Alcoholic mercenary Creasy (Washington) is all washed-up, until his friend (Walken) finds him a job in Mexico City, as bodyguard for a rich family’s little girl Pita (Fanning). The taciturn man and melancholy girl slowly develop a strong bond… that is utterly shattered the day that Pita is kidnapped and that negotiations are sorely mishandled.
“Man on Fire”‘s title works against it. It proclaims an adrenaline-fueled action film, when in fact what we get is very different. What could be mistakenly thought to be a prologue (Creasy is introduced, meets Pita and the relationship is shown) constitutes a good half of the film’s running time. Washington and Faning are on top form, the former tortured and angry and the latter endearing without being cloying, so it is a tribute to Scott and screenwriter Helgeland that the film takes its time showing their odd relationship. This makes things all the more hurtful and outraging when she is captured in a kidnapping that leaves Creasy severely scarred, both emotionally and physically.
The film earns its title in the second half, not because of non-stop action – which it fore-goes in order to give us something more pondered and cruel – but because Creasy is literally ablaze with silent fury. As he hunts down anyone who participated or profited from Pita’s kidnapping, dismantling rings of Mexico City’s tower of corruption, his methods get bloodier while his movement actually get slower. Creasy races against time and his own likely death, as a tragic figure who’s newfound reason to live has been taken away from him.
The performances are fine, with great turns from the two leads and superb supporting turns by the always reliable Christopher Walken and Jiancarlo Giannini. What sometime detracts from the film’s quality is Tony Scott’s now signature messy visuals. While some shots are magnificent, reminiscent of brother Ridley’s work, some are almost trashy and epilepsy-inducing (some unnecessary hyper-MTV editing). the man redeems himself by handling his actors with care, superbly illustrating his environment and creating a stark atmosphere.
This is a precious oddity: a quality blockbuster.
Review by OttoVonB