Man on Fire (1987)

Starring: Scott Glenn, Joe Pesci, Danny Aiello, and Jonathan Pryce
Grade: D+

All things considered, the name “Lenny Lazarus” goes hard.

Summary

In a hospital in Italy, ex-CIA Agent Christian Creasy (Glenn) is put in a body bag and is declared dead. Through narration, he reiterates this fact and acknowledges Satta (Giancarlo Prete) as a good cop, who goes out and tells the media members trying to enter of Creasy’s death. Finally, they are let in. Creasy’s best friend David (Pesci) and his wife Julia (Laura Morante) are waiting outside the room, and they overhear the reporters say Creasy is dead. After Vietnam, South America, Beirut and the nightmares that came with each mission, they finally got Creasy.

Of course, this is the story of how he got there.

David’s brother Elio (Giovanni Mauriello) got Creasy a job as a bodyguard over in Italy, a hotbed for criminal activity. A lawyer named Michael (Pryce) hired Creasy for his client Ettore Balletto (Paul Shenar), Ettore’s wife Jane (Brooke Adams), and their 12-year-old daughter Sam (Jade Malle) who has attended school before in New York. Creasy is to stay with them at their home. Upon getting there, he already seems uncomfortable. After refusing the housekeeper’s help with his bags, he’s shown to his room. Shortly after, Sam introduces herself and tries to start a conversation. Though Creasy is noticeably uninterested, he mumbles short replies back to her. When he tells her he’s from Northern California, Sam assumes he’s read her favorite book Of Mice and Men. He hasn’t though, and she leaves. Later, he calls and asks David to get him out of this because he doesn’t want to deal with a kid, but Elio says it’s an easy job because Ettore just hired him to keep his wife happy. Basically, he’s not even a bodyguard. He’s just a well-paid babysitter. Creasy admits she’s a good kid, but the conversation is cut short once he gets flashbacks to an old mission where he’s holding a deceased child in his arms during a shootout. Reluctantly accepting his job situation, Creasy is about to call it a night at the Balletto mansion. When he turns on the light to his room, Sam is waiting there and gives him Of Mice and Men to read as a gift. Even so, he has her leave. The next day, Creasy drives Sam to school and she tries to talk to him, but he doesn’t want to engage. Sam passes this off as him being similar to Lenny in the book because he can’t do two things at once. He gives her the book back and tells her he finished it, but he doesn’t say anything when she asks if he liked it or not.

She reads one passage from the book aloud saying it’s her favorite part: “Guys like us got no family. They ain’t got nobody in the world that gives a hoot in hell about ’em. But not us, Lenny said. ‘Cause I got you, and you got me. We got each other. That’s what.”

Dropping her off at the school, Creasy tells her to always wait inside for him when he goes to pick her up. If she doesn’t see him, just wait. When a school official asks Sam who he is, she refers to Creasy as her friend. Creasy admits this is when he should’ve left, but he had nowhere else to be.

One night, Creasy feels more tense than usual after seeing housekeeper Bruno (Lorenzo Piani) on the terrace and the parents being out and about somewhere. Immediately, he goes and checks on Sam, but she’s sleeping and everything is fine. The next day, Creasy is driving Sam to school again. For some reason, she decides to sit in the front seat in the middle of the drive to try and talk to Creasy and ask about the noticeable wounds on his hand. Finally, Creasy shuts things down and says he’s paid to watch her and to drive, not to talk. When they stop in traffic, a bothered Sam gets out of the car and runs to a diner. Creasy is forced to leave the car and run after her. When he finds her and they share eye contact, Creasy stops in at the diner across the street and observes her from there. Following a bus obstructing his vision, he sees she’s gone. Before he can freak out, Sam appears in the diner with him and apologizes. They stay and talk for a bit, with Sam wishing for the two to be friends. She starts to talk about school with him, and their friendship starts to blossom as a result. They become better friends day by day too, as he’s with her more than her parents are. One night, Jane cries to Creasy for no reason at all. She just wanted a hug. Unbeknownst to the both of them, Sam saw this. The next day, Creasy shows up to Sam’s track meet and she gets distracted by his appearance, loses, and falls down in the process while knocking over several other girls. On the ride back home, Sam questions where her mother Jane was to pick her up, but Creasy insists she said she was held up and would be home later.

