Man on Fire

*** (A must-see)

Directed by Tony Scott

Written by Brian Helgeland, from a novel by A.J. Quinnell

With Denzel Washington, Dakota Fanning, Marc Anthony, Radha Mitchell, Christopher Walken, Giancarlo Giannini, and Mickey Rourke.

Back in the 80s, when Denzel Washington was trying to establish himself as a movie star, he was offered big money for a starring role that threatened to degrade his image, and for counsel he sought out Sidney Poitier, who had broken so many color barriers as an actor in the 50s and 60s. According to a 2002 story in Newsweek, Poitier told him, “Son, your first three or four films will dictate how you are viewed in your entire career. Choose wisely, follow your gut, and wait it out if you can.”

Washington has chosen wisely, and he hasn’t had to wait long. Since he first caught the public’s attention playing a young doctor on the TV drama St. Elsewhere, he’s tirelessly pursued Poitier’s mantle as the preeminent black leading man in Hollywood. Both actors tried to choose movies that would both enhance their status as black role models and allow them to cross over to a white audience. For Poitier these two goals severely limited the spectrum of his roles; the earnest liberalism of the films that made him a star (Lilies of the Field; A Patch of Blue; To Sir, With Love; In the Heat of the Night; Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?) seemed quaint in the wake of black power, and after his career began to wind down in the early 70s he took a decade-long hiatus from acting.

The same year Poitier went into semiretirement, Washington made his TV-movie debut, and from St. Elsewhere he quickly segued into meaty supporting roles in commercial features that showcased his theatrical training and meticulous preparation. He was a murderous army private in the black ensemble drama A Soldier’s Story (1984), a shrewd Capitol Hill lobbyist in Power (1986), the martyred South African activist Steve Biko in Cry Freedom (1987, his first Oscar nomination), and a slave turned Union soldier in the Civil War drama Glory (1989, his first Oscar win).

Since then Washington has consolidated these gains with a wide range of roles that show how far black actors have come since the days of A Raisin in the Sun. He nabbed two more Oscar nominations playing persecuted historical figures: civil-rights leader Malcolm X in Spike Lee’s epic (1992) and wrongfully imprisoned prizefighter Rubin “Hurricane” Carter in Norman Jewison’s The Hurricane (1999). Washington played decent, if flawed, professional men in such mainstream hits as Philadelphia (1993) and Courage Under Fire (1996). He demonstrated his appeal as a classic romantic lead in Mo’ Better Blues (1990), Mississippi Masala (1991), and The Preacher’s Wife (1996). In 2002 he won his second Oscar for his over-the-top performance as an irredeemably corrupt detective in Training Day, a role Poitier could never have gotten away with in his heyday.

Perhaps most significant, Washington established himself as a viable action star in thrillers like The Pelican Brief (1993), Crimson Tide (1995), The Siege (1998), and The Bone Collector (1999). Those last four raked in the bucks overseas, grossing a total of $313 million internationally, and even more than Oscar, that’s the prize Hollywood eyes. Washington’s latest action flick, the polished and somber Man on Fire, topped the domestic box office last weekend with a healthy take of $23 million, and if it connects overseas, it may push Washington into the ranks of international box office draws, an unprecedented achievement for a serious black actor.

Directed by Tony Scott, the movie casts Washington as John Creasy, an ex-CIA operative hiding out in crime-ridden Mexico City. Burned-out and tormented by memories of his past violence, he drinks heavily. A former comrade-in-arms (Christopher Walken) encourages him to take a gig as a bodyguard to nine-year-old Pita Ramos (Dakota Fanning), the daughter of a Mexican auto magnate (Marc Anthony) and his American wife (Radha Mitchell). Once he’s taken the job, Creasy tries to maintain focus, keeping his eyes on the road as he chauffeurs Pita to school and resisting her attempts at conversation, but eventually she wins him over and he lets down his guard. After she’s kidnapped, Creasy sobers up and reverts to his former trade as a relentless killing machine.

A.J. Quinnell’s novel has been adapted to the screen previously, and that 1987 version, starring Scott Glenn, stuck closer to the original narrative: Creasy was a white American bodyguard for hire in Italy, which at that time was rife with kidnappings. Stringent legislation has since reduced the problem there, but kidnappings have skyrocketed in Mexico, with high-profile abductions and enormous ransoms. With the signing of NAFTA and the huge influx of capital into the Mexican economy, the gap between the haves and have-nots has widened. In the movies, the country has begun to resemble the Wild West, a regulation-free trade zone where relocated industrial plants take the place of gold mines and where rampant violence and crooked authorities have elevated some people above the law. Man on Fire continues a trend that has emerged in such films as Traffic and Once Upon a Time in Mexico as well as TV shows like the NBC miniseries Kingpin.

But this new west is much browner than the old west, and so are its heroes. Early in the film, Pita asks her bodyguard, “Being black, is that a positive or a negative in Mexico?” For Creasy it’s irrelevant: once his new mission begins, his enemies run the gamut from low-level thugs to an expensively dressed American lawyer (Mickey Rourke) to double-dealing Mexican cops to elusive career criminals, and the only color any of them cares about is green. In this regard Washington operates with the same heroic (or antiheroic) agenda as alpha males like Clint Eastwood, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Harrison Ford, and Mel Gibson. Dogged by his own bloody past, Creasy fits right into the mold of the world-weary sheriff charged with the lonely task of cleaning up Dodge.

It’s worth noting that these white actors established their box office credentials with characters they repeated to the point of parody, while Washington has yet to make a sequel. But Man on Fire definitely draws on his established persona: a courageous man outside the system, morally conflicted but fundamentally noble, respectful of women and demanding the respect of others. From the earliest days of filmmaking Americans have exported idealized projections of themselves, and in that sense Washington has taken Poitier’s lessons to heart, becoming a symbol of integrity to the world. Now, as economic forces continue to erase our jealously guarded cultural borders, he’s become a sort of international cowboy, riding a range no longer dominated by Anglos.