The opening portrays a man being declared dead in an Italian hospital by a police chief. The man is an ex–CIA agent and mercenary, John Creasy.
In Italy, wealthy families often hire bodyguards to protect family members from the threat of kidnapping. A wealthy family that needs a bodyguard hires Creasy, a burned-out ex-CIA agent, to protect their daughter, Samantha "Sam" Balletto. Creasy has been broken down from all of the death and horror of combat he witnessed in the Vietnam War and in Beirut, Lebanon. Although Creasy is not interested in being a bodyguard, especially to a twelve-year-old youngster, he accepts the assignment because he has no better job offers.
Creasy barely tolerates the precocious child and her pestering questions about him and his life. But slowly, she chips away at his seemingly impenetrable exterior, his defenses drop, and he opens up to her. They become friends and he replaces her parents in their absences, giving her advice, guidance, and help with track. Creasy's life is shattered when Sam is kidnapped by the mafia. Despite being seriously wounded during the kidnapping, Creasy halts his recovery to get weapons from his former partner, David (Joe Pesci). Creasy vows Sam's safe return, as well as vengeance on the kidnappers.Scott Glenn as former CIA agent John Creasy, a man from Northern California who becomes a bodyguard
Joe Pesci as David, Creasy's friend, former partner and confidante who lives in Italy and who supplies him with weapons to fight the mafia with.
Danny Aiello as Conti, leader of the mafia; Conti is half-American, half-Italian.
Jade Malle as Samantha "Sam" Balletto, who had previously attended a school in Greenwich Village, New York City.
Jonathan Pryce as Michael
Brooke Adams as Jane Balletto, Samantha's mother and Ettore's wife.
Paul Shenar as Ettore Balletto
Giancarlo Prete as Detective Satta
Lorenzo Piani as Bruno Lezzi (servant)
Inigo Lezzi as Bellu
Franco Trevisi as Rabbia (mafia figure)
Alessandro Haber as Sandri (mafia figure)
Laura Morante as Julia
Lou Castel as Violente
Tony Scott was originally slated to direct, but, the studio balked because at the time they felt he was not accomplished enough to pull off the project. He would go on to direct the remake 2004 version with Denzel Washington as Creasy.
Producer Arnon Milchan wanted Sergio Leone to direct Robert De Niro, while Tony Scott wanted either Marlon Brando or Robert Duvall as his leading man when he was slated to direct. The screenplay underwent several revisions.
The film was screened at the 13th Deauville American Film Festival in Deauville, France. It was one of 40 films screened during the festival. The 13th Deauville film festival ran from 4 September to 14 September 1987.
The film was released in 1987 on VHS. It had originally been released on DVD overseas, but not in the United States, save for bootlegs. However, on November 15, 2016, Kino Lorber released the first official Blu-ray Disc and DVD.
Leonard Klady of the Los Angeles Times said that the film's script "limps along as badly as its protagonist" and that the film "is simply cold-comfort movie-going." Michael Spies of the Houston Chronicle said that the film "not only lacks emotion, it lacks wit and cool. It just has lots of atmosphere." Caryn James of The New York Times said that the film "always seems about to slip into unconsciousness." Lloyd Sachs of the Chicago Sun-Times said "Unfortunately, when it's required to make sense, "Man on Fire" doesn't. Which is too bad, because Glenn's strong physical and emotional presence deserves better. All things considered, it's one of the best things he's done." Eleanor Ringel of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution said that the film "burns itself out well before it's done" even though Scott Glenn "manages to strike a few sparks along the way." John H. Richardson of the Los Angeles Daily News said that Man on Fire, "a pretentious revenge picture." He argued that since the film is "basically just another Death Wish, [...] directed with the crawling elegiac pace and visual luxury of a big-budget European art film", it demonstrates "the worst of both worlds." Desmond Ryan of The Philadelphia Inquirer, who gave the film two stars, said "Man on Fire is an extremely empty film" and "For all the movie's handsome gloss, I doubt if we are missing much."
Bill Kaufman of Newsday said that the film was "suspenseful, with some exciting moments despite the choppy direction." Kaufman argued that the film "plods along for its first half-hour or so, dwelling too long" on the relationship between Creasy and Pita, but "things pick up, and the movie's tempo changes dramatically" when Pita's kidnapping occurs, and "only then does the picture come into its own as a suspense film with some taut moments." Kaufman said that people who like action films would find Man on Fire entertaining.
According to the Times of Malta obituary of A. J. Quinnell, he and the cinema-going public were not satisfied with the film. Quinnell said that the film "was so bad it became a cult movie in a European country. The director had never read the book and when I travelled to Paris to see the finished product I couldn't recognise anything I wrote." Quinnell was much happier with the 2004 version of film, which was a major box office success. Sachs said that he consulted a young expert of A.J. Quinnell books about the film, and that the individual said "About all they kept was the title. What garbage!" except that the individual did not use the word "garbage."
