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Man On Fire

movie reviewmovie reviewvideo review out of 4

*Also starring: Dakota Fanning, Marc Anthony, Radha Mitchell, Giancarlo Giannini, Mickey Rourke, Rachel Ticotin

Review by Harvey Karten
2½ stars out of 4

Think of someone you dislike intensely. No, don't pretend

you're a saint and wish forgiveness and peace for all. What

would you like to do to this person? Nothing wrong with

contemplating horrors: As Tony Esposito's friends sing in Frank

Loesser's "The Most Happy Fella," "Brother, you can't go to jail

for what you're thinking." The vast majority of us thankfully do

not commit serious violence even on those we hate, one of the

reasons being (I think) that violent movies purge us of the desire

for a while until the feeling comes back again. Then we go to

another revenge fantasy or shoot some bad guys on the X-box

and we're content. We take out our frustrations with the

punching bag as well, maybe by jogging, but never not forget

the role of films of revenge fantasy. "Kill Bill V. 1 & 2," "Walking

Tall," "Mystic River" are popular because through them we

sublimate our base desires. We feel better.

   The latest of the genre, "Man on Fire," is a double whammy in

that it couples vengeance with redemption, focusing on a guy,

Creasy (Denzel Washington), who had been on a U.S. Special

Forces assassination team, took too many swigs of the bottle,

and is now wandering around the Mexican border and beyond

with his best buddy and former colleague, Rayburn (Christopher

Walken). Resigning himself to never working a decent job

again, Creasy is surprised when he passes an interview for the

job of bodyguard to little Pita (Dakota Fanning), though he's the

sixth applicant to the home of Samuel (Marc Anthony) and Lisa

(Radha Mitchell). Brian Helgeland ("Mystic River'), who wrote

the melodrama and director Tony Scott hint that Lisa, despite

living the good life with her allegedly rich husband, has the

immediate hots for Creasy and who can blame her?

At 142 minutes' length, "Man on Fire" could have been divided

into two parts like Quentin Tarantino's far superior, more

stylized fare, since "Man on Fire" does feel like a pair of films.

The opening half, the better one because it boasts some decent

dialogue much like "Kill Bill 2," also more effective than its

predecessor, Creasy who's in just about every scene and

effectively portrayed as a drunk by the marvelous Denzel

Washington registers a convincing performance as an

alcoholic. He pours a considerable amount of whiskey into the

coffee he's having with his friend Rayburn at a caf‚. When his

prospective employer asks him whether he has any faults, he

replies "I drink." Here's a guy looking so hard for redemption

that he's willing to risk his new gig by being self-destructively

    Imagine the blow to his ego (to say the least) when Pita is

kidnaped outside her plush Catholic school and Creasy is left on

the pavement a bullet in his chest. (Can't bodyguards afford

bulletproof vests?) When the kidnappers fall prey to a bungled

ransom delivery, they announce that Pita has been killed which

prompts the guilt-ridden Creasy to relieve his sins in a deadly

struggle with La Hermanidad, the Brotherhood, a Mexican

mafia whose members include quite a few cops and higher-up


Where "Kill Bill" is an original, "Man on Fire" is formulaic.

Photographer Paul Cameron is virtually a character in the film,

with his tricky photography (some would same NYU film student

camera moves) including shifts of light and color enhanced by

rapid editing from Christian Wagner's clippers. But while the

picture has style, including some striking vistas of Mexico City

including Chapultepec Park, the Zocalo and an assortment of

slums on cobblestone streets, the predictability takes away from

Mr. Washington's excellent performance. Dakota Fanning steals

every scene in which she appears, the small daughter of a pair

of richniks who apparently hasn't a spoiled bone in her body.

Lina Wertmuller's favorite actor, Giancarlo Giannini, turns up as

a police chief with scarcely an Italian accent, rounding out a

movie that's suspenseful, easy to watch, if prolix, and marred by

the lack of a true breakthrough vision.

Copyright © 2004 Harvey Karten

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