Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Cult Classics Revisited: MAN ON FIRE (1987)

(France/Italy - 1987)

Directed by Elie Chouraqui.  Written by Elie Chouraqui and Sergio Donati.  Cast: Scott Glenn, Brooke Adams, Danny Aiello, Joe Pesci, Paul Shenar, Jonathan Pryce, Jade Malle, Laura Morante, Lou Castel, Giancarlo Prati, Alessandro Haber, Franco Trevisi, Piero Vida (R, 92 mins).

A.J. Quinnell's 1980 novel Man on Fire was adapted into a big-budget Denzel Washington-Tony Scott collaboration in 2004, but there was another version prior to that.  The 1987, European-made MAN ON FIRE was picked up for US distribution by Tri-Star, but they didn't do much with it, only releasing it in a handful of theaters where it grossed about $500,000 before instantly falling into obscurity.  It took two years to surface on US home video, uncommonly long even by 1980s standards, and has never been issued on DVD in the US.  These days, it's mainly stumbled upon by insomniacs during occasional 4:30 am HBO airings.  But it has acquired a bit of cult following, probably due to its interesting cast, and some consider it superior to the 2004 remake.  While the newer version has its problems, mainly Scott's hyperactive, crazed directing techniques, MAN ON FIRE '87 really isn't very good, and is hardly a neglected classic patiently awaiting discovery.

Creasy (Scott Glenn) is a burned out ex-CIA agent still haunted by memories of Vietnam and his government activities in Beirut.  His Italy-based CIA buddy David (Joe Pesci) gets Creasy a job as a bodyguard for 12-year-old Samantha (Jade Malle), the daughter of a rich Italian couple (Paul Shenar, Brooke Adams), concerned about the rash of Mafia-related kidnappings and extortions.  Initially reluctant and unenthused about spending all of his time with a little kid, Creasy eventually warms up to Sam, and the two become inseparable friends.  Sam accompanies Creasy to another CIA buddy's wedding and on the way home, they're carjacked, Creasy is shot, and Sam is kidnapped.  And of course, when the law can't help him, Creasy becomes a one-man vigilante wrecking crew, going after the gang and their leader, Conti (Danny Aiello).

The relationship between Creasy and Sam goes from zero to unconditional love so quickly that it never feels plausible, and sometimes, it feels downright creepy. But the biggest problem with MAN ON FIRE is that it's a genre thriller directed by an arthouse guy (French filmmaker Elie Chouraqui) who thinks he's making a serious film.  This kind of plot needs a no-holds-barred Italian action madman like an Enzo G. Castellari or a Fernando Di Leo to get the job done.  Guys like Franco Nero, Fabio Testi, and Maurizio Merli made tons of movies like this in Italy in the 1970s, and while he's a fine actor, Glenn is miscast, playing Creasy as a mopey, introverted sad sack.  It also doesn't help that the film is plodding, muddled, and hopelessly confusing, and clearly the victim of merciless post-production hacking. Creasy demonstrates perfect mimicry of Sam's voice at one point, explaining that it's a special talent, but it never comes into play. And where are this girl's parents?  Why do they let her go to a wedding reception as a date for her mysterious loner bodyguard?  Shenar and Adams have almost nothing to do and completely disappear from the film, as does Jonathan Pryce, wasted in a completely frivolous role as Shenar's lawyer.  Apparently, an entire subplot about Adams and Pryce having an affair was cut (Sam mentions it in passing to Creasy), which probably constituted most of their work on the film.  As it is in the released version, Pryce has three brief scenes and could've been completely cut with no effect on the film at all.  Aiello doesn't even appear until halfway through and has just a couple of scenes.  Of the big-name supporting cast, Pesci, fresh off the short-lived TV series HALF-NELSON and a few years before the career resurgence that began with his scene-stealing supporting turn in LETHAL WEAPON 2, gets the most screen time, giving us a preview of things to come with what appears to be a largely ad-libbed performance filled with F-bombs, outbursts, and one inexplicable, jawdroppingly insane rendition of "Johnny B. Goode."

Chouraqui does finally get things rolling for a while once Creasy starts tracking down the kidnappers (among them Eurocult vets Lou Castel, Franco Trevisi, and Piero Vida) and blowing them away.  But time and again, the director shows that he's just out of his element in trying to do an action thriller.  The climax is confusingly shot and over before you realize what's happened.  Interestingly, 17 years before helming the remake, Tony Scott was initially approached about directing, probably before TOP GUN exploded, but the producers opted to go with Chouraqui, who was coming a hit on the arthouse circuit with 1986's LOVE SONGS.  MAN ON FIRE is worth one watch for the curious (and for devotees of Joe Pesci flying off the handle), but it spite of its small cult following, it's an almost total misfire, and it's easy to see why Tri-Star had no idea what to do with it.  An assembling of a director's cut might show there's a case for re-evaluation, but at this point, 25 years later, I doubt anyone involved cares enough to put forth the effort.

Joe Pesci's hilarious, inexplicable meltdown from 4:22-5:20 in this clip


  1. Great review! Really enjoyed Man On Fire too. Scott Glenn put in a solid performance.

    Also excellent site you have here. Happy i found it...just started following you via blogger\google.