Man on Fire
Kill Bill, Vol. 1 opened with a quote that movie buffs quickly recognized: "Revenge is a dish best served cold." It was credited as an "ancient Klingon proverb," a reference to Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan. The quip perfectly set the tone for the movie, announcing that this was a tongue-in-cheek endeavor, an exercise in revenge-genre moviemaking that should not be taken too seriously.
Tony Scott's new film, Man on Fire, employs the same "Klingon proverb," but without any humor at all. It's dead serious about its revelry in eye-for-an-eye killings.
Revenge is the name of the game on the big screen right now. In addition to Tarantino's two-part flick, there's The Punisher, which takes place in a world of comic book simplicity, in which bad guys receive spectacularly violent "punishment." Walking Tall responds to the question of evil with the answer of smackdown courtesy of The Rock. Man on Fire is the most brutal of them all. It's also the most troubling, for several reasons.
First and foremost is its insistence on presenting itself as a "spiritual" film. We're supposed to believe that John Creasy, the brooding bodyguard played by Denzel Washington, has a lot in common with Jesus. There are scars on his hands. He sometimes looks heavenward and wonders why God has forsaken him. Others depend on him for salvation and security. He has God's Word on his mind and heart. And his initials? Yep … J.C.
The parallels get more and more obvious as the film draws to its close. But where Christ overcomes evil with good, Creasy overcomes evil with heavy artillery.
Secondly, the script by Brian Helgeland (The Order, Mystic River) takes great pains to convince us that this is a real-world drama. Thus its glorification of vigilante justice is hard to excuse. Detailed with ripped-from-the-headlines relevance, the story is set in Mexico City where, we are told, a kidnapping occurs every 60 seconds and 70% of the victims are never seen again. We're plunged into an environment that feels as nerve-jangling as present-day Iraq, a city wired to explode, saturated with the flammable evils of government corruption and organized crime. When the filmmakers thank Mexico City in the closing credits and call it a "very special place," you have to wonder if that isn't sarcasm.
Creasy, a former counter-terrorism agent, crosses the border into Mexico and strides into this volatile neighborhood with troubles of his own. He's a deeply wounded American who meditates on bullets as much as he does the Bible. Knowing that his drinking problem has slowed his reflexes, he abandons government work and takes a job as a bodyguard for the daughter of wealthy parents. He wants to work, free of emotional attachments. Hired to protect young Pita (Dakota Fanning of Uptown Girls), he refuses to participate in conversation, committing himself to his work so he can collect a check. He's also a man of faith, but that faith is struggling. "Do you see God in the work that you do?" asks a nun at Pita's Catholic school. "Not anymore," he says. But he keeps his Bible close at hand anyway, finding comfort in its pages.