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Man on Fire (1987)

“A kid. I didn’t know it’d be a kid.”

I think we’re all familiar with MAN ON FIRE, the 2004 Denzel Washington/Tony Scott movie. I didn’t like it much at the time, but seeing Washington’s reunion with Dakota Fanning in THE EQUALIZER 3 got me wanting to give it another shot. Before that I thought I should finally watch the earlier version I’d never seen, the 1987 adaptation of the same 1980 A.J. Quinnell book. Scott actually tried to adapt the book in the early ’80s. Producer Arnon Milchan said “nah dude, I produced ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, I’m getting Sergio Leone to do it” (paraphrase) but that didn’t work out – it went to French director and comic book writer Élie Chouraqui, his followup to LOVE SONGS starring Catherine Deneuve and Christopher Lambert. Chouraqui did share adaptation credit with Sergio Donati, one of the writers of FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST and DUCK, YOU SUCKER! (plus ORCA and RAW DEAL), so that’s something. But he’s no Leone, no Scorsese (Milchan produced THE KING OF COMEDY) or Terry Gilliam (he also produced BRAZIL) or Tony Scott’s brother (he produced LEGEND).

This version stars Scott Glen (NASHVILLE, MORE AMERICAN GRAFFITI, THE KEEP, SILVERADO) as Christian Creasy, washed up ex-CIA agent turned mercenary whose old friend David (Joe Pesci, ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, shortly before Michael Jackson’s MOONWALKER) hooks him up with a job in Italy as bodyguard to a 12 year old girl, Sam Balletto (Jade Malle, one episode of Millennium), because her parents being rich makes her a target for mafia kidnappings.

Creasy is grumpy and unfriendly to Sam and tries to get out of the job, but we learn in a flashback that it’s because he carried a dead kid away from a bombing in Beirut or somewhere. “And now another kid. I just can’t do it.” She doesn’t like to be called a kid – “I’m not a kid. I’m 12,” she says – and she gets out of the car while stopped in traffic and runs off. The score by Joe Scott (WAKE IN FRIGHT, YOR: THE HUNTER FROM THE FUTURE, LIONHEART, THE WICKER TREE) is even more freaked out by that than Creasy, but it turns out okay, and she apologizes.

She loves Of Mice and Men and tells Creasy he’s “just like Lenny in the book.” He reads it and won’t say if he liked it, but memorizes what she says is her favorite part: “Guys like us ain’t got no family, ain’t got nobody in the world that gives a hoot and holler about ‘em. But not us, ‘cause I got you, and you got me, we got each other, that’s what.”

That means he starts to like her. The parents are “almost never here” and the job is easy. He just hangs out in a big mansion on the water and listens to the kid tell him what she learned about vikings or whatever, and he becomes emotionally attached to her. In this version it’s a little uncomfortable. He poses for pictures with her, beams with pride she dances with a boy at a wedding, people assume he’s her dad, she sings “Someone To Watch Over Me” for him. Sam gets jealous when she sees him hugging her crying mom (Brooke Adams, THE DEAD ZONE), but they make up.

She runs track, and he starts helping her train, and when some motherfuckers come to kidnap her she’s able to get away and run to Creasy, but it’s too late, because he gets shot. She maybe saves Creasy’s life by yanking a gunman’s head by the hair before he shoots him a second time.

In the hospital Creasy memorizes the mugshots of suspects the cops show him. When he gets out he hands David a list of weapons he needs, which he brings in a cool metal suitcase and says, “Whatever you don’t use, I’ll take the rest.” He also provides Creasy with an abandoned loft with neon lights right outside the window (which equals seediness) where he can live and practice swinging a butterfly knife. That’s a true friend.

David uses homophobic slurs for one of the guys they’re going after (Franco Trevisi, PHENOMENA), and Creasy gets him by giving him looks at a theater, luring him to the restroom, aiming a gun at his dick, then putting it in his mouth before threatening to cut his fingers and toes off if he doesn’t answer questions. Very sleazy.

Creasy shoots some people, blows up some people, gets shot by some people. One good part is when he steals a cement truck, crashes it into a street car and knocks it over onto some mobsters (on accident – I think he was just trying to ram them directly).

