“Do you ever see the hand of God in what you do?” a nun asks Denzel Washington in Man on Fire, the latest pyrotechnic blitz from Tony Scott. We get our answer soon enough as Washington’s ex-Marine embarks on a biblical rampage to avenge the kidnapping of the girl he was assigned to protect. This Scripture-quoting bodyguard represents the latest in a recent line of Bushian vigilantes, but this time, the hero’s similarities to our divine-right commander in chief are elevated to near-parodic levels: a monosyllabic, gun-toting loner who, in a scene of miraculous conversion, gives up the drink after an all-night rap session with the Lord.
Intentional or not, Man on Fire‘s over-the-top evocation of Christian retribution goes a long way to making this otherwise standard revenge fantasy watchable. Writer Brian Helgeland relocates A.J. Quinnell’s source novel from Naples to Mexico City, though he keeps at the center a lily-white American tot (Dakota Fanning), whose wealthy parents hire Washington’s jarhead as her guardian. Always a pro, Denzel endures the film’s curmudgeon-moppet bonding scenes with good cheer. Only after the precocious one goes missing does he initiate a nonstop bloodbath that (spoiler alert!) culminates in his own calvary-style martyrdom.
Replete with high-grade weaponry and the bodies of dirty foreigners, Man on Fire qualifies as a right-wing fever dream, or perhaps just another day at the office for our country’s leaders. As usual, Tony Scott doesn’t know a scene that couldn’t benefit from seizure-inducing jump cuts or neck-spraining aerial pans, though by far his worst stylistic offense is the movie’s wipe ‘n’ fade subtitles, which suggest a high-protein PowerPoint presentation. More is more, and it’s in this belief that Man on Fire ultimately deserves to be called by its primary inspiration: Operation Shock and Awe.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on April 20, 2004