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Man On Fire
cast: Denzel Washington, Dakota Fanning, Christopher Walken, Radha Mitchell, and Mckey Rourke
director: Tony Scott

140 minutes (18) 2004
widescreen ratio 2.35:1
20th Century Fox blu-ray region B retail
[released 9 February]

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Christopher Geary
Originally made in 1987, written and directed by Elie Chouraqui from A.J. Quinell's novel, that previous version starred a post-Silverado Scott Glenn, a pre-Goodfellas Joe Pesci, plus star turns from Brooke Adams, Jonathan Pryce, and Danny Aiello. It was a cult video rental, and remains something of a minor classic from that period's hardboiled action dramas. This updated remake, shifting locales from noir-ish Italy to sultry Mexico, was adapted by Brian Helgeland (writer of L.A. Confidential, and writer-director of Payback), and should be regarded as a superior remake in almost every aspect.

"There is no such thing as tough. There is trained and untrained."

Creasy (Denzel Washington, long-since proven a bankable star, playing all kinds of roles, in the likes of Cry Freedom, Ricochet, Glory, Malcolm X, Pelican Brief, Devil In A Blue Dress, Fallen, Training Day), is a burned-out former government agent, now alcoholic drifter, who ends up south of the border, visiting his buddy Rayburn (Christopher Walken), who's now happily settled into a 'kingly' retirement lifestyle in Mexico City on, very probably, ill-gotten gains. Rayburn helps Creasy find work as a new bodyguard to a wealthy local families, Samuel Ramos (Marc Anthony, still best known for his marriage to Jennifer Lopez), and his American wife Lisa (Radha Mitchell, Pitch Black, Silent Hill, Phone Booth, and Australian monster-croc horror Rogue), though Creasy's main duties are driving the couple's preteen daughter Pita (Dakota Fanning, Spielberg's War Of The Worlds remake, and TV series Taken) to school and back, and this chauffeuring job is a basis for the great character-driven story's central friendship - in which the engaging little girl positively reforms her antisocial 'driver' from impassive ex-assassin to a tragically loyal protector, and is crucial to multilayered intrigues of the consequential kidnapping drama, when Pita is taken hostage for ransom.

Denzel Washington was also directed by Tony Scott in submarine drama Crimson Tide, sci-fi thriller Déjá Vu, and forthcoming remake, The Taking of Pelham 123 - this last from another Helgeland script. It's worth noting that Washington starred in American Gangster, where the actor was directed by Tony's brother Ridley, and performs very well indeed, but seemed less impressive overall, Washington failing to dominate the screen quite as strongly in Ridley's film as he does in Tony's films. And, make no mistake; dominating the screen is what Washington does here quite brilliantly. Unlike the romantic hero played by Russell Crowe in Taylor Hackford's solemnly idealistic though not at all hackneyed Proof Of Life (2000), Washington's timeworn hitman Creasy has no special 'insider' knowledge or negotiating skills. In fact - and especially in this thriller's rough-justice shootout finale - he's rather more like Forest Whitaker's beleaguered hitman in Jarmusch's wholly underrated Ghost Dog: The Way Of The Samurai (1999), but Creasy's morality is one of despair and desperation, and he's not heroic in the traditional sense of genre cinema. Creasy is saved, ultimately, by the unquestioning love of sacrificial lamb Pita, though only to become a proverbial dark angel of vengeance. He brings agonising pain and brutal death to sundry associates of the local mafia's brotherhood, which includes crooked cops and vicious gangs, and it's Creasy's intolerance for injustice, and dogged stop-at-nothing pursuit of baddies, that makes this film such a compelling modern fable of Death Wish-styled redemption. Savagely violent amusements are to be found in the various torture sequences where irritable Creasy scolds unforgivably despicable villains for their utterly self-serving claims of 'professionalism' - while they commit heinous crimes against families and children.

Rising young actress Fanning is wonderfully charming here, presenting instantly-likeable Pita as just the right side of precociousness. She's confident and intelligent without arrogant lapses, or hints of spoiled brattiness. The rest of the cast includes: Rachel Ticotin (always watchable as assertive heroines in the likes Con Air, Falling Down, Total Recall) portraying the boldly crusading journalist; Giancarlo Giannini (Casino Royale, Quantum Of Solace, Hannibal) as a disillusioned but still 'honest' cop; and Mickey Rourke - cursed with a spotty Hollywood career of highs and lows, yet surpassing expectations in Sin City, and now making (yet another) comeback in Darren Aronofsky's The Wrestler - as the contemptibly amoral lawyer, all rounding out the 'star billing' with generally excellent support, despite the predictable nature of their characters' emotional responses to the kidnapping spree, and subsequently decisive actions.

Although most scenes are polished filmically without overindulging director Scott's penchant for almost surrealist editing quirks, there are still a few montage oddities, proving that Scott couldn't resist showing off. During one simple/ routine sequence, Creasy is just getting into a car but his motion is tracked in snapshots from a dozen or more angles while time grows sluggish, stretched out to a patience-testing crawl. Such annoying editorialising spoiled Scott's otherwise entertaining Keira Knightley vehicle Domino but - it must be said - the director made this fast-cutting style work quite satisfactorily, in his later Déjá Vu where the virtual-camera POV was effective as a fundamental part of the storytelling process and not just obvious gimmicky use of digital visuals. Broadly subservient to brooding atmosphere and shotgun-racking tensions, Scott's telltale directorial comic-book trimmings are kept in check here so that Man On Fire deserves critical recognition, at last, as perhaps his best cinema work to date.

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