There is a strong body of evidence in Man on Fire (2004) to suggest that the Tripods in War of the Worlds began losing interest in galactic conquest as a result of Dakota Fanning’s perpetual screaming. It was a painful example of lax parenting and a dysfunctional familial structure having an adverse effect on those around you. As soon as her banshee-like wailing started building like some pink, fluffy, hummus-fueled air-raid siren during WoTW, any responsible father would have swiftly bopped her over the head with a frying pan, then left her unconscious body in full-view of the alien Tripods with a sign saying”Please turn me into recycled human-paste”. It was so hard to root for the humans in this movie when the protagonist’s two children were so profoundly unlikable (Robbie, his son, was also incurably offensive). Any film, then, which features Dakota Fanning being kidnapped and thus unavailable for comment during the remaining screen time would already be comparatively Oscar-worthy: enter Man on Fire.
I often judge a films quality by the number of minutes it takes my girlfriend to fall asleep – twenty being the approximate average. She made it all the way through this – admittedly long – movie, which must mean something. And in fairness to Dakota, while she’s around she’s way less irritating in this film, and I caught myself at points even hoping she might get returned with over 70% of her fingers still attached. The film kicks off featuring a Denzel Washington consumed with regret, having lived a life of cancelling people at the behest of the US Government. He takes a job as a bodyguard for a family in Mexico, the American mother hires him on the basis that he was also American, which is totally fine and undeserving of comment. Denzel says as little as possible, yet we become aware that in his emotional agony he had TURNED TO THE BOTTLE. He drinks whiskey constantly, drops bullets, occasionally looks at the bible, and continues to say mostly nothing.
As an aside, only Gary Oldman seems to do ‘silence’ as well as Denzel Washington. That’s probably why you never see them in movies together; no audience can stand a combined three hours of their pensive, faraway looks and no dialogue. But on their own, they’re masters of the art of non-speak. There’s lots of that in Man on Fire. Presumably when the script was first being reviewed at the studio, some perplexed intern read through the initial draft and was about to trash it before somebody casually mentioned that Denzel was the lead, at which point the whole office began furiously jizzing.
O.K., back to the film. Kidnapping has become an epidemic; some Mexican chaps (presumably encouraged by pissed-off Martians) get in on the action and bundle Dakota into a shit car after piano practice; a process during which, unsurprisingly, she screams a lot. Denzel shoots some of them, but the others shoot him as they get away, and he ends up with more holes than something which already had a lot of holes in; like a colander, for example. Or maybe a beehive. At this point, the film changes gear so violently that everybody in the backseat spills their coffee and curses the driver. An obsidian glint of fury has entered Denzel’s eye, and he spends the next ninety minutes exploding significant sections of Mexico in order to exact revenge on villainous non-Americans. He eventually kills everything that isn’t Dakota Fanning or her mother, and they’re reunited: Dakota – ever ready – grasps the opportunity for some last-minute screaming before the credits hurriedly roll.
Actually, the movie was, and is great. At the time of release though, critics got a bit excited about how over-the-top it got in places. When you step back and think about it, this isn’t an entirely unfounded accusation. At one point, Denzel inserts C4 into the arse of a corrupt policeman which he detonates using his watch – a bit odd, since the guy was tied up anyway, he could have just placed the bomb in his pocket. But where’s the fun in that. At another time, Denzel crashes into the apartment of a terrified elderly couple and explains that he won’t cause them any harm; then shoots a rocket-propelled grenade out of their living-room window into a convoy of gangsters, presumably demolishing the apartment and perforating the eardrums of everybody inside. Every few minutes another absurdity is nonchalantly presented to the audience as Denzel demolishes his way towards avenging (and ultimately recovering) Dakota. Edging simultaneously closer to his own fate, our protagonist absorbs bullets like a sponge without any discernible reaction, except for the occasional look of exasperation as yet another slug of hot lead becomes lodged in his left ventricle.
Still, and notwithstanding all of these peevish observations, I love this movie and it is so re-watchable. Yes, it presents an easy target if you want to (like I have) spend time being that melt who pipes up every 5 minutes with “Oh my God that would, like, NEVER happen” Yes, the most unrealistic part of the movie is that the kidnappers could not conceivably have endured living with Dakota Fanning’s shrieks for more than a couple of days before deciding that no ransom could be worth this level of trauma, and pitching her into a nearby ravine. And no, not all Mexicans are kidnappers who can only be brought into line through the melancholic rampages of an American death machine.
But seriously, who gives a fuck? It’s a film, not real life. And that’s why we go to the movies.