Man on Fire (1987)

Today I'll be reviewing a gritty, tense, but nearly forgotten Italian action movie from the mid 80s. While most of its brethren are cheesy eye-rollers, Man on Fire is surprisingly good, despite what those Philistine IMDb commenters say (who generally fall into two camps, those that only watch French art house films and those that believe that all movies should be judged against The Dark Knight and Serenity). So good, in fact, that I debated whether or not to even review it, as it's really not "MMT-worthy" in the sense that there's not much about it to point and giggle at. As such, this won't be one of my usual drunkenly sarcastic reviews, but it is pretty unknown and I do enjoy bringing you, my five loyal readers, some of the more obscure films to be found.

First let's meet our hero, John Creasy, a former CIA operative and mercenary, now a middle-aged semi-retired burn-out with John Lennon glasses and shaggy hair. He's sullen, reserved, and haunted by memories of very bad things happening in hellholes like Beirut and Malaysia, all of which keep him from opening his heart up to anyone out of learned self-preservation. [Editor Pam: I'm waiting for a movie where the hero is a former CIA operative who spent all of his time working in an office and is a chatterbox who spills his guts to anybody he runs into. The handful of real CIA employees I've met say that in fact the average CIA operative spends most of his time in an office and ends his career untraumatized. I guess a hero like that would make for a pretty boring action movie, though.]


But being an old retired CIA spook doesn't exactly pay the electric bill, so Creasy has to find work in a field where he can use his unique skills. His new job is being a live-in bodyguard for a rich Italian family up in the Milan/Lake Como area. In Italy in the mid 1980s rich people lived with the constant threat of the Mafia taking notice of their money and doing something nasty to get some or all of it, so if you could afford a bodyguard (or plural), you had one.

Creasy with the wife and the maid.

The family has a precocious, freckle-faced 12-year old daughter named Sam who is pretty much ignored by her always-traveling parents and desperate for some sort of stable adult attention. She sees Creasy, despite his initial gruffness and one-word answers, as a potential father-figure, or at least a friend (she's so isolated up at their lake house that she doesn't have any friends). Their budding relationship is what drives the first half of the movie, as Sam slowly pulls Creasy out of his shell and in the process finds what she needs herself.


Of course, Man on Fire was remade in 2004, with Denzel Washington and Dakota Fanning in the Creasy and Sam roles. While a competent big-budget actioneer, the remake had little of the original's grittiness and realism. Perhaps it was the change in setting from Northern Italy to Mexico, or maybe it was that Mister Sexiest Man Alive Denzel just didn't look convincing as a burnt-out former contract killer, or maybe it was that the last half relied more on explosions and cordite fumes than any meaningful dialogue or emotion, but I strongly prefer the 1987 version in almost every way.

Fanning's going to win her own Oscars eventually, we all know that.

The first half of our movie is all about building up character development. So many movies, of all budgets and eras, utterly fail to give us a reason to care about the main characters. Especially when later in the film those characters are put into danger or even die, it's extremely difficult for the audience to really empathize with people we never really knew. This is true in real life also, of course, opening the newspaper and reading horror stories about people far away is not the same as getting a phone call about your dead friend. Man on Fire is the exception to the rule in this, over the course of the first 45 minutes of the film we get to know Creasy and Sam so well that we feel like we actually know them as real flesh and blood people.

They both share an interest in Vikings, really.

Now, admittedly, a lot of viewers might see a few potential Lolita moments, but I'd make the assertion that if you are a parent, especially of a preteenager, then you see less wrong with Creasy and Sam's close relationship. Sam is not a child by any means, she's 12 and she knows what she's doing when she gets up close and personal with Creasy, but it never, not once, seems creepy or exploitive at all. A more hamfisted director might have pushed some of this too far, but Elie Chouraqui, a Frenchman who I've not dealt with before, handles it with a delicate, deft touch, never crossing any lines into forbidden territory while at the same time showing us just how much these two love each other.

A hug is often the best way to say "I'm sorry."

