thanks to the casting, this one comes off as nearly perfect, a revenge film the way revenge films should be done. (**** out of *****)
Along with the insane cinematography comes a ridiculous color scheme, though one that’s perfect on DVD. These bright colors hold together with no bleeding to be found at any point in the film. Compression is non-existent, an excellent job by the mastering company considering the massive amount of red contained in the film. Grain is mostly intentional and when it’s not, you can’t tell the difference. Only some minor edge enhancement knocks this one a notch away from perfection. (****)
Both standard 5.1 and DTS are available on the disc. This is a very powerful mix, one filled with that great deep, rumbling bass. The soundtrack provides most of these moments, but a few explosions get a chance to shine as well. Sadly, most of the sound comes from the front channels and there is very little in the way of surround work. There’s not even a moment worth mentioning, surprising considering what should be a great shootout near the middle of the movie. (***)
Extras are sadly sparse, highlighted by two commentaries. Tony Scott takes over the first one, going solo. Fanning, producer Lucas Foster, and screenwriter Brian Helgeland does the second. The only things remaining on this disc are two previews, one for what seems like a freaky horror exercise “Hide and Seek” and the awful “Taxi.” (**)
It’s hard not to draw the comparison between Denzel’s character here and the one he played in “Training Day,” at least for the second half of the movie. Both are brutal, hateful men and share the same fate in a way. It’s also no coincidence that both films are solid pieces and some of the actor’s best work.