Next, she tells Creasy that he “should have her” because at least she would stay home. Then, she accuses him of wanting to fuck her mother. Creasy doesn’t engage.

Back at the house, Creasy tends to Sam’s ankle injury while she further questions him and Jane and if he was jealous her mother was with Michael. Creasy tries to change the subject by saying she could have won the race if she didn’t give up, but Sam gets emotional and says she doesn’t care about winning. She gets mad about him avoiding her questions about Jane, so she says Creasy is nothing to her and refuses his advice. He tries to leave the room, but Sam asks him to stay and pulls on his arm, despite just yelling at him seconds before. Creasy gets pissed at her, so she limps away. That night, a guilt-ridden Creasy gifts Sam a book as an apology about Christopher Columbus and Marco Polo because of a conversation they had previously. Sam apologizes to him, and they hug, making their bond stronger than it was before. After a quick sequence in which we see Creasy help Sam train for her next track meet, Creasy gets a phone call from David. He says Elio found someone who can replace him, but Creasy declines the offer now that he’s enjoying himself. They start talking about Elio’s wedding, and Creasy says he’s coming and he’s bringing Sam as his date. After some more training and Creasy buys her a pair of running shoes, the hard work pays off and she wins the next race. Eventually, they go to Elio’s wedding together, and everyone has a great time.

Though David’s rendition of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Good” creeped everyone out because he started screaming the chorus over and over again to the point where Creasy had to stop him, David insists everything was fine and he was just playing around.

They try to get Creasy to sing next, but he declines because he can’t. Sam interrupts by grabbing a mic from the band and singing a song in front of everyone, and it warms his heart. A woman there even tells Creasy that he “has a beautiful daughter”. As they drive back home that night, Creasy reiterates the Of Mice and Men quote to her and they seem happy. Again, she asks about the wounds on his hands, so he finally decides to tell her. He doesn’t directly say it, but he heavily implies he was tortured during an interrogation and was burned several times with a cigarette. Once they get to a stoplight on a quiet street though, kidnappers show up and take Sam at gunpoint, pulling her out of the car and taking her to one across the street. Creasy is able to shoot the one pointing a gun at him (though he shoots Creasy in the leg once he gets out of the car), and he takes a few more shots that allow Sam to run back to him. However, he’s shot a few more times by the rest of the group once Sam gets to him. He falls to the ground, and Sam is taken away. One of the kidnappers try to fire one last kill shot, but Sam pulls on the guy’s hair and causes him to miss. They drive away, and Creasy passes out. Back at the Balletto home, they are given audio of Sam telling them details of her kidnapping situation and how she’s being taken care of and such. The bad guys will let her go if the family pays the ransom. Satta is the lead detective on the case, and he says they kidnappers will call soon. He wants Michael to take the phone call, but he wants Michael to say the cops won’t let him pay the ransom because these guys are professionals.

Based on his experience with this sort of scenario, he thinks they will kill Sam if they give up the money too early.

At the hospital, Creasy is recovering, but he’s still severely wounded. The guard outside of his door is listening to updates on Sam’s case on the radio, and it triggers an episode out of Creasy where he screams in pain over the horrors of what happened. David comes running down the hallway to calm him down before the nurses come in. This allows for David to confront the guard and break his radio against the wall. Later, Conti (Aiello) calls Michael from a building across the street from the office building Michael is in. Conti and his group have Sam. They want a million dollars, and he gives Michael three days to get it. He promises to call Michael back to tell him where and how to drop it off. Conti gets into the car with his cohorts, and they watch as Michael leaves his building. Soon after, the building explodes. Michael survives, but the fear is settling in even more. The only hope the Balletto family and Sam have is the injured but vengeance-fueled Creasy. He knows these kidnappers are going to kill Sam, but he’s going to do everything in his power to kill every last person in an attempt to try and save her.

