Man on Fire (2004) (R) ★½

Review Date: April 27th, 2004

Man on Fire wants to be a visually striking, adrenaline-filled film about a former assassin-turned-bodyguard who gets revenge on the bad guys who kidnap his young charge. But even with all its creative camerawork and decent acting, the film can't get past its drawn-out, hard-to-believe story.


Based on the A.J. Quinnell novel of the same name, the story is set in Mexico City, where kidnappings have become a business, causing panic among the wealthier citizens and making bodyguards a necessity. John Creasy (Denzel Washington), an ex-CIA operative/assassin whose past has turned him into a shell of a man, comes to the city to visit his old friend Rayburn (Christopher Walken)--and ends up reluctantly taking a job as a bodyguard to nine-year-old Pita Ramos (Dakota Fanning), the precocious daughter of Mexican industrialist Samuel Ramos (Marc Anthony) and his American wife Lisa (Radha Mitchell). For Creasy, it just a means to an end, and he has little interest in getting to know Pita, even though the little girl continually pesters him with personal questions. She eventually gets through, however, chipping away at Creasy's seemingly impenetrable exterior and opening up his wounded heart. Then, just as the two bond, bam! Pita is kidnapped. Although seriously wounded during the kidnapping, Creasy's inner Fire has been released, healing him just enough so that he can track down and kill anyone involved in, with or around the kidnapping. As Creasy says, ''Revenge is a meal best served cold.''


Washington puts in a yet another multifaceted, tortured performance as ex-assassin Creasy, who has a suicidal disposition and drinks excessively to help wipe out bad memories. Luckily for him, Creasy is saved somewhat from a fate worse than death when he lets Pita in his heart. Here, we see the easygoing Washington we know and love, as he and Fanning (I Am Sam) display some genuine chemistry. Not surprising, with a pixie face and infectious charm like hers. Yet, when the kick-ass Washington emerges--a part the actor dishes out with chilling accuracy--the film suddenly asks you to really suspend your disbelief. Creasy is in a serious world of hurt after the abduction, but because he's all fired up, he becomes superhuman. That means all he has to do is slap on some gauze bandages so he come out, guns a-blazin', as well as periodically soak himself in pools to--what, let the blood flow out of his open wounds? Please. Maybe the film should be called Man on Fire Whose Bleeding Gunshot Wounds Won't Stop Him.


Director Tony Scott (Spy Game, Top Gun) does an excellent job setting the scenes, such as Creasy and Pita bonding or Creasy inflicting his particular methods of torture on his enemies, and though he may not be quite as talented as his brother, Ridley (Matchstick Men), he does have a specialty--he's all about the action. Man on Fire is, at times, very much an adrenaline ride, especially when Creasy is on the warpath, with fast cuts and documentary-style camerawork. Shooting entirely on location in Mexico City, the director succinctly captures the city's pollution, traffic and cacophony that bombards its citizens, heightening the sense of panic and pandemonium at every turn. (One wonders why any wealthy person in their right mind would let their kids live there if there's a likelihood they could get kidnapped--but that's besides the point.) It's the film's plodding, underwritten story that fails to keep up with the pace. Creasy has to go through a myriad of corrupt cops and corrupt lawyers (is anyone here not corrupt?) to get to the main kidnapper known only as ''the Voice.'' To do so Creasy elicits the help of a sympathetic newspaper reporter (Rachel Ticotin) and the city's seemingly one honest cop (Giancarlo Giannini) to get information, all while still bleeding from his wounds. Enough already. About two-plus hours later we finally get to the end, and it's pretty anticlimactic.

Bottom Line

Despite some high-octane as well as sincere moments, Man on Fire misfires as the action-packed drama it desperately wants to be.