Man On Fire: A Rare Find

I don't have much time for movies anymore. Mainly it's because of the lack of time, but given the time, I'm quite convinced that I would rather spend it knawing one of my own feet off, rather than sit down and waste 1.5 hours of my precious lifespan on the kind of garbage that is routinely churned out by the celluloid slaughterhouses of Hollywood.

As past readers of A Western Heart (as well as its previous incarnation, The Fall of Jericho) will know, I occasionally take violent umbrage to those movies which fall short in terms of authenticity or depth of story matter. When I made the terrible mistake of watching Peter Jackson's LOTR Trilogy, for instance, my resulting series of scornful, hate-filled, vitriolic posts sent several of my readers to an insane asylum. They're still there; I know because they occasionally send me tokens of their esteem, such as fingernails or clumps of hair.

Hollywood makes garbage. It can do so because we aren't sufficiently critical of what they make. A friend of mine knows a man, a producer, who in the past has helped facilitate the production of yet more Steven Segal movies, for instance. In any civilized nation, such wanton disregard for the minds of the general public should be grounds for summary execution.

Don't believe me? Here's a random comment taken from IMDB, which adequately describes the film in question:
Lord have mercy! Why was this film made? Why did Seagal and rising star Max Ryan agree to be in it? The Foreigner is so excruciatingly bad in every conceivable way that it boggles the mind.

The film has an ultra-cheap look to it. Like a budget of a couple of bucks was far out of their reach. What's worse is that the makers know this and try to make it look slick to compensate. The result is a film that just don't look right. The fight scenes are so dull and edited 'discretely' to hide the fact that Steven Seagal is not in good shape anymore. None of them are engaging or exciting. The plot is nonsense that doesn't interest in the slightest way or have any uniqueness to it. The Eastern-Europe locations (a sly move by the producers to keep the budget down, or non-existent) look unpleasant and should not be serving as the backdrop for an 'action' film (what action?).

And what is the deal with the title? As far as I could tell everyone in the movie was foreign. Which ONE does the title refer to?

The DVD is in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and in Dolby 5.1 sound. Neither are remarkable enough to warrant even a single rent. The Foreigner is not worth one second of your time. Gotta love that tagline tho! 'If they think they can stop him, they're dead wrong.' Sheesh!

Amen, brother. There's one ticket already sold to that LA chump's public flaying.

I am happy to report, however, that very occasionally, Hollywood produces something that isn't completely pathetic.

Man on Fire, while in my opinion a terrible, completely inadequate title for a film such as this, surprised me.

I had wanted to see it because of a cleverly-crafted preview I'd seen months before. After having watched the first twenty minutes, I was already plotting the death of yet another Hollywood director. It isn't initially a good film. The set-up is weak, the character introductions are perfunctory, the acting is awful and the cinematography makes you feel ill. The only thing worse than the first twenty-to-thirty minutes of this film is the hoboesque facial fuzz that Denzel Washington's character presents in place of a beard.

Washington plays Creasy, a battle-weary veteran who is looking for only one thing - the next drink. It's painfully cliched, but I advise gritting your teeth and putting up with this, along with the other vapid initial encounters. The only exception to this litany of early failings is the completely delightful performance by Dakota Fanning, who plays Pita; the young girl Creasy is hired to protect.

From there it's all downhill. Christopher Walken's character, 'Rayburn', is completely without purpose, and Chris knew it. I've honestly never seen the man give a lazier performance. If he wasn't Christopher Walken, you'd forget that he was even there. Australian actress Radha Mitchell is brain-dead as Lisa, the mother of Pita, and her husband Samuel (played by Marc Anthony; a man who will never be known as anything other than the ugliest man J-Lo has ever married) would last perhaps five minutes once he'd gone south of the Rio Grande. Mickey Rourke is the Samuel's lawyer, and his role is as peripheral as it gets. I truly believe they drafted in all these nobodies just to act as a plot misdirection.

Rayburn approaches Creasy with a job offer. Protect a little girl for a little while, and you'll get paid a little bit. Creasy is burned out, apathetic and deeply depressed. He takes the job, but creditably makes no effort to better himself beyond removing the fungal beard. He makes no attempt to befriend his new employers, although we are once again provided with a tragic-past cliche to explain his deliberate efforts to distance himself emotionally.

But little Pita takes to Creasy in a big way, and like all women everywhere, soon has the poor fool eating out of her hand. Her father (Mr Ugly) is never around, and Mommy is... well, she must have been doing something, I just forget what it was. So after a while, Creasy is smitten, and acting as surrogate father to the young girl.