Danny Aiello plays Conti, the guy running the kidnapping ring. Two years after THE PROTECTOR, two before DO THE RIGHT THING, same year as MOONSTRUCK. He cold-heartedly supervises a car bombing and seems like a scary dude, but when Creasy ambushes him at home he immediately turns coward, crying “I swear to God, I didn’t wanna do it!”

There are some pretty weird parts that I couldn’t make heads or tails of. Like during a wedding when David is playing an acoustic guitar and singing “Johnny B. Good,” everyone gets really uncomfortable because I guess he’s getting too into the chorus, and Creasy has to grab him and stop him. He’s all sweaty and swears that he was just kidding but seems to be lying. I guess maybe it’s supposed to be some kinda PTSD thing? But it seems like he’s just jamming.

The most bizarre part that will sound like I made it up is when he’s saying the Of Mice and Men quote to Sam in the car and the last part is dubbed over with her voice, trying to talk in a low voice. She says, “But that’s my voice!” He laughs and says, “That’s right, and that’s what I’m very good at!” I guess he’s supposed to be doing an impression of her? It’s so preposterous and I assumed it had to be setting up some trick where he needs to mimic her voice, or somebody else’s, but no, it does not come up again.

I’m also not sure what to make of the wraparound story. It starts with him in a hospital being declared dead and zipped up, with a mob of reporters outside demanding to know what happened. He narrates it first person, but SPOILER, that’s not artistic license – it’s ‘cause he fakes his death. I guess we’re supposed to believe he holds his breath and stays perfectly still for several minutes while excited reporters flash cameras right in his face. Why they are treating him as some huge celebrity I also don’t understand.

Another weird choice is that at the very end, the only time we see Sam after she’s abducted, we just see her from far away, her back turned, as Creasy is reunited with her. He blankly says “Hi Sam” and sits down, but we don’t see or hear a reaction from her. Minimal emotional pay off for all that.

Everything about the movie is very dry, partly by design. But also it’s one of those child actor performances that doesn’t really work – not her fault, and she’s a cute kid, but there are some very stiff line readings. It’s not fair for her to have to be compared to Fanning’s version, but life isn’t fair.

Some say this is a terrible movie, which is not my position. It’s got a decent melancholy tone and some good visuals, lots of good street locations and shadowy, textured warehouses and shit. The cinematographer is Gerry Fisher (THE NINTH CONFIGURATION, HIGHLANDER, DEAD BANG, DIGGSTOWN), so obviously it’s gonna look pretty good. But I don’t think it’s well executed enough to get the emotions it’s looking for, and doesn’t really dig far into the themes of redemption and found family suggested by the story. When it ends with a title card of the same Of Mice and Men quote already spoken twice in the movie and referenced a couple other times, it’s clear there’s not much under the hood. It’s too dull to be badass and too flat to be moving. It doesn’t work for me. So now I get why Milchan would want to do a remake. More like a do-over.

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13 Responses to “Man on Fire (1987)”

  1. This isn’t anything fantastic, but I do like it better than the Scott — it’s very pulpy, but still nicely melancholy, what with the ambiguity as to whether Sam really survives outside of Creasy’s memories.

    As for the Scott version, a fragmented NEW ROSE HOTEL-style meditation on regret and acceptance just isn’t really compatible with a gangster getting explosives shoved up his ass.

  2. I haven’t seen this in a long time, but I’ve spent so much of that time telling people that it’s better than the Tony Scott version that I feel bound to speak up for it. Both versions are elliptical and somewhat dreamlike in places, and neither do justice to Quinnell’s book, which teenage me thought was great. The kid’s not great, but the cast around her are fine; Jonathan Pryce, 2 years after BRAZIL, is also in it as the conniving husband. Also, I’m pretty sure the book removes any ambiguity about whether the girl is dead.

