a critiQal film review Man on Fire (2004)

Plot: John Creasy (Washington) is a man wandering. When his old army pal decides to set him up with a job as a bodyguard in Mexico City for a young girl named Lupita (Fanning), he goes along mainly because he has nothing better to do. Inevitably, the young girl breaks through the crusty exterior and once again gives Creasy something to live for. When she's kidnapped, Creasy will do whatever it takes to exact his revenge on those responsible.

842 words (Est. Reading Time 4m 12s)

I’d heard good things about Man on Fire from various people, but the preview never really excited me much. Denzel Washington has been in some good movies (Out of Time (2003), Fallen (1998)), and some pretty dumb ones as well (Virtuosity, Training Day, The Pelican Brief, etc.), so I approach his movies as basically a 50/50 chance of it being decent – meaning it’s also a 50/50 chance of being ridiculously bad.

When I heard that Man on Fire was directed by Tony Scott, however, that made it a combination that I wanted to check out. If anyone could bring out good acting from Denzel, Tony Scott’s the one who could. So when Man on Fire hit DVD, I decided to give it a shot.

So did a lot of other people, apparently, since it was out the first time I tried to rent it. Of course, I didn’t mind, since that meant I got a free rental of it the next time around (thank you Blockbuster® for the Guaranteed in Stock or It’s Free!). So, without having to shell out a dime, I sat down with Heather to watch Man on Fire.

I was right.

Tony Scott was able to bring out some of the best acting from Denzel that I’ve ever seen from him. His usual low-key approach to his roles (with a lot of teary-eyes and sad looks) is firmed up a little, and he gets to play the one-man army guy he’s probably always wanted to play (you wouldn’t understand ladies – it’s a guy thing).

He takes a great interest in this role, and really plays it to a T. In most of his movies, you could probably name one or two other people who would have been just as good in the same role, but that isn’t the case with Man on Fire. With his past weepy/teary persona that people are used to, it just gives him that much more of an edge when he plays the harder egg.

True, the beginning doesn’t really grab you, since you don’t really believe Denzel to be a tough guy, but by the end, he’s graduated into a bit of his former persona, and that’s what people will be able to recognize.

As for the other actors – well, let’s just say singer Marc Anthony is able to keep up with most of them and leave it at that, shall we (Ah Rourke, how the mighty have fallen)?

Dakota is the only exception in a lead role, surprisingly keeping up with Denzel’s performance through it all, despite her young age.

Christopher Walken also does quite well (even though some scenes might make you wistfully recall his wonderful turn in Pulp Fiction (1994) a few years back), and seems to have delegated himself to performing excellently in small parts, but falling apart when the part comes anywhere close to a lead (c’mon Chris, why didn’t you do this well in The Rundown? And how many Prophecy movies are you in now?).

The plot of Man on Fire is well done. Even though most of the main plot points are quite see-through (I guessed most of them before the movie was 20 minutes in), there are enough hidden turns that aren’t advertised that keep the movie entertaining. That way, you can feel pretty good that you’re smart enough to know what’s coming, yet still be entertained by a surprise or two. Smart trick, but probably incredibly hard to do.

True, this isn’t the next The Sixth Sense (1999) or anything, but it does keep enough hidden to keep most viewers engrossed throughout.

A slightly strange aspect of Man on Fire (at first anyway) are some of the camera shots. There is a lot of quick camera shots, interspersed with a bit of slo-mo and even some repetition, to keep the viewer alert. The whole feel they are aiming for is a more gritty (see “realistic”) film than the kind that Hollywood usually produces, as well as trying to give a feel for what life is like in Mexico City. It’s a nice change from the usual, and although it’s most likely been done before, works very well as the camerawork in this film.

With a plot that manages the thin line between giving some away while still trying to surprise the viewer, Man on Fire has a good backbone.

Add to that a surprisingly good performance from Denzel, as well as Christopher Walken in one of the small roles he’s so good at, and throw in a good performance from child star Dakota Fanning, and this film is something worth watching. Top it all off with some interesting camera work that really pulls you into each scene, and you’re left with something that could quite easily be Denzel’s best film of late. Okay, so that isn’t saying as much as it could be, but it’s still worth giving Man on Fire a shot yourself.

Nice going Denzel – this gives me a reason to want to check out your performance in The Manchurian Candidate (2004) when it hits DVD too!

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