It's helped by Italian actress Jade Malle being well cast as Sam, despite being a virtual unknown (then and since). While Dakota Fanning in the 2004 remake nailed her line reads perfectly, she came across as an actress "method acting" as an impressionable young girl, while Jade Malle was not a professional actress and spoke and acted like a regular, real person. There are always dangers with casting amateur children in movies, sometimes it fails miserably (Jake Lloyd in The Phantom Menace comes to mind), but other times (such as here) it's beneficial to not have professional training if you want to come across as a believable character.

And she sings, too.

Veteran American actor Scott Glenn as Creasy is also pitch perfect here, believably morphing before our eyes from a shell-shocked hollow-eyed, dead-walking emotional zombie into a man fully capable and willing to open up his scarred heart to this young woman and understand the joys of being a father. Nothing seems forced, nothing seems contrived for a cheap misty eye, just a slow, gradual thawing of a frozen soul under a warm light. For what is billed as a typical Italian Gallo crime movie, Man on Fire is at times a very tender and heartwarming story of love and devotion.

The smiles come easy after a while.

Anyway, simmering underneath all the good stuff in the first act is the dreadful knowledge that something bad is eventually going to happen. We know it's coming, it shouldn't be a surprise, but because we've gotten in so deep with Creasy and Sam it's still a hammering shock when the mafia kidnappers do strike. Shot several times, Creasy is unable to stop them from taking her away. From his hospital bed he follows the tragic tale, played out in the local media (Sam's parents were rich and powerful). She sends audio tapes saying she's fine, but the Mafia want a million dollars cash for her release.


Creasy is determined to track down Sam himself and rescue her, as he feels responsible for her (he sees her as his own daughter by now). He has to work outside the law, however, as the police (rightly) have a no-negotiation policy with the Mafia. In typical action movie fashion, instead of working with the police to find the kidnappers, Creasy just gathers up an arsenal of illegal weapons and goes out on the streets to handle it himself.

Arming up.

And so the second half of the movie devolves into a fast-paced, violent shoot-em-up. Creasy first finds some low-level hoods and beats information out of them, and then follows the breadcrumbs to the kidnappers, killing and mauling anyone in his way. He saves her in the end. In a lot of ways, Man on Fire was the baseline for the excellent Taken with Liam Neeson, one of the best movies of 2008, in my opinion. I suppose, though, that this sort of quest is seen a lot in action movies, fighting for someone you love is a universal theme, after all.

Newspapers follow the story.

All this kickassness is let down by supporting actor Joe Pesci, playing Creasy's former partner and sidekick. Pesci is being himself here, a loud, foulmouthed, wisecracking, badda-bing Guido with greasy, slicked-back hair and open-necked silk shirts. As I've seen Pesci play this very same stereotype in about, well, all of his movies, I'm beginning to think this is just how he is in real life. Here, Pesci's forced humor and rambling nonsense detract from the overall seriousness of Creasy's bloodquest to find Sam.

And he also sings!

At first I was going to do my typical scene-by-scene breakdown of its predictable violence and manly 1980s shootouts, but I just don't have the urge to this time. To be perfectly honest, I'd prefer another 40 minutes of Creasy bonding with Sam, rather than knife fights and pistol whipping, but I'm just a big softy. So if you like that sort of thing, find the movie and watch it yourself.

I'm bored with gunfights for today.

Just a side note, but this movie does do a nice job of showing just how pervasive the Mafia in Italy was in the mid 1980s. Drive-by shootings, kidnapped children, corrupt policemen, complicit local governments, and the danger to ordinary citizens of getting caught in the cross fire were signs of everyday life in urban Italian cities for much of the 80s. In the movie we see the near-Draconian methods used by the Government (quite unsuccessfully) to keep the Mafia at bay, including random roadblocks and full cavity searches, and policemen with machineguns standing outside schoolyards to keep kidnappers away. From what I can read, in the last 25 years or so the Mafia has been bloodied and bent (but not broken) by the concerted efforts of Italian and EU authorities, but has also become more violent as its influence has waned and its operations have been forced underground. I'm glad I live in Indiana. [Editor Pam: It's hard to eradicate greed and hunger for power without becoming as bad as the bad guys. There was a similar run of kidnapping the rich in pre-Nazi Germany, and when the Nazis took over they wiped it out by summarily executing anybody even suspected of being involved, but as everybody knows they replaced it with something much worse.]

The End.

Written in December 2009 by Nathan Decker.

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