RECAP: Man on Fire (2004)

Man on Fire (2004): Tony Scott

One of our more underrated action directors, Tony Scott remade a 1987 Mexican movie called Man on Fire.

Denzel Washington, still basking in his Oscar win for Best Actor in Training Day, embarked on a still-ongoing lone-man action bender.

Man on Fire was as good a movie as any for these two under-the-radar giants to meet and make a movie.

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: A down-on-himself ex-CIA agent takes a job as a bodyguard and avenges a young girl after he fails to prevent her kidnapping, setting some people on fire in the process. 

Hero (6/10)

A few guys in Man on Fire actually catch fire, but the titular man is John W. Creasy (Denzel Washington). Sixteen years in counter insurgency work have left Creasy an emotional wreck who drinks no matter the time of day, and, preferably, Jack Daniels.

That drinking habit has led him to Mexico, where he’ll be an overqualified bodyguard for Pita Ramos (Dakota Fanning), the spunky blonde daughter of a car factory baron and the definition of precocious.

Creasy, the Jack Daniels fan who sets people on fire.
Creasy, the Jack Daniels fan who sets people on fire.

Creasy accepts the job because he needs the money, and he doesn’t have the time or desire to befriend the little girl. He’s too busy battling past demons. “You think God’ll forgive us for what we’ve done?” Creasy asks his best friend Rayburn (Christopher Walken), the man who got him the job.

At first, Creasy drives young Pita to and from school and her various engagements, including the piano practices she’s not interested in. Pita wants to learn about her new bodyguard, a man who doesn’t know what kind of music he likes, if such a thing is possible. (Later, he buys a Linda Ronstadt album.)

Creasy quickly shuts down that friendship thing. He’s paid to protect her, not to be her friend. Well, that doesn’t stop Pita from getting a friend.

Much of Man on Fire‘s first hour deals with Creasy’s and Pita’s relationship. Their no-frills, bodyguard-bodyguarded relationship blossoms into a surrogate father-daughter bond that transcends money. By the end, Creasy will admit that he loves Pita as if he had not considered so until she said so first.

Once Pita disappears, we see the old Creasy, the angry Creasy, the Man on Fire Creasy. His buddy Rayburn explains Creasy: every man can be an artist, and Creasy’s art is death. Creasy is “about to paint his masterpiece.”

And boy does he. Creasy has a thing for fingers, specifically their removal. He relieves two bad guys of several fingers by knife and by gun, this when he’s not stuffing remote bombs into assholes.

Creasy operates on the baddest dudes in Mexico not in a cartel, and he does so in broad daylight, sometimes in front of crowds. That’s shocking to us, but not to Creasy, a man who cares only about rescuing the girl who asked if being a black bodyguard in Mexico was a positive or a negative. Turns out being black meant neither.

Creasy in his day job.
Creasy in his day job.

Pita might be his obsession, but Creasy has time to spit good lines. A stranger tells Creasy that God says we should forgive one another. Creasy responds that forgiveness is between a man and God, and it’s “my job to arrange the meeting.”

A bad guy begs Creasy for a last wish, to which Creasy responds, “I wish…you had more time,” misunderstanding the meaning of a last wish. He would make the worst Make-A-Wish ambassador. Another villain he tells, “It’s off to the next life for you.”

What starts as a Creasy Vengeance Tour changes abruptly when he learns that Pita is alive. Suddenly, his superhuman ability to take a bullet means nothing, as he will give his life for hers, a final act of compassion that allows Creasy to get that meeting with God. No word yet on his forgiveness.

Villain (1/10)

The Voice is the man behind most of Mexico City’s kidnappings. A self-proclaimed businessman, we hear The Voice speak, and we see his face, but never both at once. That’s fine when people call you The Voice.

The Voice does nefarious things such as hold an umbrella and have about a dozen mobile phones. He kidnaps Pita and demands $10 million in two duffel bags, dropped in the trunk of a shitty car in a shitty part of town.

Disgusting, Wretched Villainy
Disgusting, Wretched Villainy

Pita’s father is forced to do the drop, giving us a chance to see Marc Anthony shirtless. Lots of tats on that guy. Anyway, Pita’s dad does the drop, but the deal goes wrong, and The Voice’s nephew is killed. To The Voice, family is everything. He pretends to kill Pita, but we never see it go down, so we don’t believe it happened.

