Friday, February 04, 2011

A Man on Fire: A Religious Tragedy

I love spaghetti western movies, particularly Sergio Leone movies with Clint Eastwood starring, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, for example. Other good movies, Sam Peckinpah, like The Wild Bunch. I like what I can relate to, which is Western movies. So, somehow a movie about a Black guy who used to work as an assassin for the CIA and who is now a washed-up alcoholic taking on a job as a low-rent body guard for a Mexican businessman's little kid is not what I would have thought to be my cup of cerveza. A Man of Fire isn't promising to me on its face. But I've lived in Mexico City off and on for a number of years and I thought that if nothing else I might like to see some familiar scenery. The plot? Oh, well.

"In Mexico City, a former assassin swears vengeance on those who committed an unspeakable act against the family he was hired to protect."

We've all seen this type of movie many times before, a revenge flick.

A wave of kidnappings has swept through Mexico, feeding a growing sense of panic among its wealthier citizens, especially parents. In one six-day period, there were twenty-four abductions, leading many to hire bodyguards for their children. Into this world enters John Creasy, a burned-out ex-CIA operative/assassin, who has given up on life. Creasy's friend Rayburn brings him to Mexico City to be a bodyguard to nine-year-old Pita Ramos, daughter of industrialist Samuel Ramos and his wife Lisa. Creasy is not interested in being a bodyguard, especially to a youngster, but for lack of something better to do, he accepts the assignment. Creasy barely tolerates the precocious child and her pestering questions about him and his life. But slowly, she chips away at his seemingly impenetrable exterior, his defenses drop, and he opens up to her. Creasy's new-found purpose in life is shattered when Pita is kidnapped...

Let me wreck this for you if you're one who is interested in "suspense."

The body guard is protecting a little girl from the possibility of kidnapping. We know she's going to be kidnapped. There's no suspense there. It's what the movie is about. We know too that there is not one sane man on Earth who will invest a red, white and blue cent in a movie project in which a cute kid is murdered by Mexican gangsters because a Black movie star couldn't do his job properly. I would be so fucking outraged at the thought of such a movie that I might set the theatre on fire if ever I encountered such a vile thing on screen. And no, none of that is going to happen this side of Nazi Germany or North Korea. Hollywood won't do that to an audience. We know the girl is going to survive and return to her mom. There is no suspense here. But there is something that I found excellent in this story. I find it beautiful and fine for the soul. And we're talking a Hollywood movie here.

Not especially early in the film, some time after we've seen enough of the character to know enough about him to care, he sits alone in his room with a gun to his head and he pulls the trigger because he hates himself and wants to die. That, sorry to know too much about it, is pretty common. Suicide is easy once one makes up ones mind to do it. The character did, he pulled the trigger, and nothing happened. That's what we would expect from any director other than Hitchcock, who killed off Janet Leigh in Psycho in the first third of the film. So nothing happens. Fair enough. The movie can now continue to the point the little girl is kidnapped and the hero fails to protect her. I could have lived well without ever having sat through all that. I was mostly bored by the recovery in hospital and the obligatory scenes of the still wounded hero accumulating an arsenal to do combat with the bad guys. Far more to my liking was what philistines might descry as excessive violence, which I think is about impossible in a good movie. There were some excellent scenes of torture and torment that I completely loved. And then came the good part.

The man on fire was not any longer some typical vigilante out to avenge a wrongful death. He rises and becomes the Wrath of God in the flesh. This late stage of the film is when our hero becomes a Classical Hero, a Tragedy. This guy with guns and bombs and big attitude is going to murder everyone. This is all or nothing, and we know, this being Hollywood, it's going to be All. It stays Tragic in that the hero is dying as he fights, bleeding and fading and not going to make it; and he carries on like he must because he is-- and because life is-- Tragic. Those who did wrong must pay, and he who had no will to live will live long enough to redeem his worthlessness as he becomes a sacrifice to the Good. Why did he survive his suicide attempt? Simply because the bullet in the chamber at the time was a dud. It misfired. He lived just because of that. Stupid, random, arbitrary chance allowed him to continue his miserable life to the point he failed to save a little girl from harm. Maybe it's me and I don't understand the nature of drama, but I hate the man because he failed. I want him to die. He must die because he failed, and I will cheer.

The girl survives, of course, and is reunited with her mom. On the other side of the story, the father is the schemer who set up what was supposed to be a fake kidnapping that would bring him money to rescue his failing business. Our hero confronts him with this, and also presents him with the gun our hero used to attempt suicide. He gives father the bullet that misfired. He leaves father to do as he will. Of course the bullet this time, unlike the first time, does fire. It's good drama because it's good religion. Our hero does die as he must, as he sacrifices himself to save the little girl he failed first time round. Then we can love our hero. He was saved from his vanity to do some great thing. He is redeemed. We are safe in a just world. We witness a right reckoning.

When I read the usual comments by the usual kiddies about religion being the root of all evil I just shake. My head. It aches. Those who complain in imitation of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins are more than banal and philistine. They got no sense of the movies. That's not tragedy, it's comedy. But it's not funny. A Man on Fire is tragedy in the best sense. It's religious. A Religious Tragedy.

A gentle reminder that my book, An Occasional Walker, is available at the link here:

And here are some reviews and comments on said book:


Pinguinos Presidentes said...

Great review! I too liked this movie way more than many other similar ones. I watched 2 or 3 times, and I could watch it again.
(by the way, I too think Dawkins followers are jerks, lol. They pretend to reject religion, and what are they? Even have their own pope and dogma. It's pathetic :-)

Loved your motto man: "Think global, act loco". Superb.

Dag said...

Thanks for the comment, mate. Of the one thousand or so viewers who have looked at this review you are the only one who left a note. I'm sure many people like the movie as much as we do, though it took you to say so in public. I'm sure you speak for the thousand who left without a word.

Cupcakes for this guy, and then off to bed to have pleasant dreams here in the Amazon.

My best,

Dag, Iquitos, Peru,
Oct. 2012.