My Thoughts:

Based on the novel by A.J. Quinnell, French filmmaker √Člie Chouraqui tries to bring the violent revenge thriller to life while maintaining the heartfelt friendship between a burned-out CIA agent and the daughter of the family he’s protecting amongst the beautiful backdrop of Italy at a time when it was at its most dangerous. Though it’s interesting visually, with Chouraqui’s stylish direction making the most mundane scenes intriguing to watch unfold, the screenplay fails him, and the acting never reaches the heights it needs to fully entrench us in the experience. The kidnapping is the point of no return. It’s the defining moment of the film because just when Creasy was close to mentally healing as a human being because of the warmth of Sam’s presence, she’s taken from him. It’s supposed to shock our hearts to the point where we’re begging for our protagonist to go scorched earth on these villains. It’s the whole focus of the thriller and why Creasy has to revert to his violent ways to save this girl who brought humanity back to him. Now, of course we still want to see our protagonist go on his hunt but compared to other revenge-based action movies, the viewers are nowhere near as emotionally invested into this friendship as we’d like to be.

This is just the beginning of the laundry list of things the 2004 adaptation does better.

Above all else though, it starts with the cast. Always a strong supporting actor, rigid tough guy Scott Glenn is given the lead this time around. He does show off some flashes of potential, but it’s clear very early on that he’s nowhere near what Denzel Washington brought to the role so many years later. First of all, Glenn doesn’t generate the aura of a lone badass, which is the essence of Creasy. He plays dejected fairly well, but it seems like his shaggy beard and long hair do most of the job for him. Then, he just fills in the cracks with his monotoned voice and over-reliance on staring into the distance. Has this version of Creasy seen some shit? Yeah, I can buy that. However, even in the flashbacks shown of his previous escapades, his body type and general appearance seemed to make him look like he was in a Peace Corps mission gone wrong rather than a CIA Agent with experience and expertise in killing anyone in front of him. Additionally, his yelling at the sky when he was holding a child was actually laughable. This is the perfect example of one of the most clich√©d action movie tropes you can use when trying to show an audience how the main character has a rough backstory. If you’ve ever seen any parody of an action movie, a scene like this is the personification of a screenplay trying to convey tragedy but it’s so melodramatic it comes off as comical. The exact same could be said about the scene in which Creasy starts yelling as he drives the cement truck at the bad guy’s car but nails a trolley that got in the way instead, with the trolley taking their car out as a result. The emotion he tries to bring out evokes the essence of parody rather than a victim of trauma. No matter how hard Scott Glenn tries, he can’t seem to escape it in Man on Fire.

Yeah, Creasy has been through a lot in his life, but he never feels like a badass who has been through and has caused tragedies by his own hands. He looks too normal. Look, I like Scott Glenn and wanted to suspend my disbelief, but he’s built like Shaggy from Scooby-Doo.

He doesn’t have the tucked away “venom” that the character needs for us to root for him. Most of the time, he just sticks to his plain expression to convey a sense of uncaring that borders on the suicidal. However, it’s not in the badass way it needs to be for a film like this. Even when his revenge tour starts, he possesses more of the vibe of an inexperienced serial killer rather than an action hero because of his unathletic, “gangly old man” build. The viewer just can’t get past this in regard to Scott Glenn. Sadly, he just doesn’t have “it”. It doesn’t help matters much that he gets his ass kicked for a lot of this movie too. With the way things play out, this only pushes away the suspension of disbelief even more because there’s no way someone as experienced as he is written to be should look and act like some regular old vigilante citizen starting out for the first time. Once he starts investigating the paper trail and gets to the second place to kill a couple more bad guys in some abandoned building, we see the best example of the good and the bad of Scott Glenn as Creasy. The good is when he turns on a bomb and looks like he’s completely willing to kill himself to prove a point to this nameless villain as he calmly asks over and over again as if he’s being inconvenienced saying, “Where is he?”. This Creasy has no life without this girl and will die, if need be, to get her back. It’s in this moment, we believe him because he looks so done with everyone and everything. The bad is immediately after this scene. He limps out of there and is chased on foot once he gets back on the street. When he’s spotted, he actually looks scared, and it completely takes us out of the action. If anything, Creasy would dare them and yell for them to come at him because he has no regard for his own life, but in this moment, he looks frightened at the thought of being caught.

Is this not completely backwards from what it should be?

