The details of one man’s life are often inconsequential. On occasion his actions hold consequence for those around him, those he loves and those he loathes. ‘Man on Fire’ (2004) starring Denzel Washington, as John W. Creasy, and Dakota Fanning, as Lupita Ramos, with an understated and powerful supporting performance from Christopher Walken, proves that sentiment with vigor.
Creasy is a washed-up ex-CIA operative hired as a bodyguard to Lupita in Mexico City. Her parents, played with 100% believability by Radha Mitchell and Marc Anthony, realize that given their status and wealth the likelihood of their daughter being kidnapped and held for ransom requires extreme actions. Through the course of the film we see Creasy, haunted by the demons of his past, the actions and horrors he had both committed and witnessed, go from being a broken man medicating himself with alcohol and contemplating suicide to a refreshed man through his friendship to Lupita. At moments I felt that the movie went out of its way to imply that the audience should feel that their relationship is like that of a father and daughter, but I personally felt that those few occasions were so overt that perhaps they were really intended to help us see that they were both peers in their relationship, both of them students and teachers when it came to friendship; she being young, innocent, genuine, and naïve, and he old, hardened, genuine, and alone.
Lupita is kidnapped and Creasy is left for dead. This is more complicated than it seems; an air of conspiracy abounds. As Creasy lay recovering the ransom drop goes wrong. Upon Creasy’s awakening in the hospital he commits himself to killing everyone involved. Here we get to really understand the skills of Creasy as told through the view of his friend Paul Rayburn, played with more incredible believability by Walken. When he says ‘A man can be an artist… in anything, food, whatever. It depends on how good he is at it. Creasy’s art is death. He’s about to paint his masterpiece’ while eating chicken and talking to the inspector in charge of the case you believe him. You know that Creasy won’t rest until Lupita is avenged.
Though the action is not for the light hearted, it earns its R rating, it never feels excessive. It feels, for better or worse, it feels real and necessary. The use of dynamic subtitles when the dialogue is in Spanish adds to the immersive feel of the movie; instead of the standard subtitles confined to the bottom of the frame they feel more a part of the action. Not every movie needs to try this, and often it seems forced and strange, but the performances and gravity of the performances in this film warrant it.
I quite enjoy this movie and would recommend it to anyone who enjoys gritty realism with an R rating and doesn’t require a Hollywood sheen on their plots, dialogue, and action. Dakota Fanning, in her youth and more than a decade ago, does not disappoint. The fact that as a young girl she stood her own in this cast and was nothing short of amazing is a testament to her talents and the talents of those around her. Go watch this if you haven’t seen it and can tolerate what feels like real life, smiles, warts, noise, dirt, sunshine, laughter, tears, and all.