In 2003, burnt-out ex-CIA (SAD/SOG) Paramilitary operations officer and former U.S. Marine Corps Force Reconnaissance officer John Creasy (Denzel Washington) visits his old comrade Paul Rayburn (Christopher Walken), who runs a security firm in Mexico. Because of the extremely high rate of kidnappings in Mexico City for ransoms, wealthy businessman Samuel Ramos (Marc Anthony) hires Creasy through Rayburn to guard his nine-year-old daughter "Pita" (Dakota Fanning). However, Samuel is having financial problems and intends to keep Creasy on only long enough to satisfy the requirements to renew his kidnap and ransom insurance on Pita.
Drinking heavily, Creasy attempts suicide with his pistol, but the cartridge fails to fire when he pulls the trigger. He calls Rayburn, who says that "a bullet always tells the truth." At first, Creasy distances himself from Pita, but soon becomes a surrogate father to the girl, allowing him to stop drinking and find purpose in life.
One day, as Creasy waits to escort Pita from a piano lesson, a group of gunmen try to kidnap her. Creasy kills four of the kidnappers, including two corrupt policemen, in a shoot out, but he is shot multiple times and collapses from his wounds, and the abductors escape with Pita. Creasy is hospitalized, but is moved to a veterinary hospital by Miguel Manzano (Giancarlo Giannini), a senior agent of the Agencia Federal de Investigación (AFI), who suspects Creasy will be killed by rogue police.
Meanwhile, the Ramoses agree to deliver a dead drop ransom of US$10 million per the instructions of "La Voz" ("The Voice") (Roberto Sosa), head of the kidnapping ring. Samuel's attorney Jordan Kalfus (Mickey Rourke) and police lieutenant Victor Fuentes (Jesús Ochoa) arrange for the ransom to be collected from Samuel's kidnapping insurance policy, then delivered to the kidnappers. The drop, however, is ambushed by members of "La Hermandad", a powerful crime syndicate composed of corrupt police officers, who steal the money and kill The Voice's nephew in the process. The Voice notifies the Ramoses that in retribution for this, Pita will now be lost to them forever.
Creasy leaves the hospital before fully recovering, swearing to Pita's mother Lisa (Radha Mitchell) that he will kill everyone involved in her daughter's abduction. Rayburn helps Creasy purchase black market firearms, a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, and explosives. Mariana Guerrero (Rachel Ticotin), a journalist investigating kidnappings, and Manzano also offer their support.
Creasy tracks down low-level operatives involved in various stages of the kidnapping, torturing each for information about other operatives, then killing them in brutal ways, eventually learning from Fuentes, who is revealed to be the "president" of "La Hermandad", that the bags they stole at the ransom drop contained only $2.5 million of actual currency while the rest was blank paper.
Creasy finds Kalfus murdered, and evidence of questionable financial dealings with Samuel. He confronts Samuel and Lisa for the truth behind the kidnapping. Samuel confesses to Creasy and Lisa that he agreed to Kalfus' plan to stage Pita's kidnapping, so he could pay off business debts he inherited from his father, keeping $5 million of the ransom for himself and splitting the rest between Kalfus and the kidnappers. He was told by Kalfus that Pita would be returned after the ransom was paid, but Fuentes, who had been promised a cut of the money by Kalfus, became greedy and betrayed him and Samuel in an attempt to take the entire ransom for himself. Samuel held Kalfus responsible for the botched drop and confesses to killing him after learning that Kalfus had known all along about Fuentes' corruption. Creasy then leaves Samuel with a pistol and the misfired round, which works for Samuel when he commits suicide.
Using the information provided by Creasy, The Voice's identity is revealed by Manzano to be Daniel Sánchez, who Mariana exposes on the front page of her newspaper. Creasy sneaks into the home of Sánchez's ex-wife and children, and is shot by his brother Aurelio (Gero Camilo), whom Creasy then captures. Creasy calls Daniel Sánchez and threatens to kill all of his family unless he gives himself up, but Sánchez reveals that Pita is still alive, and offers her in exchange for Aurelio and Creasy. Creasy and Pita share a tearful goodbye before he surrenders himself to Sánchez' men, as Pita is released into her mother's arms. Creasy dies peacefully from his gunshot injuries. Daniel Sánchez is later killed by Manzano during an AFI arrest raid.Denzel Washington as John W. Creasy, mercenary, former CIA operative and Force Recon Marine officer
Dakota Fanning as Guadalupe "Lupita" Martin Ramos, "Pita"
Radha Mitchell as Lisa Martin Ramos. Lisa originates from Houston, Texas. Eric Harrison of the Houston Chronicle described Lisa as an "American trophy wife with a Southern accent that seems to come and go."
