Midway through watching Man on Fire last night I wanted to look something up about it so paused it and put a search into Google. One of the top results was its IMDb score which was a very impressive 7.7/10. Now the IMDb is a great resource but its rating system is susceptible to the whims of the masses and as a result, many films which don’t deserve them get high scores. On a related note, Star Trek into Darkness just yesterday crept into the IMDb Top 250, perfectly illustrating my point. For me Man on Fire is another example of this sort of overly hyped mass critical reception. While at its heart there is a great revenge story, it is surrounded my poor musical choices and cinematography which is so ill judged that it made concentrating on and enjoying the movie close to impossible.
Mexico City is one of the kidnapping capitals of the world and to protect his daughter (Dakota Fanning), businessman Samuel Ramos (Marc Anthony) hires a bodyguard to protect her when she’s out of their home. The bodyguard is former Marine and covert-ops officer John Creasy (Denzel Washington), a man with a drink problem and issues connecting with other people. Unsurprisingly the child is kidnapped and in the ensuing fire fight, Creasy is seriously wounded. When on the mend, though still critically ill, Creasy takes it on himself to track down the girl’s kidnappers and on a revenge/killing spree gets closer and closer to ‘the voice’ a master kidnapper, responsible for the taking and murder of several children.
I’d heard a lot of good things about Man on Fire and was eagerly anticipating the movie. Within seconds my heart sank as it became apparent that the quite awful cinematography wasn’t merely just an interesting opening credits gimmick but was here to stay. It’s difficult to exactly describe the look and effects of the cinematography but it reminded me a little of being in a loud, sticky nightclub after about 20 shots. Imagine turning your head quickly in that environment and the room would become a blur as your dilated pupils pick up on various images. You might even see three of people or feel as though time is slowing, speeding up or repeating itself. That’s what Man on Fire is like for over two hours. The visuals detract massively from the above average story and created a film which I couldn’t wait to be over. It felt cheap and unnecessary and almost as though it was a way of making intellectually stunted people feel as though they were watching something more exciting than they actually were.
The problem is of course that the film would have been exciting without all the cuts, double/triple exposure and constant juddering of the camera. The story is strong enough to stand up on its own. The central relationship is really sweet and heart warming and seeing the lengths to which Creasy goes to, to exact his revenge shows how much he cared for the girl, despite trying his hardest not to show it in the early stages. The revenge aspect was also well written, grisly and unflinching, all things that are needed from a good revenge thriller. One of the problems I had was that I found it very difficult to separate the story and the visuals and in my overall enjoyment of the piece, the visuals outweighed the story. Denzel Washington is fine as Creasy but he’s been much better, many times. He appears to be sailing through slightly, avoiding any choppy waters. Despite this he is good in both the dramatic and action scenes. Dakota Fanning is excellent as the young kidnapped girl in a role that was crucial to cast right. It was also nice to see Christopher Walken pop up although his role is a nothing role.
Of the many problems I had with Man on Fire, one of them was with the depiction of the Mexican characters. Almost without exception they appeared to be horrid. Even aside from the kidnappers and murderers, the good guys often slept with people for favours or were philanderers or otherwise grubby and unkempt. The fact that all the good guys were American and that there were so many Americans in a Mexican set thriller also annoyed me. Dakota Fanning, as good as she was, also looks nothing like she’s half Mexican, even taking into consideration her Aryan looking mother. Other things that bugged me were the way that the subtitles were written, done in such a way as to fool people who would usually avoid a subtitled film into thinking they weren’t reading them and the soundtrack which was terrible. Overall then I was massively disappointed with Man on Fire. Story and great ending aside, it had little going for it and I couldn’t wait for it to be over.