  3. I’ve been thinking about watching this one, but I gotta stand up for the Scott version, which I LOVE. I love weird-ass early-00s Tony Scott in general (I own DOMINO and have watched it happily many times) but MAN ON FIRE is such a fucked-up fever dream of a movie I don’t understand how anyone could dislike it. I am always Team Tony when discussing the Scott brothers. Always. I mean, I like BLADE RUNNER and THE DUELLISTS and ALIEN, of course — I have eyes — but pretty much everything else the guy’s ever done leaves me cold. Except for the director’s cut of THE COUNSELLOR. That movie rules. Meanwhile, Tony’s got THE HUNGER and THE LAST BOY SCOUT and TRUE ROMANCE and ENEMY OF THE STATE and MAN ON FIRE and DEJA VU and DOMINO and UNSTOPPABLE… I’ve never seen TOP GUN or CRIMSON TIDE or REVENGE, but I absolutely would watch two out of three of those just based on my respect for the man’s other work.

  4. I am also on the Tony Scott love side… while there is no doubt Ridley has done a couple of absolute masterpieces, Tony has been overall more consistent… True Romance is for me the best Tarantino movie (i know, i might be alone on that one)… i probably watch Man on Fire once a year – but to be fair, i can watch any Denzel movie again and again.
    I haven’t watched Revenge in a long time… i just remember that i really liked it. Crimson Tide is another great Tony/Denzel collaboration… Gene Hackman is a great match to Denzel. So do watch these two first – Top Gun is (for me at least) not the best from Tony Scott. I absolutely love Last Boy Scout – one of the best non-Die Hard Bruce action films. Hell, i would even claim Beverly Hills Cop 2 is better than the first one because of Tony’s visual flair… again, might be alone on that one.

  5. Scott’s done two movies that are good because of the script (TRUE ROMANCE and THE LAST BOY SCOUT) and one movie that’s good because of the direction (DÉJA VU, which strikes me as a better stab at the themes he was going for with MAN ON FIRE). Some of his other stuff is all right. And I haven’t seen THE HUNGER, so let that film hover alongside my comment with an attached asterisk if you like. He’s mostly just bombastic.

    This is the point where I’d say something about Élie Chouraqui’s filmography, but I know almost nothing about it. I guess I saw him in LA BOUM 2? No idea who he played, though.

  6. Elie Chouraqui also did Harrison Flower’s about the Yugoslavia war in the 90’s. I remember that i had really liked it at the time – but critics were quite bad. I think it was a tough movie to watch given the nature of the conflict, so never re-watched it…

  7. When the Scott film came out I thought it was weird that they were remaking a film (or readapting a novel if you insist) from only 1987, even thought that was almost my entire lifespan it seemed way more recent than the other films that were being remade at the time. It wasn’t very well known, but it wasn’t totally obscure either. I know that remakes of fairly recent films happened in the early sound era through to the 40s, but in more recent times 17 years is still one of the shorter gaps between English language films I think? (Tied with BAD LIEUTENANT and PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS if that counts as a remake) Is CABIN FEVER: HOLD THE PANCAKES edition the shortest at 13 years?

  8. Only three years between both versions of DEATH AT A FUNERAL. I discovered the existence of the remake when I got curious about what Neil LaBute had been up to since LAKEVIEW TERRACE (answer: a whole heap of movies I’d never heard of).

  9. The original version of DEATH AT A FUNERAL was a British movie. American remakes of foreign language movies always happen within a very short timespan.

  10. British films don’t generally get rapid-fire U.S. remakes in the way that films with non-English dialogue do (or for that matter British TV shows do). But yeah, the accents were probably a factor in the decision to do a remake, as was the remake’s setting in the black community. I guess GET CARTER/HIT MAN is the precedent here.

  11. Oh yeah, I do remember thinking that DEATH AT A FUNERAL remake was ridiculous at the time.

  12. I was half-joking with my “foreign language movies” comment. This one was really an odd case. But yeah, it happens (although not as often anymore it seems) that foreign movies get remade pretty fast in Hollywood. (Francis Veber is probably filthy rich from all those Hollywood remakes of his French comedies.)

  13. BTW, I remember reading back in the 00s that Scott made his version after he was recommended the 87 film by Tarantino while he was still a video store clerk. Guess that was complete bollocks!

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