The characters do believe Pita dead. Big mistake on The Voice’s part, because he could have called Creasy at any point to say that Pita was alive. Why didn’t he? Many people in his organization died for this mistake. Had The Voice survived the ordeal, how would he rebuild his kidnap racket?

Action/Effects (4/10)

Man on Fire‘s most explosive action occurs after Pita’s kidnapping. But her kidnapping scene bears a breakdown.

Creasy drives Pita to her piano practice somewhere in the city. He drops her off, sits in a park, waits for an hour. From an open window drift the sounds of Pita burping her way through practice, a trick Creasy suggested would offend the teacher and get her lessons canceled.

Before the hour ends, two police cars drive onto the block and cordon it from traffic. Creasy, naturally, is suspicious. Gentle piano music overlays the scene. Another car, a car noted for following Pita earlier, drives into the lane. Creasy knows trouble’s afoot.

Out from the building steps Pita. She’s all smiles. Creasy has to warn her off. He fires his gun into the air, a trick he knows will get her to run. Immediately, a cop shoots Creasy in the shoulder. Yes, that cop is in on it, but I could see a decent cop doing the same thing if a man in street clothes fired into the air.

Eat lead!
Eat lead!

Creasy knows what’s up. He shoots the cop dead. Now the men in the tail car are in the street and firing at Creasy. Still the piano keys tinkle. The catatonic editing ramps up. Creasy shoots out windshields and windows, and he nails a bad guy.

Pita runs away crying, until she can’t bear it and runs back to check on her Creasy bear. One of the cops Creasy shot lies on the ground. He raises his gun and puts two or three bullets in Creasy’s chest. Blood pops out like a burst zit. The villain’s car reverses from the scene, but not away, as it is without its quarry.

Pita finds Creasy supine and bleeding. She weeps for him. Creasy, losing consciousness, has enough time to watch Pita dragged away, perhaps never to be seen again.

That’s about it. Some explosions and tortures and shootings follow Creasy for the movie’s reminder, but shootouts and car chases and fistfights do not. Man on Fire is not that kind of action movie. And that’s fine.

Sidekicks (6/8)

Denzel might be the Man on Fire, but it’s Pita Ramos who sparks the fire. There’s no bullshitting Pita, who questions everything about Creasy, all the better to know him with. For example, “Being black, is that a positive or a negative [in Mexico]?”

Swim training. Pita is slow off the blocks. Creasy wants to fix that.
Swim training. Pita is slow off the blocks. Creasy wants to fix that.

Right to the point. Pita is a girl who knows the kidnapping statistics in Mexico City. More than a stat nerd, Pita knows she’s a target for these kidnappings, so it helps to know what one is up against.

Plowing through bodyguards as her family is doing can make one nervous. Pita, however, takes a proactive approach. One morning, on their normal route to Catholic school, Pita notes the license plate number of a car tailing them. She gets all the numbers but the last one, and before Creasy can do the same. Smart as a whip that one.

Pita might be a spy in training, but she’s also a kid. Her thing is swimming. Creasy attends one of her meets. She’s the fastest kid in the water and the slowest off the blocks. Her problem: she flinches when the gun fires. Creasy and Pita embark on a training regime that’s all about the start.

At the Ramon compound pool, Creasy rubs two bricks together. Pita is nervous before the start, and this rubbing sound increases the tension, until Pita gets over the rising tension. Creasy shouts Pita’s new mantra, and has it shout it back to him. “The gunshot holds no fear.” Louder and louder, Pita loses her fear of the shot. “You welcome the sound.” At the school meet, Pita is fast off the blocks and faster in the water. She wins her first meet.

Pita is a sheltered girl, literally and figuratively, so she reaches out for friends wherever she can find them, often her bodyguards. Pita never speaks to another child; she’s more interested in adults, handing Creasy a St. Jude pendant as a thank you for training her. Kids never do that. Pita is adorable, but she’s written by someone who’s never met a kid.

These scenes are the film’s most important. They establish a bond between Creasy and Pita, and between Pita and the viewers. Man on Fire could have lasted an hour forty-five by keeping the creatively brutal torture scenes and subtracting swim training. Fortunately it didn’t; that’s all the heart.

Good times, great frijoles.
Good times, great frijoles.

Several other characters aid Creasy’s search for Pita. I mentioned Rayburn, the guy who lives like a king in Mexico and sets up Creasy with the job. So it’s kind of his fault, Creasy’s fate. Hmm, maybe he’s in the wrong section.

