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.
We come to care about Creasy, not because he's charismatic, but because Pita needs a father figure—and Creasy's her only hope. She describes Creasy as "a big sad bear," and there's something of a schoolgirl crush in her admiring gaze. She's neglected by her parents—an obvious problem that the film never bothers to address—and thus she's a sitting duck for predatory kidnappers. With persistent questions and a refusal to be ignored, Pita slowly melts the heart her protector has packed in ice.
As Creasy warms to her company, he takes an interest in her desire to win a swimming competition. The focus on her tiny shape gasping as she crawl-strokes in competition emphasizes her vulnerability. Thus, when the inevitable happens, we're terrified for her well-being, we feel Creasy's rage and helplessness, and we become deeply troubled by the way villains can vanish into the backdrop of the city.
Fanning is a gutsy little actress. She gives Pita quick humor and a convincing intelligence that cuts through the duplicity of grownups. Washington's performance has three phases. In the opening scenes, he's the strong, silent, morose type. When he relaxes into Pita's friendship, he becomes … well … a lot like Denzel Washington. And then comes Phase Three, in which he's as forceful as a tank, crushing the bad guys in his path like so many dandelions. He's riveting to watch, but does he make Creasy an admirable hero?
In one scene, he torments a bad guy by cutting off his fingers one by one. In another, he clinically describes what will happen when he places a small explosive in his victim's hindquarters and then detonates it from a safe distance away. It's as brutal as anything in Kill Bill, but Creasy's "roaring rampage of revenge" is offered as profound heroism, goading the audience into cheering for his righteous anger. This knocks the film off balance and sends it down the slippery slope from the high ground of justice to the gutter of vigilante violence.
Newspaper headlines give us a hint as to why these brutal revenge fantasies are so appealing to audiences right now. Here's an American hero, burdened by grief and moral confusion, entering a foreign environment, warned that there is corruption and devastating power lurking unseen in the shadows. He's angry that someone he loves has been violated, and he's determined to find the hiding places of the "terrorists" (in this case, kidnappers), root them out, and destroy them, even if he has to upset the typical rules of law and order in the process. Viewers seem ready to cheer for American heroes who decide to mete out justice on their own terms, outside the view of news cameras, while paying lip service to Christian faith.
Creasy's Christ-figure qualities are especially dissonant. How are we to feel about a man so deliberately portrayed as a Jesus stand-in who is more inclined to recommend suicide than repentance?
But it is unlikely that audiences will find much opportunity to reflect on these things while the film roars along. Tony Scott buries any thoughtfulness in his story under layers of editing gimmicks, stylistic flourishes, and an obvious delight in the opulence of the rich. (The interiors of this film's palatial homes must have cost as much as The Lord of the Rings trilogy.) The whole two-and-a-half hour running ordeal feels like a hyperactive music video, the frantic, jittery, dizzying, rapid-cut, overexposed footage disorienting and distracting us.
For Scott, it is not sufficient to provide subtitles for those speaking in other languages—the text must be entertaining. These subtitles jump, flicker, fade, and slide all over the screen. Worse, they even appear for lines spoken in plain English, emphasizing certain quotes as if the director decided his actors weren't speaking forcefully enough. It's the first film to be presented everywhere in a Closed Captioned for the Hearing Impaired format.
Perhaps Scott worried that moviegoers would be bored with anything but explosions, so he stuffed the interludes with an assault of artificial activity. Or perhaps he wants to numb us to any twinge of conscience. He relentlessly reminds us of what the enemy has done, re-playing echoes of Pita's desperate screams, as if we could ever forget what is driving Creasy's rage.
It says something about Washington's gravitas that his performance remains compelling despite the filmmakers' attention deficit disorder. Also worth noting: Christopher Walken plays Creasy's old war buddy who gets him the job. Walken makes a strong impression, but then mysteriously vanishes about two-thirds of the way through, probably because he's forced to say lines like "Creasy's art is death. He's about to paint his masterpiece."
As long as "heroes" like Creasy continue to appear onscreen, it will not be hard to understand why the news is filled with stories of desperate men taking the law into their own hands. We are right to hope for justice when something is done wrong. But those sinners who have experienced grace should never relish the sight of flawed human beings being spectacularly destroyed. We should attend to the execution of justice with solemn humility, grieved by the evil of which we are all capable, sobered by its consequences.
The only people in the film who dare to question Creasy's bloodthirsty response are an elderly couple who ask, "Doesn't the Scripture say we should forgive?" Alas, they are treated as the butt of a joke. Creasy responds: "Forgiveness is between them and God. It's my job to arrange the meeting." He then launches a missile out the window toward an oncoming car.
Talk About ItDiscussion starters
- When the government is corrupt and law enforcement is crooked, how should civilians respond to injustice? What is the best response to those evils in society that seem to escape justice? (See Romans 13 for context.)
- Are Pita's parents good parents? What do you think might have made them a stronger family?
- Creasy knows the Bible fairly well, it seems. Does this affect his heart and his work?
