I had an easier time connecting with God in the movie, “Man on Fire” than I did in “The Passion of the Christ.” That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. I mean the Mel Gibson movie made roughly 786 gazillion dollars and was loved by Christians the world over. Man on Fire is a bloody revenge film with very little God. How can I write that first sentence?
I think that the God element in Man on Fire was a strong undercurrent that caught me off guard. It surprised me and engaged me in an unexpected way. I enjoyed the Passion of the Christ. I thought it was good. But I went in expecting God and faith and Christianity. So when it appeared I was ready for it. And in communication, one of the ways to grab someone is to show instead of tell. Instead of saying, “this character is cool” in a movie, you show the audience tangible ways that exhibit how the character is cool. That way, the audience gets to write their own story instead of just digesting your story. Man on Fire showed me God’s love, the Passion of the Christ told me God’s love. But that still doesn’t really justify thinking Man on Fire is a better picture of Christ than the Passion of the Christ. So let me explain a little, but please know I am about to ruin the end of Man on Fire.
In the film, Denzel Washington plays the role of Creasy, an alcoholic black ops military man in Mexico City serving as a bodyguard for a little girl named Pita. Pita is a blonde sprite of a seven-year-old played by the ubiquitous Dakota Fanning. Throughout the first half of the film we watch as Creasy hits rock bottom, only to find a new reason to live in Pita. Along the way, we see him spend increasing amounts of time in the Bible.
But because this at the core a revenge film, Pita is kidnapped after a piano lesson. Creasy is shot multiple times and the doctors say that without a month of rest, he will die. While Creasy is trapped in bed, Pita is executed by the kidnappers. He is devastated, his world collapsing in scenes of Pita laughing and playing. He leaves the hospital and decides to track down the killers.
In a hinge scene the young mother of Pita asks Creasy what he is going to do. His response is simple, “What I do best, I’m going to kill em. Anyone that was involved, anyone that profited from it, anyone that opens their eyes at me.” This statement serves as the doorway to a veritable house of pain and suffering. The violence is shocking in both its graphicness and its creativity.
At this point, my initial idea that I saw the love of Christ in this movie seems impossible. We do not serve a God that would torture a man with a cigarette lighter or plant a plastic explosive inside another kidnapper. Our God is not cruel. I think that’s worthy of argument though, at least from an Old Testament point of view. Would the Egyptian mothers that woke to find their first born children dead in their beds agree that God can not be cruel? Would the residents of Sodom, with flesh ripped apart by sulfur falling from the sky agree that God is not violent? I’m not saying these things were not justified. I just think that maybe we make too light of the fury and might of God.
After cutting a swath of death through Mexico City, Creasy finds the pregnant wife and brother of the villain, simply referred to as “The Voice.” The Voice asks him on the phone, “How much do you want?” Creasy responds by saying “Your brother wants to speak to you, hold on” at which point he shoots off all the fingers of the brother’s hand with a shotgun. “I’m going to take your family apart piece by piece. You understand me? Piece by piece. I don’t want your money. You understand me? I want you!” It’s numbing really, the brother tied up to a pole with a bloody stump of a hand, the pregnant wife wailing. But that’s when grace first makes an appearance. The Voice calls back and says “I will give you a life for a life. I will give you her life for your life.”
The camera spins on a confused Creasy as he struggles with the idea that Pita is alive. Suddenly the violence, the rage, the wrath of Creasy sinks out of his face. In the final scene, Creasy, Pita’s mother and the kidnapper’s brother drive to an abandoned bridge in the middle of the Mexican countryside. With a bullet ridden body and a weariness that is almost three dimensional, Creasy walks up the bridge. When the kidnappers see him waiting there, they pull a hooded Pita out of the car. They remove her dirty blindfold and with eyes not accustomed to light, she squints toward the bridge. With the sound of a child witnessing an unlocked gate in hell, she screams “Creasy” and runs to the bridge. Creasy, unable to run from all the pain, waits. She jumps into his arms, and with hands dotted with blood and scars he cradles her. This is what follows:
Creasy: “Are you alright? They didn’t hurt you?”
Pita: Shakes her head no.
Creasy: Laughing and smiling in relief, “Hi.” More laughter. “Alright your mother is waiting for you; she’s right down at the end of the bridge. OK, you go home.”
Pita: “OK. Where are you going?”
Creasy: “I’m going home too.”
Pita runs to the arms of her mother. A red laser scope lands on Creasy’s heart, which he covers with a hand that is dotted in scars. He throws up his hands and walks slowly to the kidnappers. He stumbles to his knees as they drag him into a car. Pita cries watching Creasy surrender to certain death. Creasy closes his eyes in the car and dies.
I missed it the first ten times I saw the movie. Missed that I’m Pita. I’ve lived most of my life under the stairs in a dark, dirty cage. But unlike Pita, this is the place I deserve. For although she did not ask to be kidnapped or receive this experience as a consequence of her actions, I did. If this were the story of my life, justice would have already been served. The prisoner’s life is the life I deserve. But God is like Creasy. In Isaiah 30:18 it says “he rises to show you compassion.”
The new life that Creasy finds when he meets Pita is but a glimpse at how God delights in us. And it is this love, this adoration that drives him to rescue us. But is he violent? Is there anything he wouldn’t do to rescue me and rescue you? I don’t think so. To the violence question we need only look to verses like Numbers 24:8 in which the Israelites, God’s people, are said to “devour hostile nations and break their bones in pieces.” That was describing work and battles that the Lord had blessed.
Is that any less graphic than anything that happens in “Man on Fire?” God’s love has no limits. If violence is what it would take to rescue me, I have little doubt that he would be violent. That he would remove an entire planet in a flood to save the righteous family of Noah. And even though he is blessed with the ability to open the core of the earth with his fury, it is love and ultimate surrender that shows us the true depth of his heart. In the movie, Creasy could have easily continued killing the kidnapper’s family. The brother could have been tortured, the pregnant wife and unborn child murdered. But it wasn’t about revenge, it was about rescue. And when Pita was discovered to be alive, he stopped everything. He surrendered and walked willingly into a certain death.
In his last moments, before the cross, the undeniable power of Christ is revealed one mor
e time as he heals one of the Roman guard’s ears. And yet he denies it. He surrenders. That’s how I felt about the last scene in Man on Fire. Creasy had just blown off all the fingers of the brother. He had the pregnant wife and a shotgun and a mouth full of loud, angry words. But the second he knew Pita was alive, he surrendered.
I’ve written about it before because the scene really shook me. It made me realize, this is the Christ I serve. Powerful, fearful, able to heal the sick and blind, capable of walking on water itself. But willing to give it all up upon realizing I am found. Willing to pay the ransom with his own life. Willing to free me from a prison I created. And whether he’s crucified on a cross or forced to walk across a bridge in Mexico, he’s willing to do it all over again for me. And for you.
p.s. I liked Passion. I thought it was a well done movie. The most powerful scene to me was when Gibson showed the boy Jesus and the man Jesus stumble to the ground. My one criticism is that it felt really full. I like movies that leave me room to climb in and Passion felt bursting at the seams so it was hard for me to engage with it in some scenes.