The Fed and the Journo
The Fed and the Journo

A Mexican federal police officer and a journalist have the connections to let Creasy work his vengeance and destroy the corruption amongst Mexico’s top brass. These two are typical tough cats, but the movie finds time to give them an affair.

Henchmen (4/8)

The Voice is the brain and, uh, the voice, behind the kidnapping, but he’s only one branch of a rotting tree growing inside the Mexican government. The elite of the elite, a brotherhood of corrupt officials dubbed La Hermandad weaves nefarious webs throughout Mexican society.

Creasy, on his vengeance tour, learns much about La Hermandad. Two off-duty police officers helped kidnap Pita from her piano lesson. Another drove the kidnap car. This guy is the first to suffer from Creasy’s rage, having some fingers cut off under interrogation, and dying when his car falls off a cliff and explodes beside a soccer field.

You won't be smiling when I cut off your fingers.
You won’t be smiling when I cut off your fingers.

Creasy takes information gleaned from the car guy to a rave club. A bouncer leads him to a white guy from New Jersey, a sad man who Creasy shoots in the chest after gleaning more information.

Later, Creasy meets the president of La Hermandad. Fuentes, the head of Mexico’s primary anti-kidnapping division, the guy responsible for rescuing Pita, is actually the guy responsible for her (so everyone thinks) death. He dies after giving more information and a bomb stuffed in his butt explodes.

El Presidente de La Hermandad y La Cluba de Butt Bombs.
El Presidente de La Hermandad y El Club de Butt Bombs.

No henchman is worse than Pita’s father. This guy sold out his daughter. Wretched. He explains his case late in the film. Seems that his father died and the son inherited a huge load of debt. Samuel Ramos spent most of life paying down these debts. One of his get-rich-quick schemes, suggested by his lawyer, required The Voice to kidnap Pita for a couple of days. They’d cash in on a $10 million insurance policy and help pay the debts.

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The lesson is: never trust Marc Anthony.

Genius! Except, THEY KIDNAP YOUR DAUGHTER. What an asshole. Asshole Numero Uno. Also, the Ramos family lives in an enormous house, a practical palace so large that it comes with a chapel where they can keep the candles lit all day. Wax ain’t free. Ramos never considers selling the house, or even extinguishing the candles, but he will set the kidnapping of his daughter. The Voice might steal a bunch of kids, but never his own kids.

Stunts (3/6)

Any movie with “fire” in the title better have some fire. Man on Fire does not disappoint. Earlier I mentioned the car that explodes. Creasy sends that car over a cliff. It lands on its roof and explodes.

Another car catches fire when Creasy rolls a grenade under it. The underside of the car catches fire, but it does not explode, because Creasy needs to drive it away. It’s as if Creasy can control fire with his mind.
Where there’s smoke there’s fire. Where there’s fire there’s Denzel Washington.

The best fire occurs in the rave club. Creasy rescues a girl from a dingy room and takes her from the club. Not wanting to let anyone else suffer her fate, Creasy douses papers and rags in gas and lights it on fire.

Small problem, the club is packed with Mexico’s best ravers. He has to get them out. Creasy walks onto the stage and fires his shotgun three times into the air. The ravers, their reputations on the line as Mexico’s great partiers, never stop dancing as they dance out of the club. Once the dance floor is clear, the place explodes to cheers. Creasy can definitely control fire with his mind.

Climax (3/6)

The journalist writing for Reforma is a tough cookie. Her bodyguard gets shot and a shotgun is stuck in her face telling her not to publish pictures of The Voice, yet she does anyway. Damn. And she sends Creasy to the address of The Voice’s brother.

Creasy easily enters compound with a child’s help. This place is bugged to the brim, but los federales await the fireworks. Creasy enters the house and gets cussed out by a woman. He turns around and is shot in the chest by The Voice’s brother.

Bullets don’t work too well on Creasy, as we’ve seen. He’s knocked back, but recovers in seconds to pursue the one of the baddest mofos in Mexico.

The Voice’s brother tries to crush Creasy with a red VW van. He misses and drives into the street, where a large truck immediately hits the van. The village cheers as Creasy drags the guy from the car and back into his home.

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Where’s your brother?

