"Do you think God will forgive us for what we’ve done?" John Creasy (Denzel Washington) asks his old friend Rayburn (Christopher Walken) early in Man on Fire, the latest ultraviolent revenge flick of spring 2004 (cf. Kill Bill Vol. 2, The Punisher).
Walken doesn’t think so. But director Tony Scott (Spy Game) forgives them. No, he exonerates them. Man on Fire is an out-and-out apologia for the necessity of duct-taping a bad guy’s hands to a steering wheel sometimes and lopping off fingers before shooting him in the head, or shoving a crude explosive device into a body cavity of another thug and taunting him with the threat of detonating it before finally going ahead and doing so.
"In the Church they say to forgive," one character observes dubiously. But in Creasy’s book, to forgive is divine, to mutilate and butcher human. "Forgiveness is between them and God," he says, conveniently overlooking the relevant biblical injunctions even though we know he can quote chapter and verse when he wants to. "My job is to arrange the meeting." We know we should agree with Creasy, because his murderous rampage is scored by a cool rock soundtrack and sanctified by a mother’s kiss. That’s got to be righteous.
Scott’s defense turns on his depiction of Mexico City as a sinkhole of lawlessness and corruption in which the authorities are part of the problem rather than the solution, and unless a man like Creasy starts lopping fingers and blowing up body cavities, little girls like Dakota Fanning (The Cat in the Hat) will just keep getting kidnapped and murdered.
If you don’t find this argument entirely persuasive, perhaps you’ll be reassured by all the religious iconography. For example, there’s the St. Jude medal Creasy wears around his neck and clutches from time to time, given to him by Pita (Fanning), whom Creasy was hired to bodyguard and in whose memory all his mayhem is wrought. There’s also la Virgen de Guadalupe, prominently displayed in Pita’s parents’ house (Pita’s father says he "worships" her), but also invoked by Pita’s kidnapper. (Actually, in the end the Guadalupe shrine in Pita’s house is also tainted by her kidnapping, in a way I can’t explain.)
For some reason I still think of Washington as traditionally playing righteous heroes, though he’s increasingly been turning to darker characters and antiheroes (e.g., John Q, Training Day). The turning point for him was Devil in a Blue Dress — not because his character in that film was particularly antiheroic, but because Washington looked at costar Don Cheadle playing the colorfully ominous Mouse and realized that Cheadle had the meatier role.
Washington’s character this time out is a down-and-out former anti-terrorist operative who drinks too much and hasn’t got a job until he agrees to protect Pita in Mexico City, where kidnappings are so frequent that people take out kidnapping insurance against potential ransom demands.
At first Creasy is brusque and hard-nosed with Pita, but Scott takes his time building a rapport between the two characters and softening Creasy into a kind of secondary father figure, until we reach the point where he’s coaching her on her swimming and having cutesy-poo exchanges such as the strategic deployment of belching as a means of avoiding piano lessons.
Unfortunately, their relationship exists largely to fan the flames of Creasy’s righteous wrath when Pita is kidnapped and reported killed. At that point, Creasy goes into Rambo mode, methodically and murderously working his way up the food chain of racketeers and corrupt authorities involved in the kidnapping.
In some ways Creasy is Washington’s darkest character yet, a man who kills people because he wants them dead. Even Alonzo Harris in Training Day was only corrupt and amoral; he might kill someone who got in his way, but only if it benefited him somehow. Harris might have pointed a gun at Ethan Hawke’s head or thrashed a thug for insulting him, but it’s hard to imagine even him extracting wanted information by lopping off fingers or blowing up a man from inside.
What hasn’t changed is Washington’s penchant for giving four-star performances in two- to three-star pictures. Even apart from its morally problematic dimension, Man on Fire is strictly B-movie material, but in Tony Scott’s reliable hands it’s pumped down to C-level or lower.
Scott’s direction is always pointlessly hyperactive, but here he supplements his usual shortcomings with random use of subtitles and captions as design elements. Subtitled text scrolls across the screen, plays peekaboo behind onscreen objects, pops up letter by letter like live on-the-fly captioning, and eventually restates random English lines of dialogue, getting bigger when a character shouts.
This bizarrely inept use of captioning reminds me of the way the earliest animated cartoons included comic-strip motion lines and other devices from static-image cartooning, before animators realized that you don’t need motion lines when you actually have a moving image, or the use of word balloons and written-out sound effects in the earliest sound cartoons. It’s not just superfluous, it’s distracting and annoying.
In the end, though, what sinks the picture is that it asks us to sanction Creasy’s brutality. Creasy’s ultimate vindication is a thoroughly transparent and unpersuasive climactic conceit that all but turns him into a Christ figure (Christianity Today critic Jeffrey Overstreet, in a provocative review, notes that Creasy has scars on his hands and his initials are J.C.!). Shamelessly manipulative and sadistically violent, Man on Fire is a new low for both Washington and Scott, and one of the nastier bits of business I’ve seen at the multiplex in quite some time.
Well-crafted but improbable action set pieces cast the 56-year-old Neeson as an essentially indomitable force taking on and prevailing against almost any number of gun-toting assailants — like Jason Bourne, Bryan combines boundless resourcefulness with essentially indomitable physical prowess — but the film’s emotional force rests on the comparatively persuasive setup.
Trade needed to be the United 93 of the human trafficking crisis. It’s closer to being the World Trade Center.
It’s a movie in which every slimeball Erica encounters menaces her with remorseless, repulsive sadism — there’s never anyone who just has a lewd comment, say, or even just wants to steal her purse. Everyone wants to bludgeon or shoot her, mutilate and molest her, enslave her, run her over, what have you.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.