Director Tony Scott has taken a script by Brian Helgeland (Mystic River, and this one is better) from a novel by A. J. Quinnell and created a masterpiece of action, suspense and love that surpasses any genre movie I have seen in the last year.
I want to applaud the extraordinary work done by the editing team headed by Christian Wagner. He and two other of Scott's TV commercial editors create for Man on Fire an entirely new form of film editing. Aside from the overall brilliant work, there are vignettes throughout that are heart-pounding, gut-wrenching quick-cut micro-films that themselves are worth watching over and over.
Helgeland's script is flawless. He takes the formula of the redemption of a broken man whose reason to live is snatched from him, triggering a staggering pursuit of bloody revenge of more gore and power than you would imagine you were in for at the beginning of the ride (it's near Reservoir Dog level), and lifts it from the genre into a great film. The bloody revenge onslaught feels right, you want Denzel to demolish his victims, and you want it in the worst way. And the nobility of the ending is written so sparingly that when the film fades to black, you don't want it to ever end.
Tony Scott's casting brings together a superb central team:
What can you say about Denzel Washington? He is superb; in top form. I think it's time to ask why in this time of Tom Cruise, Russell Crowe and the rest, the Industry doesn't recognize Denzel Washngton as our best living actor. Dakota Fanning is brilliant as the young kidnapping victim. Add Christopher Walken, Giancarlo Giannini, both also delivering their usual fabulous craft. This foursome, the script, and Tony Scott's vision make this a must see, and I think more than once in several ways. Tony Scott's narration is fascinating and informative. But I also recommend to film students and serious film lovers that they watch the film as follows: put on a CD you really like, it doesn't matter what. Then watch Man on Fire with the sound off. Just look at each shot. Scott's use of different film stocks, cameras and post-production techniques is incomparably sophisticated. It's critical to remember that he is a painter. This is one of the best photographed films ever made. Craft Oscars should be showered on this film.
Other cast members are either miscast, not up to the level of the film, or both. This is ultimately a serious flaw. Marc Anthony, Mickey Rourke, Rachel Ticotin, and others don't cut it in this film on fire.
I don't believe in telling the story of the movie--I've said enough--but I do want to say that the plot is intricate, and the script leaves nothing, as far as I can tell, at loose ends. Roger Ebert knocked the fact that one doesn't know where Denzel gets the arsenal or weapons he uses. That's because Ebert must have been gagging on his Good & Plenty during the scenes where Denzel buys it all. Do these critics actually watch the movies?
In the end, I haven't been this riveted by an action thriller in a long time. This is another jewel in the crown of Denzel's body of work. When you sit down to watch this one, make sure you've got all your snacks handy. You won't want to hit the pause button, I promise you, and you'll give the scan back button a workout to see scenes again.