It’s okay to admit it: when someone does us wrong, we want them punished, and the more severe the crime, the worse the consequences should be. The reaction is instinctual, deeply ingrained. Justice? Possibly. But more often than not it’s a feeling derived from someplace darker. Someplace more personal. Someplace sweeter…
Revenge may be a dish best served cold, but one of the best films ever made about it is nothing short of sweltering. Tony Scott’s 2004 masterpiece Man on Fire is a supremely satisfying take on the “I’m going to kill them all” genre, a blazing standout in the crowd of Death Wish sequels and Liam Neeson movies that rises above such pulp material and pinpoints exactly what makes these types of stories so popular in the first place: accountability. Deep down, we all want our enemies to suffer their punishment — and even more than that, we’d love to be the one doing the punishing. Of course, that doesn’t mean we act upon such thoughts; society usually doesn’t permit it, common morality is typically against it, and we often don’t have the cajones anyway. But watching someone else live out this fantasy, reveling in the guilty party being forced to eat just desserts fed to them by the righteous hero, a former victim that has decided to take matters into his or her hands, is pure vicarious bliss.
But for this kind of film to work the first requirement is that the main character — the protagonist — must be relatable. A cyborg terminator laying waste to everyone in his path might be cool, but is hard to connect to. Likewise can be said of superheroes, whose mutant alien powers are not exactly something in line with the common human. In Man on Fire, Denzel Washington plays Creasy, an ex-CIA operative and former Force Recon Marine. Yes, he is a highly-trained killing machine, the likes of which most people could never quite understand, but the filmmakers (including excellent writer Brian Helgeland) wisely give him very human weaknesses. Creasy suffers from extreme guilt over the terrible things he has done, and this has shut him down, sending him spiraling further into alcoholic depression. He is a person, with flaws and a conscience that most can identify with, and when he mulls over a special bullet he has prepared for a certain task, we can’t help but feel for him.
Out of options, Creasy is hired by a wealthy couple in Mexico City to serve as bodyguard to their nine year-old daughter. He does his duty, but keeps an emotional distance, refusing to commit to actually caring about anything; hope doesn’t come easy. But the avenger must have happiness, something to be tragically stolen from him, and this is delivered through the eventual bonding between himself and the little girl, Pita (Dakota Fanning). Bit by bit she tears down the wall he has erected, a constant reminder of what is innocent and good in this world. When Pita is ultimately kidnapped, Creasy’s ray of hope — the best chance of pulling him out of the smothering darkness — is gone, presumed dead. He was just starting to believe again that life was worth living. Big mistake, hombres.
Retribution is a reactive act. The logic of it only exists as long as the emotion behind it persists. For some that can last decades, while for others a few minutes will cool their heads. A revenge movie has to make sure that the audience’s anger toward the antagonist lasts up to the anticipated climax, and this is no easy feat. Too often these sorts of movies concentrate on the villain, emphasizing how bad he or she is by providing us with numerous examples of dastardly deeds perpetrated. Instead of helping, this usually has contrary results, as the audience becomes desensitized and increasingly disconnected. There is even a tendency in this type of approach to slip over the edge into cartoonish supervillainy, further lessening the impact of the tragedy by removing the reality. No, our enemies aren’t the key to our hate. As Man on Fire knows, the genesis of this raw emotion actually lies within the heroes — the substitute for ourselves.
You want to instill the same desire for wrath in your audience that Creasy has toward the kidnappers? Then spend time with Creasy. And Pita. And especially the two of them together. What Man on Fire does so well is establish an emotional attachment to its characters by actually giving us a chance to watch and like them. This is what is important; if we feel emotionally protective of these people, their eventual hurt will reverberate through us that much stronger, and sustain that much longer. Their seething anger will be understandable instead of judged by clucking tongues who know better. The pivotal incident that propels the story happens a full forty-five minutes into the movie — something nearly unheard of in typical schlock fare where the producers want to dive right into the action — but this buildup is worth it. When the decision to act is made, we are now 100% on Creasy’s side, violated ourselves, equally outraged and seeking payback. And boy, do we get it.
The last ingredient in the stew of reprisal is the actual reprisal itself. We love the heroes, hate the villains, and now it’s time to see them get theirs. Smartly, Creasy’s victories are not achieved through a Rambo-like invincibility, but through a more stealthy, sophisticated, intelligently believable way that keeps the character grounded and our connection intact. He is not invincible — not by a longshot — and the tension derived from his mortality only increases the desire for him to succeed. This is no moment to hold back, and Man on Fire doesn’t, not one bit. Creasy goes on a murderous rampage filled with flame and blood, tracking down all those responsible and making them feel his pain. I’m not ashamed to admit that this violent, merciless part of the movie never wears on me, and instead has the opposite effect as each successive victim earns righteous applause. This is not vigilantism; it’s a therapeutic reckoning, and most importantly, when the end comes, the results are logically sound and emotionally satisfying. Aaah…
Revenge is not usually looked at as a moral outcome to pursue, but revenge movies serve a necessary purpose. Bad things happen all the time to us in this world without justice, perpetuating imbalance. Often we are powerless to do anything about this and have to live with that, but the frustration still exists. Watching someone act out these sorts of fantasies gives us hope that we too can gain some small measure of control over our lives. Man on Fire expertly releases some of the tension better than almost any revenge movie I’ve seen, making the world seem right again viewing after viewing, one sweet, cold dish at a time.