Denzel Washington is a brilliantly sympathetic actor with the power to communicate such feelings through any situation the characters he plays find themselves in, so it shouldn’t be any surprise as to why director Tony Scott enlisted his talents so abundantly throughout his career. Man on Fire has a wealth of weaker moments that create a great deal of drag to the momentum of the story and would have stalled it into being a lemon of a film were it not for Washington serving as the beating heart of the movie, bearing both the emotional and the interactive weight of the movie like the mighty Atlas, but with twice the presence and half the sweat. Few actors could take a needlessly lengthy and creatively sparse screenplay and make something engaging and full of conviction.
Washington stars as Creasy, a psychologically bruised former anti-terrorism operative with a drinking problem. Trying to bounce back from hard times, Creasy finds bodyguard work for the daughter of a wealthy businessman in Mexico City. He struggles with the demons of his past, but despite his efforts to keep his distance from the tenacious Pita (Dakota Fanning), he finds an outlet for his pent up energy by helping her to become a winning swimmer. Before he realizes it, she becomes the one redeeming light in his dark life – that is, until she is kidnapped. And when the police fail to be proactive, Creasy takes the matter into his own hands, blazing a bloody path through the Mexican criminal underworld in the name of revenge. Most people didn’t really like Man on Fire, and that’s okay. Aside from the obvious pitfalls of the movie, I think the biggest kink was making Creasy’s object of redemption a child: sure, making it a love interest would have been trite but it would have been easier to maneuver and far more tolerable. Even in action movies that operate well with prominent pre-pubescent characters, such as James Cameron’s Aliens, kids amidst or even near the gory foray are crutches – having Pita disappear for the gruesome third act is the smartest narrative decision of the movie. I found her presence in the first two acts, though obviously justified, annoying as hell – I don’t care how good of a child actor Fanning was back then, her scenes were the fat that needed to be trimmed – and I heartily concur with any person who disliked the movie because of that character.
The other half of people who disliked the movie disliked it because it is an unabashedly stilted vehicle for unapologetic violence. As dismissive as it is of the kind of basic conventions that could have made it a bit more palatable – Scott often gets lost in his stylistic choices in the same way Michael Bay does, though not as wantonly or thoughtlessly – it is still the unmistakably pulpy, battery-acid-for-blood kind of action flick that made Tony Scott the god of lowbrow action movies. His entire catalog is filled with movies that have threadbare, inconsequential plots and are instead powered by the magnetism of his highly stylized visions of violence and mayhem. If the target audience should be taken into consideration while forming criticism on a movie, then this movie should be seen as accomplished and impactful, apt to please the action junkies who it was meant for. Some people think sophistication belongs everywhere, but they’re wrong – if everyone at the food from a Michelin-starred restaurant, then quality would be extinct. If you can’t appreciate movies like Man on Fire for the place they hold in the hierarchy of the art of film, then your cinematic literacy needs some overhauling. For everything Man on Fire gets wrong it also gets something right – and even if those “right” things are only ever gritty and semi-sadistic action scenes, that’s still enough to give it praise.