In November, I’m speaking at the National Outreach Convention in San Diego. The topic I’m covering is the intersection of faith and film. The movie I’ll be focusing on is “Man on Fire.” Turn back if you don’t want the end spoiled, but here is something I’ve written about it before and a video clip of the final scene which to me is a powerful reflection of the Christ story.
In Man on Fire, 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.
But because this is at the core a revenge film, Pita is kidnapped. Creasy is shot multiple times and doctors say 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 memories of Pita laughing and playing. He leaves the hospital and decides to track down the killers.
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 still 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.
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 covered 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 affection 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 of the kidnapper 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 more time as he heals one of the Roman guard’s ears. And yet he denies it. He surrenders to his captors. 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. 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 of my own design. 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.