← Back to Reviews

Man on Fire

#258 - Man on Fire
Tony Scott, 2004

A washed-up ex-soldier starts working as a bodyguard for a rich family's only daughter.

I wrote recently about how I was getting bored with revenge movies, especially those with a vigilante action bent because they tend to lack imagination and also occasionally veer into problematic territory with their glorification of outlaw justice. Man on Fire is more or less another one of these films, though it does at least try to develop more depth than a typical film in that particular sub-genre. Denzel Washington stars as a former soldier turned alcoholic who manages to acquire a job as a bodyguard for the daughter (Dakota Fanning) of a family living in Mexico City, which the film tells us in its opening sequence is a hotspot for kidnappings. Of course, this just gives away the fact that there's going to be a kidnapping eventually - and I do mean eventually. The film spends its first hour building up the connection between Washington and Fanning as he gradually warms up to his extremely precocious charge.

Of course, things go pear-shaped eventually and, after a further half-hour or so, Washington is finally willing and able to take on the kidnappers in the film's final hour (with the help of a handful of allies on both sides on the law, of course). Therein lies one of the main flaws I find with Man on Fire - it's too damn long. I at least have to give it credit for at least trying to flesh out its bare-bones revenge narrative, but the end result ends up being a slog. Scott seems to know this as he uses lightning-quick editing and extremely shaky, high-contrast cinematography in order to add layers of tension to scenes that are already supposed to be tense, but this only ends up drawing attention to how boring the tense moments actually are. Those that aren't are often ridiculous - aside from the infamous scene involving Washington's interrogation that involves an unfortunately-placed explosive (and a five-minute countdown that is counted down on-screen and still doesn't last five minutes, so what's the point of having a count-down?), there's also him torturing someone for information to the sound of a Santana song that I can't disassociate from The Big Lebowski (also, the fact that he's torturing someone for information). None of the complications are particularly surprising either. All in all, Man on Fire does deserve credit for trying to put in a bit more effort to develop its characters, but in doing so it just ends up coming across as a bloated excuse for a thriller that doesn't have enough faith in its action to just keep the camera still and focused.