There is one kidnapping every 60 minutes in Latin America. Seventy percent of victims do not survive.
At first, John Creasy doesn't care about kidnapping statistics south of the border. The burnt out, alcoholic, quasi-suicidal, ex-military man is down in Mexico just to visit his old friend Rayburn and drink away what remains of his life. Recognizing the dangerous precipice on which his chum teeters, Rayburn decides that a job might take Creasy's mind off his past and pitches the idea of becoming a bodyguard for a wealthy Mexican family.
Before he knows it, Creasy finds himself playing babysitter to Pita Ramos, the bright young daughter of a financially troubled industrialist. He isn't exactly crazy about kids, or anyone else for that matter. But somewhere between the swim meets, school runs, study sessions and meals with his charge, something begins to change in Creasy. He starts rediscovering things he'd forgotten. Like joy. Laughter. And purpose.
Then, one day, as Creasy comes to pick Pita from a piano lesson, he sees strangers rushing the girl as she steps toward his car. His gun clears its holster and the next thing he knows, he's lying on the ground with bullets in his chest and four dead bodies around him. In the hospital he learns that Pita had been kidnapped and the ransom drop had gone sour. Pita's gone—she's dead. The news kindles a vengeful fire in the wounded, broken-hearted Creasy who vows to destroy everyone who had a hand in her demise.
The members of the Ramos family display a genuine, if imperfect, love for each other. Even when Pita is disappointed by her father's insistence that she take piano lessons, she treats him with respect. After she disappears, her mother repents of the fast living that kept her from investing in her daughter. A tender affection grows between Pita and Creasy, one so strong that the crusty bodyguard is willing to exchange his life for that of the girl at a moment's notice. A kidnapper ironically notes, "The most important thing in life is family." Many of the movie's spiritual points are worthy of praise as well. ...
In the beginning, Creasy is a wreck, a man adrift who believes that wrath awaits him. Referring to his past as an assassin, Creasy asks Rayburn, "You think God'll forgive us for what we've done?" When Rayburn replies in the negative, Creasy states, "You don't? Me neither." Later, a nun queries, "Do you ever see the hand of God in what you do?" and recites Romans 12:21 to him ("Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good") when he says he does not. Upon finishing the quotation with her, Creasy says, "I'm the sheep that God lost, Madre."
Creasy doesn't completely abandon the things of God, though. Pita gives him a pendant of Saint Jude, patron saint of lost causes, which Creasy dutifully wears, an indication that he isn't beyond hope. He also regularly reads the Bible and encourages Pita's mother, Lisa, to crack its cover. "It's a good thing," he tells her. "Hold onto it." His interest in the scriptures plays a role in breaking his alcoholism as he eventually substitutes the book for the bottle.
Pita's father, Samuel, has a shrine to the Virgin of Guadalupe and says that he "worships" her. Upon learning that the ransom delivery did not go as planned, the kidnapper tells Pita's parents, "God be with your child." The kidnappers try to put a death curse on Creasy using folk magic, to which he quips, "They're a little late."
Prostitutes try to flag down Creasy's car at the U.S./Mexico border. Creasy and Rayburn ogle bikinied swimmers. Samuel's wife takes off her shirt (she is wearing a bra) and passionately kisses her husband (sex is implied). The head of Mexico's Agency for Federal Investigation squeezes a female reporter's rear during a press conference; it becomes apparent they are having an affair. Couples grind against one another while dancing at a nightclub.
Director Tony Scott abandons much of the restraint he showed in Spy Game, yet he's no Quentin Tarantino. The camera quickly cuts away from brutality instead of gaping at it. All the same, there's more than enough suffering and accompanying gore to make audiences squirm in their seats.
Opening moments have kidnappers preparing to remove a victim's ear with gardening shears (later shots show him from a distance with a bloodied face). In order to extract information from a kidnapper, Creasy duct tapes his hands to the steering wheel of his car, severs his fingers and cauterizes the stumps with a cigarette lighter (gore splatters the windshield during the severing). He then shoots the man and rolls the car off a cliff.
The torture doesn't end there. Creasy blasts a man in the feet with a pistol before finishing him off with a round to the chest. Another bad guy perishes after taking a shotgun round at pointblank range. Yet another is immolated after a homemade bomb is inserted in his rectum (offscreen) and detonated. One man's hand gets obliterated by buckshot.
During Pita's kidnapping Creasy gets shot multiple times in the torso and blasts a number of criminals in return. A rocket-propelled grenade demolishes a car and Creasy guns down passengers as they struggle to escape from the wreckage. A nightclub gets blown to kingdom come. Creasy discovers a bloody corpse floating in a swimming pool. A crook wounds a government official during a stick up. A gangster shoots Creasy in the chest in a separate incident. A car crash injures a fleeing crook. Interlopers riddle a man with bullets during the ransom drop. Creasy's wounds bleed through his bandages and he often washes himself in a swimming pool (symbolic of cleansing), staining the water with blood.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Creasy's favorite drink is Jack Daniel's and he spends much of the movie's first half imbibing whenever he can. Far from glamorizing or minimizing his substance abuse, though, the film portrays it as a terrible weakness. A lawyer smokes a cigar and other minor characters inhale as well. A government agent says that a real Mexican hell is a place with "no mariachi and no tequila." Creasy smokes a cigarette at a rave and pops painkillers after being shot. A couple lights up after sleeping together.
Other Negative Elements
When Lisa asks Creasy what he plans to do to Pita's abductors, he intones, "What I do best—I'm going to kill them." Indeed, Man on Fire's emphasis on vigilante justice proves to be its greatest spoiler. At one point, Rayburn claims that a single weekend of Creasy's avenging wrath will achieve more justice than years of court tribunals. Creasy himself conveniently forgets that only God can righteously execute wrath, telling one character, "Forgiveness is between them and God. It's up to me to arrange the meeting."
While in a drunken stupor, Creasy tries to commit suicide, but his gun misfires. Later, he encourages a person culpable in Pita's kidnapping to shoot himself, which he does (the suicide isn't shown, but a quick cut finds the victim lying in a pool of blood afterward).
"There are two sides to every coin." The saying has been bantered about so much that it's become hopelessly clichéd and trite. But it's still sometimes apropos, especially as it relates to analyzing such a multifaceted film as Man on Fire. Here's heads: In blending gritty cinema vérité with supersaturated color processing and moments of dizzying hyperkinetic editing, Scott has created a quite literally thrilling thriller. Moreover, he 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. "There's a spiritual journey [Creasy] takes," says Denzel Washington. "He's a guy who's put pain on people, and he has to take that journey out of darkness."
But don't forget tails. Like a plethora of recent films (Walking Tall, Kill Bill: Vol. 2, The Punisher), Man on Fire buys into the idea that just restitution can be had through violent vigilantism. Not so. Vengeance belongs to the Almighty (Psalm 94:1) or to the State (Matthew 26:52), not to marauding individuals with "righteous" chips on their shoulders.
Graphic violence and harsh profanity will burn viewers eyes and ears. But it's a flawed—and all too common—view of justice that ultimately quenches an otherwise artistic flame.