Marc Anthony as Samuel Ramos
Christopher Walken as Paul Rayburn, who runs a security firm in Mexico
Giancarlo Giannini as Miguel Manzano, director of the AFI. Tony Scott stated "Giancarlo loves women, as did this character."
Rachel Ticotin as Mariana Garcia Guerrero, a reporter for the Diario Reforma
Jesús Ochoa as Victor Fuentes
Mickey Rourke as Jordan Kalfus, Samuel Ramos' lawyer. Kalfus and Samuel Ramos's father were best friends, and therefore Kalfus has a close relationship with Samuel. Mickey Rourke stated that Kalfus has "a responsibility to his father, to him, to look out for his well-being." Therefore, Kalfus "[wants] to be there for him" when Ramos "gets his head underwater a little bit".
Angelina Peláez as Sister Anna
Roberto Sosa as Daniel Rosas Sánchez, "The Voice". He is based on a real kidnapper, Daniel Arizmendi López.
Gero Camilo as Aurelio Sánchez. Based on Aurelio Arizmendi López, the brother of Daniel Arizmendi López.
Mario Zaragoza as Jorge Ramirez
Tony Scott, the director, tried to have a version of the film made in 1983, but since it would have been his second after The Hunger, Paul Davies, a journal article author, theorized that movie producers would have believed that Scott lacked the experience to direct it. At the time Italy was still a major center of kidnapping in the world. A version was made in 1987 with Scott Glenn. Michael Bay and Antoine Fuqua were considered to direct the remake until Arnon Milchan, the producer of the 1987 film, asked Scott if he was still interested in producing a version of Man on Fire, as Milchan still owned the rights to the series.
20th Century Fox wanted the film to be set in Italy. An early draft of the script was set in Naples. Scott argued that if the setting would be Italy, then the film would have to be a period piece, since by the 2000s kidnappings became a rare occurrence in Italy. Mexico City became the setting of the 2004 film because Mexico City had a high kidnapping rate, and due to other reasons. As a result, the character Rika Balletto was renamed Lisa Martin Ramos, and Pinta Balletto was renamed Lupita "Pita" Ramos. Ettore Balletto became Samuel Ramos. Robert De Niro was originally offered the role of Creasy. Prior to his death, Marlon Brando was the original choice to play Rayburn.
Man On Fire opened in the U.S. on April 23, 2004 in 2,980 theaters and grossed $22,751,490 with an average of $7,634 and ranking #1 at the box office. The films widest release was 2,986 theaters and it ended up earning $77,911,774 in North America and $52,381,940 internationally for a total of $130,293,714 worldwide, above its $70 million production budget. The film was successful in the U.S. home video market, grossing more than $123 million in DVD and VHS rentals and sales in U.S.
The film received mixed reviews from critics and has a rating of 39% on Rotten Tomatoes based on 161 reviews with an average rating of 5.2 out of 10. The consensus states "Man on Fire starts out well, but goes over the top in the violent second half." The film also has a score of 47 out of 100 on Metacritic based on 36 reviews.
Paul Davies, a journal article author, said that the critical reception to Man on Fire in the United States was "somewhat less than kind" because critics did not like the vigilantism that Creasy uses. Davies argues that "most critics missed" Creasy not taking "sadistic pleasure" in the killings since he kills to get information to get to all of the people involved in the kidnapping of Pita Ramos, and does not like harming innocent parties.
A. J. Quinnell had a favorable reception to this adaptation, mainly because the film used many of the book's lines. Quinnell said that usually screenwriters "like to leave their mark on the product." Quinnell added that even though he usually dislikes film adaptations of books, the writers "did a good job with Man On Fire and I loved the chemistry between Creasy and the girl" and "When I first heard Denzel was playing the part of Creasy I missed a couple of heartbeats but he played the part brilliantly. The film is violent and if the anger is not portrayed properly, the result can be awful." Kevin Freese of the Foreign Military Studies Office stated that "it appears that the allusion" of the fictional Sánchez brothers with the real Arizmendi brothers "escaped the comprehension of much of the audience."
In 2005, a Hindi remake of the film by director Apoorva Lakhia, called Ek Ajnabee, was released. It starred Amitabh Bachchan as John W. Creasy (renamed Suryaveer "Surya" Singh).
The cut "Smiling", from the soundtrack composed by Harry Gregson-Williams, has been adopted as the theme of a number of television commercials for Omega Watches in 2012 to 2013. The Soundtrack contains 20 tracks, was composed by Harry Gregson-Williams, and was released on July 27, 2004.