Then, a group follows him and beats the shit out of him. He can’t even muster up the strength to fight them back or even attempt to in like an honorable way. If the bomb didn’t go off in the building, he would’ve lost right then and there. He looked way too weak in this moment, and he never recovers. The most bothersome part of all of this is that it doesn’t fit the character he’s portraying whatsoever. Creasy isn’t going to take them out like Chuck Norris but getting attacked by this many people should’ve only brought out the viciousness in him to convey the life-or-death mentality of the character now that he’s deep into his mission. He should’ve used his knife quickly and early, brutally taking on his attackers to the point where they start to run away. The thirst for blood should’ve consumed him at this point to where he welcomes this action, but this sequence instead took us out of it all and reminded us that Creasy isn’t as tough as he’s written to be. Scott Glenn never takes control in his performance. He underplays the motivations of the character, and the intensity of his actions are few and far between. The bathroom scene at the porno house was an example of it done right, but in most of the other action sequences, he just looks too vulnerable. His look of fright and vulnerability would make sense if he was a regular person, but again, the whole point of the character is that he has training in the field and has countless bodies on his record. It doesn’t make sense for Glenn to act in the way he did. Moments like when he says flat-out, “I don’t care” when turning on the bomb that could kill him and a villain makes sense, but him going into Conti’s house armed and narrowly escaping a kill shot from the amateurish mafia member doesn’t align with someone who has years of experience in espionage and murder. He doesn’t have the screen presence needed for such an important role.

Glenn doesn’t look like a natural with a gun in his hand either. If anything, it looks like it’s the first time he’s ever picked one up. When he practices with his butterfly knife, it looks like a child playing with his toy pretending to fight bad guys. He looks awkward and uncomfortable. The performance doesn’t match the character. Also, why cut the hair and beard? I understand that it’s a not-so-subtle way to show a change in the character’s mentality and how it gives him a disguise when going into the porno house, but is it entirely necessary? Why waste time going into the theater to seduce some guy just to threaten him at gunpoint anyway? Couldn’t he have waited until the guy was done watching porn to just catch him on the street?

In what should be a one-man show, I found myself wondering where Creasy’s best friend and partner-in-crime in David was more often than not. He’s close to Creasy, he tells him to call if he needs anything, and he still has a taste for violence, as evidenced in the scene where he delivers Creasy all the weapons he requested. Though he contains himself for the most part, it’s clear David is a bit twisted and is itching to be a part of something. This is how Joe Pesci plays it at least, showing off his long hair at every given chance. Even if it doesn’t happen in the book and the focus was to always be on Creasy hunting to save Sam, the bad combination of screenplay deficiencies, the handling of the main character, and the acting made me come to the logical conclusion that Creasy needs help and should ask for his willing and able-bodied maniac best friend. There’s no reason not to ask him because they never give us one. In 2004’s Man on Fire, not only does this thought never cross our mind because of how commanding of a presence Denzel Washington is as Creasy, but it’s easily explained in a single conversation as to why Christopher Walken’s Rayburn can’t help him. He’s done with killing. He’s satisfied with being retired from the active life and is cool with running his private security firm. Rayburn will still assist when its needed, but he doesn’t want to be directly involved. You see how easy that is? This was all that was needed to explain David’s disappearance from the action in this version of Man on Fire but since no explanation was given as to why he can’t help when Creasy needs it most, it makes both characters look stupid as a result.

In general, the supporting cast is outrageously underutilized. We know nothing of the Balletto family even though Creasy is around them all the time since he’s the one protecting them. If I didn’t look up the parents’ names for this review, I wouldn’t be able to tell you what they were with a gun to my head. Jonathan Pryce is the family’s lawyer but gets just one scene where he says something important, despite being third-billed. Danny Aiello is revealed to be the antagonist, but it happens very late into the film. Besides money (he only asks for a paltry $1 million as well), we know nothing of his motivations or general personality. Nothing is revealed about his henchmen, their connection to the Balletto family, or why they almost killed Michael. What’s more confusing is that when Aiello’s Conti comes face to face with Creasy, he keeps talking about how he didn’t want to do it and that he has a family. He pleads and begs for his life, and he makes it sound like he’s more of a pawn in a bigger scheme, continuously swearing he didn’t want to do it but “They wanted the money”. Then, he gets non-fatally shot by another guy when he’s driving Creasy to the hideout. Obviously, this would imply there’s more to who’s involved in this massive kidnapping plot, but nothing else is revealed. Who is “they”? We never know. It kind of just stops there and Creasy is shot at by a kid in the hideout. This lack of explanation makes the final product feel unfinished. In Tony Scott’s Man on Fire, Denzel’s Creasy would not have any of this. If he was told by Conti about these plot developments, he would’ve followed every last detail to kill EVERY LAST PERSON. Scott Glenn’s Creasy in this film just bypasses this to get to Sam and it’s nowhere near as satisfying. We have more questions than answers. This should never be the case in an action movie.