Ringel said that the film "is actually two movies rather clumsily stitched together"; he believed the first part was "a likable character study" that was the superior portion of the film while the remainder was "a routine vigilante flick" that had the "most distracting production design". Ringel added that "Man on Fire" is part artsy European, part shoot-'em-up American, and the parts are so self-consciously constructed that they refuse to have anything to do with one another." The Lexington Herald-Leader said that the film "veers erratically between existential meditation and conventional vengeance drama."
Eleanor Ringel of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution says that Creasy "introduces himself to us in a Sunset Boulevard–style opening."
Desmond Ryan of The Philadelphia Inquirer said that the director "has invested a great deal of care in making Man on Fire visually interesting". John H. Richardson of the Los Angeles Daily News said "One thing you have to say for "Man on Fire": If they gave an Oscar for best location scouting, this film should win it. From a palazzo on Lake Como to a huge sun-lit industrial loft to a cavernous underground boat dock, this film has some of the best-looking backgrounds of the year." Caryn James of The New York Times said that the film "is so full of rain it looks like monsoon season on Lake Como, but that makes as much sense as anything else the director and co-writer Elie Chouraqui has imagined." Ryan said that "[t]he settings and camera-work owe much to Ridley Scott and his disciples, but Chouraqui has forgotten that what you hear matters as much as what you see." Ryan added that "[t]he connections from scene to scene are always arbitrary and occasionally incomprehensible, giving Man on Fire the feel of a movie that was drastically edited".
Eleanor Ringel of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution said that the director "obviously has an excellent eye for actors but no idea how to use them once he's cast them." Ringel said that the characters Jane Balletto and Michael, played respectively by Brooke Adams and Jonathan Pryce, each are in two scenes and have about four lines of dialog. Michael Spies of the Houston Chronicle said "As often happens in these international productions, actors make hello-goodbye appearances, including Brooke Adams, who has perhaps one line as the girl's mother, and Jonathan Pryce, who has maybe a couple more as a representative of the family business." James said "Blink a few times and you'll miss Brooke Adams as Sam's mother, and Danny Aiello as the American ringleader of the Italian terrorists." Sachs said that Adams and Pryce, who were two of the production's top-billed actors, "have approximately five lines between them", and that is "[a] sure giveaway" that the production "has not enjoyed a trouble-free transition." Ryan speculated that the movie may have been severely edited and "what Pryce and his likewise-underutilized co-stars contributed ended up on the cutting-room floor."
Sachs said that Aiello, as Conti, "sounds Italian when he's demanding dough and American when he's begging for his life." In the entire film, Conti has one scene where he speaks. Kaufman said that Aiello, as Conti, "is suitably sinister". Mi Samantha compares Creasy and herself to the main characters of Of Mice and Men, George Milton and Lenny Small. In regards to Samantha, James stated that "this literary child breaks through Creasy's tough-guy defenses." Sachs said that Samantha "a survivor in her own right - of a troubled marriage, having no friends, etc." but that she is "too smart and adorable to resist." Richardson said "[t]hey talk about the works of John Steinbeck and the fine points of jogging, and before you can say "Lolita", the pair are involved in a kind of romance." Kaufman said that Malle portrays Sam "with appealing, moppet-like charm".
Ryan said "How - or why - anyone would recruit an actor of the caliber of [Pryce] and then give him just a few lines on the telephone is anyone's guess."
Richardson said that Adams's role is a "cameo."
Bill Kaufman of Newsday said that the "sullen and taciturn" Creasy appears "a bit shaggy" and "doesn't seem much like a tough guy." John H. Richardson of the Los Angeles Daily News said that in the beginning of the film, Creasy is "a morbid guy" who has an appearance "like a thinner Chuck Norris, but he has these huge bags under his eyes and a twitch in his cheek, and he tends to stare off into the distance with the cosmic gloom of someone who has Seen the Darkness in the Human Soul." Kaufman added that the actor, as Creasy, "is a bit reminiscent of Chuck Norris." Eleanor Ringel of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution said that the actor as Creasy, "with his scruffy beard and melancholy eyes", "calls to mind Max von Sydow as Christ in "The Greatest Story Ever Told."
Caryn James of The New York Times said that compared to other films he starred in, Scott "has less presence than usual here." Ringel concluded that "[e]xcellent actor that he is, he lends power and authority to this disjointed work, but even he can't pull together a script that's heading off in opposite directions. After a while, you figure he took the part because the idea of a paid vacation in Italy was too appealing to pass up." Desmond Ryan of The Philadelphia Inquirer said that while "Glenn is quite capable of livening up humbler movie genres [...] the muddle of pretension and largely incoherent action here is beyond his redemptive powers" and "[a]t least Glenn has been asked to do something, which is more than can be claimed by anyone else in the cast." Kaufman said that Glenn "turns in a creditable performance as the driven man."