Kidnapping, it seems, is a major industry in Mexico. In one six day period, as asserted in Man on Fire, there were 24 abductions. Kidnapping is, after all, a form of terrorism–economic terrorism to squeeze big pesos from the rich. (Nobody kidnaps kids from poor families.) So the rich hire bodyguards to watch their kids–to take them to and from school and their piano lessons and their sporting events.
If the perpetrators are terrorists, then who better to be a bodyguard than a retired American military man who is a specialist in counter-terrorism? Enter John Creasey (Denzel Washington), burned out after sixteen years of service in a business where no holds are barred and no ethical standards interfere with accomplishing an assigned objective. Now Creasey has withdrawn into alcohol and into his Bible.
In Mexico visiting Rayburn (Christopher Walken, very droll in too small a role), a former colleague and good friend who is living high, apparently running a cat house, Rayburn connects Creasey to a bodyguard position in Mexico City.
The employers are the Ramos family–Samuel (salsa star Marc Anthony), heir to his late industrialist father; Lisa (Radha Mitchell, Phone Booth, Pitch Black), his beautiful American wife; and Pita (Dakota Fanning, The Cat in the Hat, Uptown Girls), a bright, charming, self-possessed schoolgirl with a mouth full of crooked teeth. Creasey initially rebuffs Pita’s overtures to friendship, but the girl is irresistible, barriers come down and they bond.
Of course, Pita is kidnapped, snatched away in the midst of a major shootout in which Creasey is shot. An attempt by the family to pay the ransom goes awry when hijackers grab the cash.
Everything up to this point has been a setup to shock Creasey back into action. And does he ever. Using every nasty technique learned in his military career he pursues a chain of perpetrators in an escalating crusade of unrestrained torture and violence. "Creasey’s art is death," says Rayburn, "He’s about to paint his masterpiece."
In the process Creasey discovers, with the help of a muckraking newspaper reporter, despicable depths of corruption and immorality permeating every corner of Mexican society. (President Fox should launch a counter-attack on 20th Century Fox.)
With a skillfully written screenplay by Brian Helgeland (Mystic River, L.A. Confidential), slick direction by Tony Scott (Spy Game, Enemy of the State), and excellent performances by all hands, Man on Fire is state-of-the-art Hollywood production. Unfortunately, it also represents the nadir of Hollywood pandering to audience tastes for ever more titillating violence. Since Creasey is drawn as a heroic character, all the havoc he wreaks is cheered by an audience that has been manipulated by the film not only to think it’s all okay, but also to be permitted to wallow in the cruelty, regardless of the unprincipled, above-the-law arrogance of the vigilante. (It’s the George W. Bush technique–set up an evil enough enemy and anything is justified.) In the end, Creasey, the hero, is as barbaric a philistine as are his evil victims, but he’s been sainted by Hollywood.
Summing it up in a more direct way — In the men’s room after the show was over, one young punk says enthusiatically to another, "Any movie with a bomb up a guy’s ass has to be cool!"
It’ll make a fortune.