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Man on Fire ****
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Starring Denzel Washington, Dakota Fanning, Christopher Walken
Directed by Tony Scott

Rayburn (Christopher Walken): A man can be an artist in anything. Food... wine... it depends on how good he is at it. Creasey's art is death, and he's about to paint his masterpiece. Stay out of his way.

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Man on Fire is the best movie of 2004so far.  The year started out with a barrage of star driven vehicles and the surprise hit of The Passion of the Christ.  Heading into April, there was no real clear-cut force of nature that would claim the box offices top spot.  The right movie took it.  And while Man on Fire had the biggest opening weekend box office of Denzel Washingtons career, it is notable for other reasons as well.  It turns out its a pretty great movie as well.


The strengths of Man on Fire are Denzels commanding performance and the unique visual style that director Tony Scott uses to keep us off balance and separate his newest film from all the other revenge films that have come in the past year (Kill Bill Vol. 2, The Punisher).  He plays with the contrast and the graininess of the film to accentuate the action. 


Also striking is the way the director has chosen to present the English subtitles when Spanish is spoken.  The words appear and fade or float away, and that doesnt include the other tricks Ill save for when you see the movie. 


Denzel plays an ex-mercenary/soldier named Creasy.  Which one he is more of is never actually made clear, but thats because we dont need to know.  What we do know is he is a trained killer with a romance with a seemingly bottomless bottle of Jack Daniels.


At the films outset, we learn that Mexico City is the place to get kidnapped.  The credits play over a kidnapping, ransom, and exchange.  The stakes of the film are laid immediately.  Kidnappers in Mexico are ruthless and greedy.  They will remove a victims ear if it helps them get their money.


After the intense credits, Denzel arrives at his old buddys ( the great Christopher Walken) house in Mexico looking for a lead on a job.  Walkens character has retired from the gun for hire biz, but he still knows of a Mexican businessman (Marc Anthony) in search of a new bodyguard for his daughter (Dakota Fanning).  Denzel visits the home and is immediately hired largely in part due to his being an American.


At the beginning of his stay with the family and his protecting the daughter, we learn the depth of the scars Creasy bears from all the years of killing he has endured prior to his new job.  He drinks.  When he is done drinking, he drinks some more.  He comes close to killing himself, but the bullet wont fire when he pulls the trigger.  And the beginning of his redemption begins.


His relationship with his client, the daughter, is the one that starts off as merely business, much to the disappointment of the precocious daughter who needs a friend.  When she breaks him down and a real, honest-to-goodness, loving friendship is formed, it isnt forced.  Writer Brian Heglend of L.A. Confidential, Mystic River, and A Knights Tale fame writes the daughter and Creasy with such a sure hand that the audience never feels as though we are being hit over the head with cuteness or too quick of a transformation.  The characters dialogue in the film is sharp and smart, containing enough memorable lines to leave the characters voices echoing in your head while leaving the movie theater. 

When the daughter is kidnapped and Creasy is badly wounded, the action explodes.  While the movie was an interesting character driven drama of redemption up to the point Denzel blacks out after being shot, the movie sparks with intensity and raw emotion the rest of the way to the startling and satisfying ending.


Denzel will not receive the recognition he received for Training Day, but his work as Creasy is better than his corrupt cop of the aforementioned film.  He may be the best when throwing intensity at the audience, but he has shining moments of regret, love, and loss.  He glides through the emotions as though he never had to think about it.  And throughout his search for vengeance, we never stop liking and caring about Creasy.  He commits horrible acts of violence, which, besides the language, is the reason the movie earned its R-rating and critics have been quick to dismiss the movie.  It is a testament to Washingtons charisma and acting abilities that we condone and even root for him on his blood-soaked rampage.


The supporting cast is excellent and extremely well cast.  Fanning improves on her rep as the best female kid actor in many a moon by infusing real laughter, longing, and fear into her role.  The role could have gone either way, and a large chunk of the believability was staked in a well-written and well-acted little girl.  She has the difficult task of selling us on the idea that she can save Creasy from his past and himself.  I bought it all the way.


Walken gets the real treat of delivering many of the best lines of the film in the way only he could.  Walken often gives off a creepy sense in whatever role he takes, but, as he did in Sarah Plain and Tall and Catch me if you Can, he is extremely likable (as opposed to the aforementioned creepiness) above all else in Man on Fire. 


Man on Fire benefits from great direction and vision from great director Tony Scott.  While his brother Ridley has received the Oscar nominations and critical acclaim, Tony Scott has quietly become one of cinemas best action directors of all time.  His hit list includes Top Gun, Enemy of the State, Spy Game, and Crimson Tide.  Now you say, Oh, that guy. 


Scott infuses Man on Fire with the grit and emotion that never plays fake and is always unique.  Whether it is the performance he pulls from his exceptional cast or the exquisite camera work, he is always making the movie better than what it would have been without him.


Man on Fire made me cry.  I dont mind saying so.  Im a guy.  Its true, Im not supposed to cry at movies or at all.  I usually dont.  In my life, there have been no more than ten movies that I have cried while seeing.  When a movie earns a response from me like that, I feel like I should say so, especially when it is unexpected.  And it was unexpected.  I walked into the theater to watch Denzel Washington blow up things (and people), and he did.  What I didnt expect and what made the movie worth seeing again was the real emotional tug.  It sounds generic, but Man on Fire earned my two or three tears and so it gets four stars.

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