Not to trash talk a kid or anything, but Jade Malle was awful as Sam. She doesn’t hold a candle to Dakota Fanning as Pita in the 2004 adaptation. Malle is emotionally stunted and doesn’t’ possess the heartwarming qualities of her character description whatsoever. She couldn’t even act like she hurt her ankle correctly after the foot race sequence. Instead, she skipped down the hall like an idiot. With the 2004 film, the bonding between Creasy and Pita was a gradual and believable process. In this 1987 adaptation, it happens way too quickly. Plus, the two actors have zero chemistry. It never hooks us. They only become friends because of scene directions tell them too. Not once do they warm our hearts during their conversations or make us believe in their burgeoning friendship like the 2004 movie does. In addition, the subpar acting from both stars once they get closer sets off a lot of weird signals. The movie treats Creasy like a pseudo father figure, but Glenn is too wooden in the sequences where he’s supposed to be loosening up around her. All he does is start to smile more often but, in some scenes, the eye contact is strange and gives off Lolita vibes instead of the father/daughter intention. It just never works in the way they want it too, which is why the action is never as intense as it feels in the 2004 film, one in which they fire on all cylinders in regard to action, the acting, and the friendship between the two stars that makes the violence worth it in every aspect.

I did like a lot of the creative choices used to make this production different in its presentation, but the narration should have been removed entirely. The “beyond the grave” opening monologue both gives away the ending AND doesn’t make any sense because of Creasy talking vaguely and in circles. It only gets worse as the film goes on. He never says anything of note in these narrations either. It’s never something that couldn’t be told through the actions of Scott Glenn. Unnecessary is an understatement. Also, the newspaper headline transitions make the final product look very cheap and TV-movie like.

There are so many inexplicable as well as avoidable issues that take us out of the experience too. At one point, servant Bruno calls David to talk to Creasy but is shot in the head by an assassin in some public building. Following this, the assassin runs down a flight of stairs. What’s hysterical about this is that there’s a female janitor mopping the floor next to the stairs. The wet part of the floor is noticeable to the naked eye. When running onto the platform though, this assassin is nowhere near her on the dry part of the floor and still slips. I actually laughed out loud because of how stupid this was. There’s no way this could be intentional, could it? In another strange scene, Creasy says the “We got each other” line from Of Mice and Men in Sam’s voice. Obviously, it’s Jade Malle’s voice recorded, and he mouths the words to make it sound like he has this talent of imitating people, but it’s such a wild trait for the character to have that you can’t help but furrow your brow and stare in confusion. What the hell did he do in the CIA? How does one get this talent? What did he do in his life that involved this weird ability? In a classic example of refusing the unwritten rule of Chekov’s gun, this trait is never spoken of again and never comes into play in the story, despite very few main characters in the history of cinema having the ability to do this. When writing a screenplay, you need to look at things like this and ask yourself, “What does this do for the audience? How will this affect the story or our characters at some point?”. It doesn’t at all. It’s just the most random detail ever and it’s passed aside like nothing. Again, it’s just a sliver of the laundry list of problems with this movie. Even when they are reunited, it’s oddly done and without explanation.

Going along with this, does Creasy pull this all off in one night? When he finally starts killing people, it happens very late into the film, but they set it up to make it seem like he gets on a roll and just goes from suspect to suspect in a record-making hurry. It almost happens too quick because we want more action. Sadly, it literally takes him three guys to get to the finale. It’s like a blur.

