I saw a film that’s a favorite of Connie’s yesterday, “Man on Fire”, starring Denzel Washington, Christopher Walkin and Mickey Rourke (although the latter two were minor characters and probably on-set about a week tops). The film was directed by Tony Scott (Ridley Scott’s brother) and is based on a book about a drunken burnt-out CIA assassin (Denzel) who takes a job as a bodyguard in Mexico city. As they explain at the start of the film, the North American Free Trade Agreement created a large class of rich Mexicans who built and managed the factories that sit just South of the border and employ vast numbers of Mexican workers (doing what were formerly American and Canadian jobs, but I digress…). Of course, the vast majority of Mexicans are desperately poor, and so it’s become common practice for the organized crime groups in Mexico to kidnap the children of rich people and ransom them. So common, in fact, that the rich have kidnap insurance policies to pay said ransoms, and so if one of them gets kidnapped the insurance company is actually the one out the money. This makes the whole process pretty simple, the rich always have insurance to cover the kidnappings, and the kidnappers just have to worry about getting that money to themselves without getting nailed by the police or other groups. The problem being that the Mexican police are often involved with the kidnappings to begin with since the reach of organized crime in Mexico is a long one.
Regardless, our drunk protagonist gets a job taking care of a rich young Mexicans half-American daughter and as you might expect she helps to give him his soul back through her innocence and purity. (Sorry to spoil it for you, but this is hardly a surprise.) As you will also guess, she gets kidnapped at a certain point in the film, and then…Well, I think we all know what’s coming next when you kidnap the loved one of an ex-Navy seal/CIA assassin….Burnt-out/redeemed man goes into hunter-killer mode and lots of people die. (Although without witty banter and in ways which are quite logical, he’s not an action hero he’s an assassin, and he does the job of one.)
Okay, so there’s our story and despite how cliche it sounds I have to say that it’s almost a great film. Denzel does a great job, the story is actually well written and the premise (while tried and true) is actually pretty solid for an action movie. The problem comes in the storytelling, or should I say, the directing.
You see, I saw Gladiator (by Ridley Scott) a few weeks ago on TV here, and it predates this movie by about a year or so. This is important to note because if you see them roughly in tandem like I did, and know who directed each, then you realize what you are watching is Tony trying to copy and improve upon the filming style his brother used in Gladiator. All of the weird surreal effects that Gladiator uses (and I forgot about until I saw it again) Man on Fire uses ten times as much to try to create a disjointed sense of reality as the main character goes through his trials and the movie tries to keep itself visually interesting. And, I think this is where the problem with the film lies, the director is so focused on playing with cool visual techniques of filmmaking that he relegates the actual story and characters to secondary status. One can’t help but wonder if it’s not really a case of Tony thinking “well, doing THIS got my brother an Oscar…so I’ll use 10X as much and get me 10 Oscars!”
Regardless, if you get the chance to see this film it really is worth seeing, despite my criticisms of the film it is a nice action-drama with some good performances and an ending that brings it all home. 7.5 out of 10.