Cinema Signal:

Marvel Comic Book Library
Vol. 1

. "Man On Fire"

When we first meet Creasy (Denzell Washington), a burned out ex-Special Forces Marine whose training and past exploits we can only imagine, his mood is one of general lassitude and despondency. Hoping to pull himself out of it, he comes to Mexico to be with his old chum and comrade in arms Rayburn (Christopher Walken), a guy who is enjoying the good life, surrounded by babes. Creasy, he understands, is a guy who needs a job more than he needs a woman and Rayburn quickly fixes him up with one or, at least, an interview for one.

With 4 kidnappings a day going on, it's small wonder that Mexican businessman, Samuel (Marc Anthony), and his American wife, Lisa (Radha Mitchell) are trying to replace the bodyguard they fired. Creasy meets first with Samuel who prepares him for the more critical meeting with Lisa. Conveying the qualities she's been looking for, Creasy is hired, meets his charge, 10-year old, precocious as hell, 'Pita (Lupita), a charmer with a fast and inquisitive mind. Her attempts to get to know her protector go awry when Creasy rejects the girl's attempts at a friendship, shying away from any bond that he'll later regret. He's the stoic professional with a drinking problem, and keeps his emotional distance even from this disarming child.

Not because he fears for her life but, rather, because he feels a need to end his own. In fact, he tries to off himself but the bullet doesn't fire. Bewitched and confused about surviving his own suicide, he searches for meaning and purpose. That becomes Pita. For the rest of the first act he completely connects with her and a bond develops between them that is a satisfying wonder to behold. He becomes her trainer for the swim meet at school, taking her from barely a third place finisher to numero uno.

But just as the relationship deepens, we get the inescapable feeling that we're being set up for something bad. With all the emphasis on kidnapping for riches, we know what that something is going to be. When it happens, Creasy takes 4 corrupt cops out in their kidnapping attempt before the surviving ones succeed in snatching her. He also takes a bullet in a very serious place, putting him out of commission for awhile. When he learns that the $20 mil ransom exchange went bad and that it's too late to save Pita, the expert on very personal assassination has been unleashed, vowing to take down anyone who had anything to do with the kidnapping.

His story comes to the attention of newspaper reporter Mariana (refreshing Rachel Ticotin) who helps him identify some of the perpetrators from clues. Creasy then captures them one by one and employs interrogation techniques never seen on NYPD. Each thug he tracks down furnishes a lead to the next as Creasey works his way up the food chain of the dreaded organization known as "hermanidades." To be one means never to be punished for a crime... any crime, no matter how ruthless and depraved.

This is a first rate revenge yarn, the key to which is to involve us with the people and with the loss that is being revenged. That gets us on the side of the guy doing the avenging and, because of Washington's superb gifts and stores of charisma, he can be casual in the way he exercises them. Because of the value we feel for the loss of the girl, he can do no wrong. We are with him. His tirade of merciless payback and the bloodiness of his punishments raises cheers.

Screenwriter Brian Helgeland ("Mystic River") is a man on fire. He turns in a masterfully structured screenplay which capitalizes on our natural desire to right a wrong and punish the guilty. His first act slowly and assuredly gets us into a man on the end of his rope whose feeling of self worth is revived by love for a little girl. Which makes it all the more dynamic when he goes after the people who took her. The intensity of our feeling of support for his actions depends entirely on how much our feelings are touched by the development of that relationship. The script was based on the novel by A.J. Quinnell.

Praise for the writer doesn't minimize the powerfully effective direction by Tony Scott ("Crimson Tide", "Spy Game") who, if he's to be criticized for anything it would be his visually overflashy scene segues. But he got all the other values quite right.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  

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Denzell Washington with Dakota Fanning
Man On Fire and his charge

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