Man on Fire starring Denzel Washington as John W. Creasy is one of the more underrated films in the talented actor’s filmography. I would even go so far as to rank it right up there with his Oscar winning performance in the extremely entertaining Training Day. Washington plays Creasy to perfection: at the beginning as the suicidal drunk loner uninterested with having any human contact with other human beings, then to a tender hearted body guard who grows to love Lupita (Dakota Fanning), and then to a raging man on fire who will do anything to get vengeance for little Lupita Ramos.
I’m going to do what I do best. I’m going to kill ’em. Anybody involved. Anybody who profited from it. Anybody who opens their eyes at me.
The film is definitely a slow burn. The first fifty minutes or so are dedicated to Creasy finding redemption and something to live for by detailing his bond with Lupita Ramos. (Despite being bi-racial with a Mexican father and White American mother, she is played by pasty white Dakota Fanning…go figure). One goes into this type of film expecting certain things. This is a Denzel Washington actioner and thirty-five minutes into it your heart is touched as Pita accuses Creasy (her sad Creasy bear) of smiling. So many action movies and revenge flicks spend mere minutes on these types of contrived relationships so they can get the killing in, but the late Tony Scott shows patience and confidence in his film and takes his time. Their bond isn’t rushed and it feels more natural than it otherwise could have been.
Once Pita is finally kidnapped, the Ramos family sets up a ransom payment, but the ransom is ripped off and “The Voice” (the antagonist in this film) claims that he will kill Pita in retaliation. The tone then shifts completely. When Creasy tells Pita’s mother “I’m going to do what I do best. I’m going to kill ’em.” the time that was spent in the first half of the film pays off as there is now an emotional justification for what is about to happen. The second half of the film pulls no punches. Creasy will kill anyone, will cut off fingers (and stop the bleeding with a car lighter, holy…) and blow off other limbs, and will shoot anyone who gets in his way, who profited from the kidnapping, or if he feels like he’s not getting factual information. It is not for the faint of heart and, again, if not for the fact that they spent the entire first half of this film building the attachment between Pita and Creasy, it would just be another film with gratuitous violence and mindless action. No matter what Creasy does to these thugs and killers it all feels justified because you have that emotional connection. There comes a point, at least for me, where I almost felt guilty watching some of the things he does when I first saw it. And every time I felt guilty a well timed flashback reminds me why he’s doing this and its all good again. The ending is anticlimactic, given the build up, but I thought it served as the perfect way to end the story.
Creasy’s art is death. He’s about to paint his masterpiece.
One of the aspects that sets this baby apart from other films on top of the surprisingly emotional moments is the over the top cinematography and the over the top subtitles. Instead of boring subtitles that simply tell you what the characters are saying in Spanish, these subtitles put an emphasis on the words. For added flair, the filmmakers even throw in subtitles and still frames when Creasy is speaking English. Good stuff.
Man on Fire is an underrated revenge epic and one of Denzel Washington’s very best performances in his long history of them. From the emotional connections in the story, to the outstanding cinematography, the emotional soundtrack by Harry Gregson-Williams (with a little hard hitting Nine Inch Nails for some of the more intense scenes), and the exciting action this is one that you don’t want to miss.
Overall, this film gets a B+ with the only thing knocking down the score are some of the more relentless parts in the second half. It is a story that is as much about love and self-sacrifice as it is about greed and bloody vengeance.