Man on Fire (2004)

man on fire


This is a movie that would ordinarily get written off as a dumb action flick, but adding someone like Denzel Washington automatically gives it an added level of credibility that most actors can’t bring. I think there was something similar happening with the Bourne films. If a respected actor like Matt Damon can see something in this film, perhaps there is more to it.

Denzel plays John Creasy, a jaded alcoholic ex-CIA agent. He is looking for employment and decides to become a bodyguard in Mexico. Many children are kidnapped down there and held for ransom, so protecting children is a booming business down Mexico way. Creasy gets hired to guard little Pita (Dakota Fanning). He starts out being a gruff protector, not interested in her personal life, but slowly begins to care about his young charge, helping her to improve her swimming and letting her into his heart a tiny bit. Now that this emotional connection is established, the inevitable happens and young Pita is kidnapped. Creasy does whatever is required to get the girl back, cracking heads and taking names, leaving a trail of destruction on his path to rescuing his young friend.

Now this is not a bad film. I actually enjoyed it. I liked how the movie spends large amounts of time showing Creasy and Pita’s relationship grow from outward dislike to caring about each other. This extra time spent establishing their relationship makes it all the more satisfying when Creasy goes on his rampage. Dakota Fanning is also really good as the young Pita. I am not sure she gets enough credit for her performances as a youngster. Fanning was giving Oscar worthy performances from a young age and it will be interesting to see what she does now that she has reached adulthood.

This was a very different film than we are used to seeing from Denzel Washington, especially at the time. He was very much known as an Oscar winner, so it was very surprising that he would be in a film like this that was well below his talents. I would say it is the same sort of reaction everyone had when Liam Neeson made Taken. It was such a departure for the actor to be in a movie like that, but it was still good to see him trying something new. These days, both Washington and Neeson are probably more recognisable as action stars, but there was a time when they were known more for their dramatic work.

Man on Fire is an entertaining action film given instant credibility by casting someone like Denzel in the lead role. The film does a good job of making you care about these characters and you really want Denzel to kick some ass when the time comes.

Rating: B-

Man on Fire is a good movie, but I have one problem with it: the casting of Dakota Fanning.

Fanning is a wonderful young actress. She’s given more excellent performances in the last decade than some adult actors give in their entire careers. This film is no exception, and is probably one of the best of her short career (so far). So what’s the problem? The issue is that the filmmakers seem to have gone out of their way to cast Fanning when a Latina actress would have made much more sense.

Fanning plays Pita Ramos, a Mexican-American girl living in Mexico City with her Latino businessman father and white mother. Yes, biracial children can often look more like one race than the other, but this just feels like a thin excuse to cast a blonde haired, blue eyed girl. Why make the character biracial at all if you’re just looking to cast a Caucasian actress? Just make her parents white and call it a day. It’s not like the filmmakers were trying to follow the original the story in this regard– in the novel this is based on the little girl and her family are Italian, and the lead role was imagined by the author as being white. Fanning does an excellent job, but who’s to say that a Latina actress wouldn’t have done better?

Aside from this strange casting, Man on Fire is a reasonably good thriller. The plot was very predictable, but Denzel Washington makes it easy to forget that fact. This is another actor who is always good, no matter how mediocre the films he appears in may be. The relationship between Washington’s and Fanning’s characters is well developed, and provides the appropriate emotional punch when the story calls for it. In fact, the movie kind of goes downhill in the second half after Pita is kidnapped. Washington is capable of carrying the second half on his own, but I missed the interactions with his young costar.

Rating: C+

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