April 29-May 5, 2004
Dying for Our Sins
Denzel gives himself for the New Moral Order in the rancid Man on Fire.
Either John Ashcroft's wet dream or an unannounced sequel to The Passion of the Christ, the rancid vigilante fantasy Man on Fire beat all comers last weekend, its $23 million opening surprising box-office analysts and outpacing any previous Denzel Washington vehicle. Box-office tea leaves are notoriously difficult to read, especially when it comes to looking beyond dollars and cents, but Man on Fire can certainly lay claim to the Zeitgeist, or at least a particularly benighted sliver of it.
Washington stars as Creasy, a washed-up ex-covert-ops type whose career has been ruined by heavy drinking. He's all but unemployable, which also makes him cheap, and thus attractive to Samuel (Marc Anthony), a Mexican industrialist looking to secure a bodyguard for his young daughter, Pita (Dakota Fanning). Easily the most adult character in this Punch and Judy morality play, Pita sees through Creasy's battered facade, provoking a discussion of Creasy's race that's a rarity in American films, not to mention Washington's oeuvre. As her drives her to school, she abruptly asks, "Being black -- do you think that's a plus or a minus for a bodyguard in Mexico?" Still, Pita knows how to assert the privilege of her wealth and race (she appears as white as her mother, played by Radha Mitchell); when Creasy remarks that he's her bodyguard, not her friend, Pita relocates from the car's front seat to its back, neatly reducing Creasy to the role of chauffeur.
The efficiently accomplished bonding between the two turns out to be sucker bait. (The spoiler-shy should duck out now.) Pita is kidnapped by a group of men who include corrupt Mexican police officers, and a botched ransom attempt results in her death, which sends Creasy on a bloody rampage, wiping out every brown-skinned villain who might have a tenuous connection to the crime. When someone points out that Creasy's method of extracting justice doesn't exactly square with the Bible he (and Washington) is so fond of, he offers up a piece of born-again sophistry worthy of George W. Bush: "Forgiveness is between them and God. It's my job to arrange the meeting." His status as God's gun-toting messenger is underlined by the unexplained scars on Creasy's hands, and the fact that, after Pita's abduction, he bleeds continuously from wounds received during the attack. He's a stigmatic Dirty Harry.
Unconsciously or not, the film's conclusion offers a perfect parallel to the Bush administration's most recent rationale for involvement in Iraq. With no explanation of how the police were fooled, Pita turns out to be alive, which ought to eliminate any rationale for Creasy's shotgun justice. But the quest for Pita's "killers" has uncovered an underground ring of child kidnappers/killers, who presumably (though not empirically) are guilty of dozens of other crimes. Replacing WMD with k-i-d, Man on Fire argues that Creasy did right, even though he was wrong. Arranging his own meeting with God, Creasy walks into the sunset a tainted hero, extinguishing any lingering moral questions along with his life. You can only imagine George W. screening the movie for his staff, wishing such a patsy would rise from the ranks.
Man on Fire
Directed by Tony Scott A Fox release Now playing at area theaters