When faced with such a devastating problem, vengeance is on the mind. Though still recovering from his injuries, Creasy comes to the classic action hero moment of asking for weapons from David because his warpath is about to commence. In a regular revenge thriller, the conversation between the two friends really stood out for a few reasons. Despite what the rest of the movie is about and what will motivate the hero of the story, David essentially points out the stupidity of action movies within an action movie, in an intriguing scene that puts everything into perspective. Basically, he calls out Creasy and tells him exactly what he’s going to do and how it won’t solve anything. If he finds one guy and he doesn’t know anything, he’ll kill him. Then, he’ll find another guy. If he doesn’t know anything, he’ll kill him too. Pointing out Creasy’s lack of a plan, he motions about the guy sitting behind him and says Creasy should kill him. Where does it end? It was such a cool way of deconstructing the genre that it almost didn’t belong in the movie because the rest of the film and the actions of both men undermine this very important dialogue exchange. This scene could have allowed for more internal struggle coming from Creasy when in search of this little girl and what it’s doing to him as well, taking lives left and right and reverting to the horrific ways of how he used to be. Unfortunately, the nuanced possibilities of this conversation that could have added a lot to the depth to the three principal characters are let right out the door as soon as the scene comes to a close. David doesn’t help the matter either. Despite him being the one who’s against this idea, he’s the one who gets Creasy the weapons and he is the one who tells Creasy to call if he needs help capturing the gay henchman at the porno house.

David’s sympathetic response in defense of humanity when Creasy has all the intentions to go to war is completely forgotten about almost as soon as it happens, so why even include it? What could have been a pivotal scene in terms of depth turns into a forgotten scene that undermines the movie and sticks out like a sore thumb because of it. The vision for this screenplay was just incomplete. It had some ideas, but it never acts on them.

One thing I absolutely loved was the importance and symbolism regarding the sunglasses of the three male leads. It’s never explained outright, but there’s this aura added to each man once they put on the glasses. As we know, the right eyewear can really set a character apart, and Man on Fire does a great job in exemplifying this. It’s something the 2004 adaptation does just as well. Though him smiling sends a conflicting message and should have been omitted entirely because it makes him look like he’s enjoying this, once Creasy dons the aviators in the striking scene when he grins in the mirror, it’s as if Bruce Wayne is putting on the Batman mask. Basically, we are told, “It’s on now”. This is Creasy embracing the violence and the action, taking off his regular glasses and putting on the sunglasses that turn him into the dark version of himself. He’s bringing back the killer he used to be in the name of street justice. When the sunglasses come on, the energy in the film changes and the tension starts to build to a boiling point because this is a Creasy we aren’t accustomed to. With David, he relies on his John Lennon lenses more often than not, but it’s as if this want for action never truly left him. As I mentioned before, Pesci’s take on the character still possesses a fire within him, and the sunglasses seem to further this, especially when he wields that pistol when delivering the other weapons to Creasy. He’s still a little loose from his past and though he hides it well, the sunglasses tell us the violence is still there. In one silent scene, Conti even puts on sunglasses to observe the kidnapped Sam face-to-face. Though they’re in a dark area and it doesn’t seem logical, Conti wears them to remind the audience Sam is in danger, and he is a threat.

This is one major positive coming out of the film. With just small details regarding the attire of the characters, we are able to determine a lot, showing us how important every subtlety can be regarding a screenplay if paid attention to by the writers.

With a defining and mood-determining score, great filming locations, a fantastic use of slow-motion and a little Taxi Driver influence, especially in that aerial shot at the warehouse towards the end, the first adaptation of Man on Fire succeeds in being a stylish action movie filled with striking imagery. Unfortunately, it fails almost everywhere else. The screenplay is riddled with problems and filled with missed opportunities, the characters are severely underdeveloped, the supporting cast is underutilized on an almost disrespectful level, the acting leaves a lot to be desired, the action takes a while to get going and it’s still nowhere near as exciting as it should be, and Scott Glenn majorly disappoints in the lead. I walked in with a very open mind and low expectations, hoping for this to be a forgotten gem that deserves recognition. After watching both films however, it’s clear that the 2004 adaptation is superior in every category.

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