It would seem that Man on Fire (2004) is a remake of a film by the same title from the 1980s. This is not the first time I have come to this realization. As creative and colorful are most modern films, the stories, alas, are often not original. Whether they are sequels, remakes, or reboots, for better or worse the last thing on the minds of Hollywood producers is to come up with a new plot. Instead, they look to older iterations and, if they were not previously successful, they believe they can improve them. Sometimes, these endeavors come out even more terrible than their forebears, and it probably would have been best to leave well enough alone. Luckily, this is not entirely the case for Man on Fire.
One of the charms of Man on Fire is its setting, Mexico City. Maybe “charm” is the wrong word. After all, this is a movie about kidnapping, and Mexico’s capital seems to be a hotbed for this type of crime. It is into this world that John W. Creasy (Denzel Washington) enters, brought there by his former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) handler Paul Rayburn (Christopher Walken). Creasy is haunted by his past, and has turned to alcohol to cope. Nonetheless, Rayburn finds him as a job as the bodyguard and driver for the Ramos family, specifically their daughter Lupita (Dakota Fanning). The precocious Lupita is determined to befriend the close-lipped Creasy. They bond over swimming, and while her parents seem preoccupied, Creasy teaches Lupita how to get faster in the water. Their growing friendship leads him to give up drinking and to begin reading the Bible once more. She also helps him take note of the potential kidnappers that seem to be scouting them as they move about the city. When the attempt finally comes, though, he is unable to thwart their culprits’ coordinated attack and is wounded in the process. When he comes to, he is told that Lupita is dead. Drawing upon his skills as a government operative, he begins to gather information on those responsible as part of his personal quest to get revenge. One by one he works his way up the kidnapping ring’s hierarchy, uncovering a huge network that includes both criminals, government officials, and the police, and all of them on the take. He kills them all. There are other revelations along the way. For starters, Creasy learns that Samuel Ramos (Marc Anthony), Lupita’s father, was the one who had arranged for his daughter to be spirited away, hoping to cash in by stealing the collected ransom money. It also comes out that Lupita is still alive, and the only way (for some reason) to get her back is for Creasy to trade himself for her. At the exchange, they have one last embrace. Lupita goes to her mother, Lisa (Radha Mitchell) who had not been a part of her husband’s plot, and Creasy is taken by the kidnappers.
In Man on Fire, Creasy’s acts seem to have the hand of God upon them. To be sure, God does not typically have people commit murder in His name, nor is that what he is doing. However, there is a line in the film that suggests Divine intervention. When Creasy first arrives in the Ramos household, he is still plagued by his demons. One night, after having a few too many, he attempts to commit suicide by putting a gun to his head and pulling the trigger. Nothing happens. This occurs sometimes. For whatever reason, guns do not always go off when the hammer meets the bullet. In discussing this with Rayburn, Creasy’s former boss tells him, “The bullet never lies.” The implication here is that he was not meant to die at that time, and that he had a purpose yet on this earth. God’s will is a difficult thing to understand, and people have twisted themselves in all kinds of circles trying to get a handle on it. At the time, Creasy could not have known that he would become a kind of avenging angel destined to reunite mother and daughter. Given his newfound lease on life, you can understand why he would want to strike back at the kidnappers.
With Man on Fire‘s R rating, it is not a movie for a broad audience. Creasy’s quest for vengeance is as violent as you might expect. One other little annoyance about the movie is how it is filmed. It shifts from out-of-focus to focus, overly saturated scenes to normal color profiles, with a regularity that borders on annoying. Still, overall it is enjoyable and it gives you a sense of place of Mexico City, made all the more palpable by the fact it was filmed on location.