Who's the Better Action Hero? Man on Fire’s Creasy or Taken’s Mills?
By Bradford William Davis
If you absolutely had to be kidnapped by gangs enmeshed in the highest levels of foreign intrigue, then having Denzel Washington or Liam Neeson attempt your rescue is as good a head-start as you’ll get. In fact, you’re already saved. That’s good news. (Aside from the abduction. That’s still bad news.)
You already know how these stories, Man on Fire and Taken, go: Gravelly, retired military operatives lose their charges, but retrieve them from foreign forces with disturbing competence, and exquisitely cinematic flourishes. Both Washington’s John Creasy and Neeson’s Bryan Mills are skilled, perhaps preternaturally so, at hand to hand combat and weaponry. Each movie is equal parts gruesome and stylish; both are worthy entries to the genre flick canon.
However, given the thematic similarities between the two films, and the razor-thin difference between each man’s appreciable talents, why not qualify who better to save your life, were you transplanted into their stories.... Just in case.
(This is purely a thought-exercise and one that readers should absolutely not try and actualize at home. Just stream the movies.)
True assassins shouldn’t need to promote themselves because their squads do it for them. Bryan Mills could use some PR. Or some better friends.
Early on in the film, one of Mills’ old CIA buddies sarcastically ribs him with the moniker, “Mr. Attention to Detail.” In context, it’s a subtle foreshadowing of the surgical precision with which he tracks and then kills a whole mess of people. But for our purposes, it’s a criminal reduction of Mills’ ability to commit crimes in pursuit of a singular goal. Where’s the enthusiasm? Where’s the reverence?
On the other hand, Creasy’s partner-in-covert global escapades, Paul Rayburn (Christopher Walken) knows exactly how to sell his man. Rayburn is prophetic, profound and poignant all at once when he speaks of the creativity a pissed-off Denzel Washington will draw from.
“A man can be an artist... in anything, food, whatever. It depends on how good he is at it. Creasy's art is death,” says Rayburn, piercingly. “He's about to paint his masterpiece.”
Winner: Creasy by a mile.
Like, is he cool? Would you grab your beverage of choice with him? Without a bullet or a closed fist, Mills is something of a wet blanket — hence his more well-adjusted CIA friends roasting his wet-blanket tendencies over drinks. His stern supervision of his teenage daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace), drove everyone over the edge and explains why his relationship with his ex-wife is still dicey.
Let’s be fair to Mills: He’s strict because he’s paranoid, but he’s paranoid because his role as a self-described “preventer” of terrorist attacks and other global atrocities exposed him to the untold iniquity of the human soul. Also, he’s usually right — if Kim listened to her dad instead of lying about her absolutely irresponsible plans to follow her favorite band on a multi-city European tour with her rich, clueless American friend, no one would have been snatched in Taken. Father knows best, etc. But being right doesn’t preclude him from being lame. And that’s what we’re evaluating.
Creasy shows plenty more in the way of social skills. He’s open about his drinking problem, and the repeated shots of him downing bottles of cheap whiskey before bedtime point to something lost over time and witnessing the horrors of war firsthand. Pita melts through that steely exterior quickly, restoring the warm, affectionate and witty person we thought time lost and becomes like a daughter to him. Their milestones together include helping Pita getting out of a piano practice with a few well-timed belches, and training for a swim meet. That’s to say nothing of his many one-liners when Pita gets uh, taken.
Winner: Grab a mocktail with Creasy.
Creasy and Mills both register as stoic and silent. This means that when they say something, shut up and listen closely. Unless you’re a criminal — then, consider their speeches your last chance to flee. Creasy, a very religious man despite (or perhaps because) of his broken and checkered past, sees himself as God’s expertly crafted tool of vengeance against Pita’s kidnappers. “Forgiveness is between them and God. It’s my job to arrange the meeting.”
As a few dozen crooks and gangsters learn in solidly R-rated fashion, Creasy takes his job very seriously.
With all respect to Creasy’s way with words (and Denzel’s delivery), Neeson delivers an incomparable soliloquy about his “particular set of skills.” You can already hear his gravelly, Ireland-inflected voice reciting his solemn warning. You will watch the trailer, you will remember, and you will cower in fear.
Coup de Grâce
The most important category, and the most difficult to determine in two equally impressive flicks. Mills and Creasy are exceptional at enacting brilliant choreographies of violent retribution. As such, there are no wrong answers. Mills’ clever disarming of dirty French cop Jean-Claude (Olivier Rabourdin) encapsulates his ruthlessness, focus and uncanny ability to think four steps ahead of all his foes. There’s no fault in picking this scene or any half dozen others.
But wait: In Man on Fire, Creasy straps rogue cop Victor Fuentes (Jesús Ochoa) to the hood of a parked car, grilling him with Denzelian quips.
Fuentes: A last wish, please? Please? Please.
Creasy: Last wish? I wish. You had. More time.
He finishes the job with specifically placed C4.
Does the thought of Denzel blowing people up to avenge his loved ones while doing pretty decent stand-up clinch him this (admittedly) dubious honor? We think so.