While it might superficially seem to be headed in the direction of any of a number of Hollywood archetypes--the rescue movie, the buddy movie, the bodyguard movie, the redemption movie, the revenge movie, the movie about love among the ruins--what it is in its heart of hearts is a Kurosawa film about a samurai who is intent upon completing his duty (although that duty in many ways has already resulted in his death), relocated to Mexico City, with former American special forces types in the roles of the broken samurai. It revolves very heavily around questions of duty and honor and saving face--I could recast every character in this movie into feudal Japan, and change not a single one of their actions or lines of dialogue (except for cultural context and technology), and it would still make beautiful, singing, brutal sense.
Or possibly it's a Bruce Cockburn song. It may also be a Bruce Cockburn song.
It manages to deconstruct all the action movie subgenres I named above, and not fall into the trap of trying to follow the formulas of any of them. It's emotionally multivalenced and extraordinarily difficult to watch; the knights are all tarnished, the heroes all wounded. The protagonists are ruthless, relentless, and unflinching--but their ruthlessness is not heroism, which would be the easy Hollywood way to answer that question. Their ruthlessness is a sacrifice, and it costs them their humanity on many levels. And they do it for the Beowulf reason: somebody has to stand between the monster and the children.
And they know what the fate of warriors is.
The Man-from-UNCLE/I-Spy fan in me particularly adored the relationship between Christopher Walken's character and Denzel Washington's. It's the relationship between two old partners who are out of the game now, and both badly broken by it, and trying to cope. And they're still hand and glove, back to back, in civilian life as they were in service (and it's a movie about service; these are not ronin. They are samurai. There is no mistaking that.) even though the lives they've led have left them shattered.
There's an exchange very early on where Washington says to Walken, "Do you think God will forgive us for what we've done?"
And Walken tilts his head just so (extraordinary performance from both men: it's easy to forget what capable actors they are, as their roles so often do not support subtlety), and looks at Washington through his eyelashes, and says, "No."
There are stigmata, literally and figuratively, and the movie asks very hard questions. Because these are not warriors who expect to be forgiven--as demonstrated above--and yet they do the job anyway, because they feel it has to be done, and they accept responsibility for what they've done. Which is another thread running through the movie. The 'bad guys' keep insisting that they are professionals, that everything they do is a matter of business. The protagonists--Walken and Washington, the secondary protagonists of Giancarlo Giannini as a sharp-witted Interpol agent gone Federale and Rachel Ticotin as a fearless reforming newspaperwoman--are the true professionals. Even in their ruthlessness. Even unforgiven.
I am hard-pressed to find a movie to compare it with. It's not like Unforgiven, because the motivation of the protagonists in Man on Fire is as noble as it comes. It's simply their actions which are savage. It has touches of Tarantino-like focus on the lives of people who do bad, bad things--but Tarantino's tendency to play violence for cartoonishness and shock is not present. Rather, director Tony Scott's violence, while relentless, is actually somewhat underplayed; it is a fact of life for these people, life as they live it, but it's neither glamorized nor sanitized.
I could find ways to compare it to First Blood or Pale Rider, I think, but it doesn't make the attempts to be charming that Pale Rider does. It's as relentlessly honest as Washington's character, and it hurts to watch, and it's very, very good.
On a technical note, I found the directing and editing choices fascinating. Denzel Washington is often shown in extreme close-up, his body almost fragmented, dominating the screen with enormous hands, half a face, the arch of his chest and upper arms and chin and mouth. There are subtitles throughout many of the foreign-language sections of the film, and the sub-titles are used as a means to add a stylistic element that could become heavy-handed, but never quite does. The editing and camerawork are often intentionally jumpy or jittery, slightly disorienting, but never as heavy-handed as, say, Gladiator or Saving Private Ryan.
I'm not sure I'm going to be ready to watch this movie again any time soon. It's too powerful. But I will be thinking about it for a very long time.
Also. Dakota Fanning? Brilliant. How old is that kid, anyway? She's amazing.