If you've seen one Tony Scott flick (See: Top Gun, Crimson Tide, Enemy of the State, Spy Game, among others), you've seen them all. They're all action-heavy, with some slick dialogue (all of the previously mentioned flicks are written by different writers) and sweeping camera work. Even though the material is always different, you can tell it's a Tony Scott flick by the direction, because he uses the same techniques in all of his movies. I'm not saying that's a bad thing at all, because he has directed some very good movies. His style is very distinghable, and you can recognize it from a mile away. But, while he uses all his old tricks with his new flick, Man on Fire, he uses some new ones too, but the new ones don't always work quite as well as his old ones, in this entertaining, but fairly long movie.
Man on Fire starts out kind of like Major Payne. They're both "soldiers" of some sort, with nowhere to go, and looking for another option in their life. Payne, played by Damon Wayans, was an Army "killing machine" with nowhere to go. Creasy (Washington) has vast experience in counter-terrorism, and stuff like that, but he's a drunk, so he gets a low-paying job in Mexico, where, apparently, there is a glut of kidnappings. So he gets a job from these rich folks' (Mark Anthony and Rahda Mitchell) to protect their kid (Fanning) from being kidnapped and stuff. But he develops a friendship with the kid, Pita, and when she's kidnapped, he takes it personally and vows to kill whoever was involved with the kidnapping.
The main glitch of the movie is the incredibly annoying use of subtitles. The movie takes place in El Paso Texas and Mexico, and there are some Spanish subtitles. That's not the problem. The problem is that Scott uses them in a way he probably thought was inventive, but was just plain bothersome. Have you ever seen a movie where the characters are speaking English, but it's still kind of hard to understand, like Veronica Guerin, or Snatch? Well, Snatch was done on purpose, but Veronica Guerin, which was wonderful, was a little hard to understand with the Irish dialects. Anyway, they basically make sure you understand EVERYTHING here, because there are subtitles even when the Mexicans are speaking English, even though you can understand them just fine... And if that wasn't annoying enough, they try all these tricky things with the subtitles, like fading them out, or using "wipes" where they would have the subtitles disappear when they went over something else. And if that wasn't annoying enough, they would increase the size of the subtitles if a character was yelling. Wow. It was incredibly distracting and it just bugged me, but I did get a few laughs out of how bad it was done. I really couldn't see the effectiveness in using subtitles like that. It was probably just some experimental filmmaking, which isn't exactly Scott's strength.
But the acting here is very nicely done. Denzel Washington gives another very strong performace as Creasy (which is a dumb name, I think). But he shows a wonderful range here, going from a drunken has-been, to a motivated bodyguard. You can always count on Denzel to deliver, and he does so again here, in a wonderful performance. Rahda Mitchell, best known for her roles in Pitch Black and Phone Booth, gives a very nice performance as Pita's mother, Lisa. She really isn't in the movie as much as she probably should be, but her performance is very solid. Mark Anthony, best known for his singing career, gives a decent performance here as Pita's father, Samuel. But they just made him look like a turd, instead of the smooth rich guy that he plays. Christopher Walken gives a nice, smaller performance as Creasy's friend, Rayburn, and Mickey Rourke's stock went up again, with his very nice, but, unfortunately, small performance as Jordan, Samuel's attorney. But, while Denzel's performance is probably the best in this movie, the show is stolen by youngster Dakota Fanning, best known for her Golden Globe-winning performance in I Am Sam. She is just brilliant as the precocious Pita. The 10-year-old gives a great, wide-ranging performance here, and I'm really looking forward to what she will take on next.
The script, by one of the masters of adaptations, Brian Helgeland, is very nice. It has nice pacing, and some wonderful dialogue. There is also a wonderful sub-plot about, to quote, "a bullet never lies," which I thought was just great. The pacing is surprising, since this is a 2 1/2 hour movie. It is slow when it needs to be, and fast when it needs to be. It might feel like you've been in the theater longer, because of the dumb subtitles, but it's really paced quite nicely. When I found out that the movie was as long as it was, I thought it would drag a lot, and it really didn't, although it might feel like it did for some. But the script, based off A.J. Quinnell's novel, is definitely a good one, and it keeps you in your seat, even though the subtitles might make you rush to the restroom or wherever else.
Director Tony Scott has a very good track record, as far as I'm concerned. His brother, Ridley, might be a tad more famous, with his hits such as Gladiator, Black Hawk Down and Matchstick Men, among others. But Tony Scott is definitely a capable director. His work might be a tad choppy for some, with a lot of quick cuts and some dizzying camera work in some sequences. But you can still rely on his direction to be solid. And it is here too, but I really just can't fathom why he would use the subtitles like he does. He's never done anything like that before, and it came as quite a shock to me to see him doing something like that. I know that I'm harping a lot on the subtitles, but it was just so damn distracting that I would've easily given this movie an extra star if he would've handled the subtitles differently.
Man on Fire is a movie about friendship and justice. And it hammers these points home very nicely. This movie is a lesson to any aspiring filmmaker. It has a very nice script, acting and direction. But if you want to know how NOT to do subtitles, this is the movie to watch...