- What do you think of the crucial decision Creasy makes at the end of the film? Does he become an honorable hero in the end?
A ready-to-download, Bible-based discussion guide is available for this movie at ChristianBibleStudies.com. Use this guide after the movie to help you and your small group better connect your faith to pop culture.
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
Man on Fire is properly rated R for a great deal of brutal violence and obscene language.
Photos © Copyright 20th Century Fox
What Other Critics Are Sayingcompiled by Jeffrey Overstreet
from Film Forum, 04/29/04
Man on Fire, written by Brian Helgeland (The Order, Mystic River) is set in Mexico City where, we are told, a kidnapping occurs every 60 seconds and 70 percent of the victims are never seen again. Into this context comes John Creasy (Denzel Washington), a former U.S. counterterrorism agent and a deeply wounded alcoholic. He's the kind of believer who meditates on bullets as much as he does the Bible.
He takes a job as a bodyguard for young Pita (Dakota Fanning of Uptown Girls), who begins to break down the hard shell in which Creasy lives. But a sudden trauma causes him to harden his heart again and commit a spree of violent killings, determined to eliminate the villains who have struck at his employers. He ends up finding his enemy's weakness, and makes one last desperate choice to make things right.
Most critics both religious and mainstream see the obvious Christ-figure symbolism of Creasy's decisions. Most reviewers also find the glorification of bloody vengeance that fills the first two hours of the film rather dissonant with that symbolism. They're also put off by the film's relentless stylistic flourishes.
I found the assault of editing trickery and oversaturated colors to be extremely distracting. It felt as if the director was worried his story and his stars would not hold my attention. But I was far more troubled by the revelry in our hero's acts of punishing violence. We are right to hope for justice when something is done wrong. But those sinners who have experienced grace should never relish the sight of flawed human beings being spectacularly destroyed. We should attend to the execution of justice with solemn humility, grieved by the evil of which we are all capable, sobered by its consequences. My full review is at Christianity Today Movies.
Michael Elliott (Movie Parables) praises the actors, but dislikes the excessive style: "The performances and the story are involving enough without the gimmicks."
David DiCerto (Catholic News Service) calls it "a migraine-inducing exercise in self-conscious filmmaking. Though suffused with Catholic imagery and scriptural references, the film's treatment of the characters' faith and moral musings remain woefully superficial. The film would have been infinitely more interesting had it developed the story along this line of soul-searching, rather than kowtowing to moviegoers' blood lust."
Loren Eaton (Plugged In) says viewers need to notice both sides of this film. "Scott has created a quite literally thrilling thriller … [and] infused Man on Fire with heart. It extols familial love and undying loyalty. It treats the Bible with respect. And it maintains that even the most hopeless people can find healing." But is it biblical? Not so much, since it "buys into the idea that just restitution can be had through violent vigilantism."
Kevin Miller (Hollywood Jesus) shares his personal response to Creasy's revenge quest. "I know I felt more than a little gratified when Creasy vowed to kill whoever was responsible. … However, as I observed Creasy's transformation from sensitive loner to hardened killer, I began to wonder what made him different from the people he was hunting. It made me wonder how often we try to justify our own actions like this—both as individuals and as a nation. If our motives are right, does that mean we can use any means necessary to achieve our ends?"
Melinda Ledman (Hollywood Jesus) sees Creasy as a Christ figure in many ways, but she is also unsure of the film's portrayal of violence. "Vengeance seems acceptable given the circumstances, but it doesn't quite balance the fact that Creasy mercilessly kills people even after they cooperate."
Not everyone thinks the bad outweighs the good in this film. "Despite the horrific violence … the movie also offers a story about sacrificial, Christ-like love," writes Annabelle Robertson (Crosswalk). "The quality of this film is top-notch, with excellent acting, a fast-paced plot and haunting cinematography that relies on deep grays and blues to convey the sordidness of the story. The violence, however, is shocking, and not to be discounted." She describes the film's conclusion as "beautifully, though tragically, redemptive."
Carole McDonnell (The Film Forum) is still thinking through the issues presented by the film. "This is the first time in recent memory that I've seen a movie in which revenge and redemption are so closely linked. I'm still trying to see how this revenge/redemption business fits in with my moral compass. I only wish this very good flick didn't quite imply that like the proverbial cake, we could have our angry hatred and still have salvation too."from Film Forum, 05/06/04
Steven D. Greydanus (Decent Films) says, "Man on Fire is an out-and-out apologia for the necessity of duct-taping a bad guy's hands to a steering wheel sometimes and lopping off fingers before shooting him in the head, or shoving a crude explosive device into a body cavity of another thug and taunting him with the threat of detonating it before finally going ahead and doing so. Scott's direction is always pointlessly hyperactive, but here he supplements his usual shortcomings with random use of subtitles and captions as design elements. In the end, though, what sinks the picture is that it asks us to sanction Creasy's brutality."
A ready-to-download Movie Discussion Guide related to this movie is available at ChristianityTodayMoviesStore.com. Use this guide after the movie to help you and your small group better connect your faith to pop culture.
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