Imagine, if you can, a film that is made in Hollywood, is 2 hours and 20 minutes long, released in 2004, and has the incredibly cheesy title of "Man on Fire". (Although, personally, I like it.)
Imagine, if you will, that this same film only has one name on the billboards, and that is Denzel Washington. Furthermore, it tries to tempt you to watch it, by explaining that "bla bla bla super special assassin agent bla bla bla talked into working as a bodyguard bla bla girl he is supposed to protect kidnapped bla bla bla opens a can of whoop-ass".
To be honest, the film's PR is an absolute disaster. The name sucks, only one A-list actor on the credits doesn't inspire a lot of confidence, and the plot sounds shallow and tripe. It is oh so easy to say "oh, let's go watch something else instead. We've seen this a thousand times before".
But it would be the biggest mistake you'd make in the 2004 film year.
I'll be honest with you. I am not a great fan of Denzel Washington, and while action flicks can be entertaining, I don't think Washington is a very good action actor.
But I went to see the film anyway.
Production and cast
Based on the 1987 novel by A.J. Quinnell adapted for screen by Brian Helgeland (Mystic River, Knight's Tale, the Postman, LA Confidential etc) and directed by Tony Scott (Spy Game, Enemy of the State, The Fan, True Romance, Top Gun - Tony is Ridley Scott's brother), this film has a great deal of talent backing it on the production side.
The famous roles are filled by Danzel Washington in the lead role of Creasy, along with Mickey Rourke and Christopher Walken in relatively minor roles. The rest of the cast is also well-cast, overall with strong, well-suited characters.
Man on Fire also brings back something that has been lacking from hollywood screens in the past 20 years: A good child actor. Not only good, mind you, Dakota Fanning (Sweet Home Alabama, The Cat in the Hat), in the role of Pita - the kid who gets kidnapped - is absolutely outstanding. She's cute, expressive and acts convincingly and with such gusto that she singlehandedly contributes strongly to the quality of the film. If the Harry Potter actors had had half her talent...
In terms of Cinematography, Man on Fire contributes significantly in terms of freshness and innovation. The Director of Photography, Paul Cameron, pulls some of his old tricks out of his hat - and with films like Swordfish and Gone in Sixty Seconds on his CV, that is not a bad thing.
A lot of stylistically contemporary effects, combined with the interesting touch of having a fair amount of the dialogue actually float on screen in big letters that somehow seem to belong there helps remind the audience that we are, in fact, watching a movie. At the same time, the distance this creates between the audience and the movie helps to understand more of the emotions the characters are trying to cope with. It is extremely cleverly done, and I refuse to believe it is the last time we are going to see this effect used in major blockbusters.
The Plot (no spoilers)
The script itself is iron-clad. A slow-building plot which guides you gently into the action, before all hell breaks loose - but it develops into a structured and calculated type of mayhem, rather than a Rambo-style murderous rampage.
The plot is very much linear, and there are a minimum of sub-plots or detours: This film sticks to the main story, but manages to stay quirky enough for the audience to not lose interest.
Without actually having the biggest surprises, nor any significant amount of originality, the overall story is good enough for the actors and the stylistically sound production to manage to carry the film.
A man... can be an artist... in anything.
In food, whatever. It depends on how good he is at it.
Creasey's art is death...
And he's about to paint his masterpiece.
Do you recommend it?
Oh, with all my heart! This film has everything I look for in a movie: Strong acting, with characters that it is easy to strongly identify and empathise with, the return of decent child-actors to the big screen, some fantastic (if a bit frantic) cinematography, a good story, and some seriously creative ways of killing people.
It is a film about inter-personal relationships, about despair, about money, love and compassion, about belief, faith and about vengeance. It is about depression, about chivalry and about honour.
The film touches on some rather important questions in life. Viewers who are so inclined will discover them and be able to think about them, while viewers who don't want to be bothered with that sort of thing can just sit back and enjoy the beautifully crafted story of love and carnage.
Don't judge this film on its hopeless title and stagnant movie posters. It is a river, it runs deep, and it is one of the most moving pieces of film-making on this side of Lord of the Rings.