This is when the movie starts to take off. Creasy and Pita's affection is well-portrayed, and the chemistry between Washington and Fanning makes for a very relaxed, believable depiction. My inner critic kept pointing out the innumerable little ways in which Creasy blundered in terms of close-protection, but with the latter part of the movie in mind, I'm tempted to give the director the benefit of the doubt and think that his sloppiness was deliberate.

By this point, everything about the movie has improved dramatically (we don't see any of the other characters outside of Creasy and Fanning) EXCEPT for the plot predictability. The fact that kidnapping in their section of Mexico is rife has been so thoroughly rammed down our throats that we know the little girl is a goner. And so she is, when Creasy (yet again) becomes a little too distracted, and allows the small matter of a dozen heavily-armed men to stand in the way of protecting his principal.

Creasy goes down hard, but takes four of the bad guys (two of whom were corrupt Mexican police officers) with him. But Creasy's not done yet. He's got more bullets in him than Jimmy Hoffa, but he just goes on living. His pal Rayburn turns up, and is able (miraculously) to sweep him out of police custody and into a private clinic, where he recuperates over the course of a month.

In that time, the (corrupt) Mexican police manage to screw up the release of the little girl, and as a result, she's gone. In real life, with no prospect of the money being paid, the kidnappers would have killed her immediately.

Creasy knows this, and is now set upon a path of revenge. This is old stuff, of course, a well-trodden path for heavily flawed anti-heros. But Washington has now reached his stride, and Creasy more and more takes on the true aspect of an operator. His focus is attuned, his vision centred on one goal. He does this not because deep down he's a good guy, or because he wants to set the world to right. He's a man who lived his life in shadows, surrounded by misery and death, but for a brief period came to know something completely pure.

Robbed of that purity, he is without raison d'ĂȘtre beyond the annihilation of those who stole it from him. His hopelessness is only temporarily replaced with the desire for violent reciprocity, and his character immediately takes on a visceral realism.

With the aid of Rayburn, Creasy "tools up", and takes his small arsenal into the slums of Mexico City. The cops are after him, the kidnappers are after him, and a mysterious organization (comprising cops AND kidnappers) is after him. It looks as though Creasy's number is up.

This is when the story becomes frankly stunning. Creasy acts... well, he acts like a professional. His methods are creative, and efficient. When, in the early stages of his revenge, he takes a lower-ranking member of the kidnapping group hostage, his interrogation technique is spot-on. For the first time ever, I found myself watching a movie where I would say to myself "He should do this..." and before I'd gotten the entire thought through my mind, Creasy was doing it.

Interrogating the kidnapper, he secures him in a car miles from anywhere, and begins the process like a professional. He inflicts pain. Immediately. He doesn't ask a question. He merely leans over, and lops a finger off with a serrated-edge knife. Then he cauterizes the bloodied stub with the car's cigarette lighter.

The poor kidnapper is completely disoriented, which is the point. The dynamic has changed. He's not cool anymore, bragging about his connections. Now he desperately wants to know what it is that Creasy wants to know, so he can tell him. So the pain will stop. Creasy has not even needed to ask a single question, and the man has already been provided with ample impetous to cooperate.

It takes a few more fingers, but the man provides all that he knows. If there is any doubt at all, off goes a digit. The man knows he is going to die. It's assumed. But Creasy will make his death far, far worse if he doesn't cough up everything he knows. The scene ends with the bad guy recieving the coup de grace; a single bullet to the brain.

Later, when Creasy is presented with a similar situation, only this time with three kidnappers and with distinctly less time on his hands, he does precisely what he should have, under the circumstances. He decides which kidnapper is most likely to know the least, and immediately kills him in front of the others. The most cooperative kidnapper is allowed to live, and is presented to (presumably) non-corrupt cops.

The ending of the movie is slightly marred by the frankly impossible survival of Pita, who has been kept alive for no reason other than the infinite mercy of her kidnappers. Creasy turns the tables on them, taking hostage the family of the head of the organization. If Pita is not released, he'll kill them both.

But there's a catch. Creasy doesn't just have to turn over to the mastermind his family. He has to turn himself over, too. He's done too much damage, killed too many good employees, and there will be no safety for himself or Pita unless he dies.

It's a suitable ending, and not done in a cringingly melodramatic way. Pita is freed, and Creasy dies. It is a death of Giri, of profound personal honour. He was never going to walk off into the sunset with anyone, because the man that was Creasy had died a long time before.

That Washington pulls the supreme act of self-sacrifice off seamlessly in a world of cynics and an industry comprised of Steven Segal movies, is perhaps the best endorsement I could give.

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