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Taking care of Denzel Washington

'Man on Fire' star had more to focus on than acting

By Andy Culpepper

• 'Man on Fire' blazes box office trail
Mexico City (Mexico)
Denzel Washington
Tony Scott

LOS ANGELES, California (CNN) -- An easy affability surrounds Denzel Washington, from the firmness of a handshake offered in greeting to the warmth of a follow-up smile. This is a man who likes what he does and who enjoys talking about it with a reporter.

Washington's amiable self-assured demeanor at a recent publicity gathering stands in stark contrast to the man he plays in his latest film, director Tony Scott's fast-paced, often violent drama, "Man On Fire," which debuted at the top of the weekend box office.

His character John Creasy is a down-on-his-luck, burned-out former government operative who takes a job in crime-plagued Mexico City as the bodyguard of a wealthy couple's only daughter, played by Dakota Fanning.

Creasy and a schoolgirl do not make for an easy fit. The one-time Marine wavers between suicide and a bottle. Attempts at friendship by his 9-year-old charge are initially brushed aside. Eventually, the girl breaks through his tough exterior, and he discovers, to his surprise, a paternal nature -- an ability to feel something for the first time in a long time.

"It's a complicated film," says the star. "He's a lost soul. I think he's a very spiritual man who's reaching for help, you know, but he reads a verse of the Bible one day and then sips off the cup the next day."

"He's looking for a balm in Gilead, and he finds it in this 9-year-old girl. Who would have thunk, you know? Sometimes your blessings come in small packages and ways, you know. It's a job he didn't even want."

Handling violence

Some critics -- including CNN's Paul Clinton -- are suggesting "Man On Fire" is two films in one: the first is a character study of a tortured man, while the second is a story about retribution and revenge.

That the second half of the film is violent is undeniable -- so much so, at least one critic has questioned whether an R rating is a strong enough warning for the bloodshed in "Man On Fire."

One scene in particular stands out. Creasy has taped a kidnapping conspirator's hands to a steering wheel with the unfortunate fellow's fingers sticking up within easy reach of a knife. For each unanswered question Creasy poses to his prey, Creasy cuts off a finger. It's grisly business, and the camera captures all of it.

In "Man on Fire," Washington plays a former government operative who's at the end of his rope when he takes a job as security for a young girl.

"I was amazed," says Washington. "It was more violent in the earlier cut."

"The women in the test screening -- that was one of their favorite scenes," he continues. "I don't know if it's a mother's instinct or protective instinct or whatever the word is for it. They wanted more. I was like 'wow.' The men seemed to be more squeamish about that scene than the women. That was interesting."

Washington and the cast and crew had more than on-screen violence to worry about. There was the constant threat of trouble off screen, not unlike what is depicted in the script.

Director Scott toyed with several locations -- including Italy and Brazil -- but in the end, it was Mexico City which won out, partly because of the reality the setting lent the story. Mexico has struggled with kidnappings in recent years, some of them high-profile abductions of the wealthy.

Stringent security precautions became part and parcel of the "Man On Fire" shooting schedule.

"Yeah, we all had bodyguards," actress Radha Mitchell remembers. "When I first got there, I was like, 'Why? Why do we have all these bodyguards?' It seemed odd. I mean, that's kind of what the movie's about."

Surrounded by security

Man on Fire
Washington's warm relationship with the girl (played by Dakota Fanning) makes the violence of the film's second half all the more shocking, say some critics.

It wasn't long before she understood the reasons for what seemed like extreme safety measures.

"I went out of town one weekend," Mitchell adds. "And when I can back, my driver -- his car had been stolen, and he had been held at gunpoint.

"Then I found out that Tony had been held at gunpoint while he was location scouting. And that one of the accountants had been held at gunpoint, and she wouldn't give up her watch. She held on to it," she recalls. "It was very real."

Consequently, Washington, the film's above-the-title star, had more than typical star treatment.

"Armored vehicle, four guys in the car behind me, two guys in the car with me, and I think one or two usually ahead of me," Washington says of his travel detail. "There were usually about six to eight guys with me all the time."

"I got used to the car swinging in front. It was really good, because it was all part of the movie for me, you know."

If Washington was forced into Method acting by the experience, he insists his constant companions didn't keep him from enjoying himself when he wasn't working.

"I never felt in danger," he maintains. "I did sneak out and leave them, more than they knew."

And then he smiles. "Or maybe they knew -- maybe they were following me all along."

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