The special effects are outstanding. After viewing the trailer, I thought they would be all I had to look forward to. I expected Man on Fire to be a formulaic Hollywood Blockbuster Action-Adventure, in which people constantly speak when they have nothing to say. Luckily, this film is nothing of the sort.
Man on Fire depicts a body guard named Creasy, played by Denzel Washington, and his obsession with violence and transgression: he loathes criminals as much as he is enticed by them. It is exciting to watch this duality play out. At times, Creasy simultaneously embodies Jesus Christ and Adolf Hitler.
Creasy is an ex-Marine hired to protect the young daughter, Pita (Dakota Fanning), of an inter-racial couple living in Mexico. Their inter-racial-ness is important because it is a glaring example of the racist mentality perpetuated by this film. The Mexican father, whose character is by far the weakest and most underdeveloped in the film, displays raging cowardice and corruption next to his ideal, blonde American wife. If you have a problem with narrow and prejudiced racial representations of Mexicans, this film may bother you. Unless, of course, you want your mounting inner rage to be elicited like Creasy's is.
The racism at least gives Man on Fire some cinematic flare. It is in the tradition of John Ford westerns, where troubled cowboys violently take the law into their own hands by slaughtering whole tribes of Native Americans. Tony Scott broadens this important tradition, because Creasy is not blatantly racist. It's merely coincidental that the Mexican people serve as an outlet for his rage.
Although this film is, at times, both intelligent and entertaining, its main problem is in duration. Tony Scott's exciting but self-indulgent experimental style makes this film's two-plus-hour running length more of a burden for the viewer than a visual escape. The cinematography is excellent, but excellent even to the point of boredom and distraction.
This movie should be broken into two parts: pre-kidnapping of Pita and post-kidnapping of Pita. The actual event of the kidnapping of Pita functions as a bridge for two reasons. Like the first part, and much unlike the second, it demonstrates an understanding of narrative structure and the importance of formal coherence. Like the second part, the fast-paced, abstract visual logic is too much for the viewer to digest. Luckily, I had some Tylenol handy, but I know others weren't as fortunate.
The post-kidnapping of Pita part is very experimental. Subtitles are artistically displayed for lines spoken in English, and the film often takes on the quality of being an extended series of "Just do it" Nike commercials. To wax intellectual on the issue, it could be argued that this section of the film imitates Creasy's own enraged and frenzied psyche. Hell hath no fury like a Marine's anger. There is no doubt that this film is significant. Yes, it is far too long, but it is also intelligent and entertaining.
I wouldn't watch it again, but I surely don't regret having seen it the first time.