More interrogation follows. The guy is The Voice’s brother Aurelio and the woman the Aurelio’s wife. All three head to the roof to make a phone call. Creasy chats with The Voice, who tells him, “The most important thing in life is family.”

Creasy gives the brother the phone and shoots his hand off at the same moment. “I’m going to take your family apart piece by piece,” Creasy shouts.

The Voice, calm as the eye of a hurricane, drops a bombshell. Pita lives. Creasy is shocked by this, but he’s sly enough to keep listening. The Voice offers a trade–Creasy and the brother for Pita.

Creasy agrees. He calls Lisa Ramos and tells her to meet him at the drop. Lisa can’t take any more of this emotional roller coaster, but she’ll play along.

All parties drive to a rural river and a bridge running over it. Creasy, with Aurelio bleeding in the passenger seat, waits by a lone tree. Lisa arrives. Creasy hands her the shotgun and explains that she better keep that gun pointed at Aurelio’s skull until Pita is in her arms.

Creasy, meanwhile, will honor the bargain by walking, alone, onto the bridge. He walks there, but takes his sweet time because he’s bleeding out.

The Voice's guys
The Voice’s guys

If you’re waiting for the double cross, you’re still waiting. The bad guys release a blindfolded Pita to sprint toward her surrogate father as rain falls in the sunlight. “Hi,” Creasy says after making sure Pita is OK.

Creasy tells Pita to run home, and that he’s going home too, but not before giving her back her journal. “I got the last number, too,” Creasy says, about the license plate of the car that followed them one afternoon and carried Pita away from her piano lesson.

Best buds until the end of time.
Best buds until the end of time.

Lisa keeps her end of the bargain and releases Aurelio. The five-fingered brother jogs past the stumbling Creasy. Both men reach the cars and are driven to The Voice.

Except not Creasy. His mission finished, his Lost Cause solved, Creasy, in back of an enemy car, closes his eyes, lets the bloody St. Jude pendant fall, and dies. The movie does an odd thing: it displays Creasy’s birth and death dates on the screen.

Just before the credits role, we see the Fed shoot The Voice dead during his arrest that same day. The Voice, shot multiple times, falls into, of all places, a swimming pool.

Jokes (0/4)

John W. Creasy is not a man for joking. He tries to commit suicide at the beginning. Nevertheless, a precocious young girl gets him to smile once with a concubine joke.

Setting (3/4)

Mexico City, listed in the credits as a Very Special Place, certainly fits the bill. Except for the kidnappings on the hour every hour, the city seems like a nice place. Pleasant parks, trees, sturdy benches, friendly locals, palatial estates and more make the city the world’s second-largest metropolitan area.

Man on Fire takes us through many of the city’s best and worst locations. Creasy murders a guy beneath an overpass tagged with graffiti, though he rescues Pita on a beautiful overpass surrounded by clouds and grass.

The Ramon residence is one of the nation’s finest, which cannot be said of the favela where The Voice’s brother and sister-in-law live. Mexico City is an enormous area, and the movie takes care to cart us around and give us a feel of the place.

Commentary (0/2)

Man on Fire has less to say about Mexico than you might expect. Yes, there are plenty of kidnappings in the capital. Ignoring that, this movie could have been set in America. Consider the characters.

The lead is a disgraced CIA agent. His best friend is a white guy played by Christopher Walken. The kidnapped girl speaks perfect English, and her mother is American. So is the father’s lawyer, especially strange considering they live in Mexico. The Mexican equivalent of the FBI gets involved. An intrepid reporter with great connections helps Creasy. There’s a secret society within the government led by key officials in law enforcement agencies.

Several American actors and several American crime movie tropes. No mention of Mexico’s famous drug cartels, (which you might expect in a high-level crime thriller set in Mexico about kidnapping). Hell, we don’t even see soccer played.

Offensiveness (-1/-2)

For a movie set in Mexico there are an awful lot of Americans. Hmm. I didn’t understand why a Mexican national who owns a Mexican company used an American lawyer. Perhaps his family was insured by the Yanks? No, that can’t be it. Somebody blew it.

On the other hand, Denzel speaks Spanish. That just makes him sexier, no?


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Summary (29/68): 43%

Packaged and sold as a revenge flick, Man on Fire is as much a love story as one of vengeance. It’s not about loving one’s family or the love between spouses, which makes it unique.

Pita’s family tears itself apart before and during her abduction. Creasy is the only person who really fights for Pita, and it’s their love that we root for.