Man on Fire (review)

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Evening Things Up

It’s just like Uptown Girls, where Dakota Fanning gets a new nanny and her life just gets turned upside-down topsy-turvy wacky. Except that this takes place in that battlefield of class warfare, Mexico City, where pretty little white girls get kidnapped for ransom, and not on the Upper East Side, where you get a free pretty little white girl with every purchase from Manolo Blahnik. Oh, and Brittany Murphy didn’t go on a killing spree. Though she does inspire one to want to go on a killing spree, so there is that connection.
And, of course, Uptown Girls was evidence merely of Brittany Murphy’s pact with Satan, while Man on Fire is the definitive sign that we have entered a new era of harsh vigilante brutality passing for entertainment. I mean: One is an anomaly. Two is a coincidence. But three? Three is a trend, and it’s an ugly one. Within the space of mere weeks, we’ve been dealt Walking Tall, in which The Rock beats up the bad guys when no one else will punish them for their crimes, The Punisher, in which Thomas Jane expends an army’s worth of ammo into a gang of organized thugs who killed his family and also has fun psychologically torturing one of them, and now Man on Fire, in which Denzel Washington deploys some of the most sickeningly barbaric retribution a big-budget popcorn film has ever seen.

Ooo, Denzel… With his elegance and his gravity and his confidence, his mere presence in a film elevates it into something… well, something more than Tony Scott can typically hope for. Not to condescend to Washington, cuz I honestly think he’s terrific, and not to dis Scott, cuz he’s a crackerjack with a popcorn flick, but you put these two together — His Denzelness with his grandeur and his magnitude and Tony with his lean, mean control of the medium and his apparent desire, of late (as with Enemy of the State), to be supernaturally relevant — and all of a sudden it sure looks and feels like this has Aspirations to be Significant. And that’s kinda scary, considering the state of the world today.

I mean, it used to be that when movie antiheroes like Washington’s (Out of Time, Antwone Fisher) bodyguard John Creasy went on wild rampages of revenge, it was understood that this was a last resort, not a good choice, and one made out of an insane desperation. Now, it’s not only the first option but the right one. What they mean about this guy being on fire has nothing to do with the fact that if you lit a match in his vicinity, the Jack Daniels fumes coming off him would ignite. No, he’s burning with a flame of righteousness: some bad men did some very bad things to people he cared about, and what does a real man do but avenge them? Actual real men might consider being concerned at the new expectations that are beginning to be bundled with them.

As with Enemy of the State, Man wants to get you riled up about a lot of things over which none of us has a lot of control: kids getting snatched off the streets — and don’t think Mexico City, with its sharp division of rich and poor, isn’t a harbinger of the future if the American economy gets worse — guys with shoulder-launched missiles taking out city traffic, and how sad mournful music follows Creasy around, lamenting the fact that some crimelord has just been blown up by the C4 suppository Creasy just gave him, like Hey, it may be too bad what can you do? Some people just deserve to die.

There used to be a time when the good guys were distinguishable from the bad guys, when they were held to a higher standard… when they held themselves to a higher standard, and that’s what made them the good guys in the first place. But now that vigilantism is the new national hobby, the new foreign policy, it’s also apparently now the new way to kick back on a Friday night at the multiplex.

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