Fox recently unveiled three collector's edition DVDs of 2004 films: I, Robot; The Day After Tomorrow; and Man on Fire. Critics savaged all three last year, and the first two deserved the abuse-but the last was perhaps one of the most underappreciated films of the year.
Man on Fire (rated R for language and strong violence) is brutally violent and contains some very strong language, but also challenges its audience's taste for vengeance and relies on some surprisingly complex spiritual themes.
The film stars a ferocious Denzel Washington as John Creasy, an ex-CIA agent at the end of the line. His nerves are frayed, and he deadens his guilt-ridden conscious through drinking. "Do you think God'll forgive us for what we've done?" Creasy asks Rayburn (Christopher Walken), a former associate whom he visits in Mexico City.
At Rayburn's encouragement Creasy takes a job with a wealthy local family as a bodyguard for their elementary-school-age daughter Pita (Dakota Fanning). In Mexico, the movie explains, there is a kidnapping once every hour, and a sense of dread hangs over the innocent, blossoming relationship between protector and protected.
When it finally happens, Pita is snatched in a masterfully staged scene that leaves Creasy in a pool of his own blood. He learns in his hospital bed that the ransom drop has gone horribly wrong and embarks on a campaign to punish those responsible. With almost no hope for justice through normal channels, viewers are drawn into his quest. Yet his means of retribution are increasingly ghastly, challenging the romanticism of vigilante justice.
Many critics were uncomfortable with Man on Fire, seeming to prefer their revenge tales detached, self-referential, and postmodern (e.g., the much higher rated Kill Bill series). But there is a moral dimension here. A Bible figures prominently in the plot-not to justify Creasy's actions, as some assumed, but to provide a painful contrast to Creasy's past, present, and possible future.
The overall sense of hopelessness of Creasy's quest for revenge culminates in a radical choice. Creasy can reach his goal-killing those responsible-or instead sacrifice his life for another's (notice the protagonist's initials).
That's a lot of subtext for a typical Hollywood action film.