Perhaps Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows should have been a trilogy. Splitting the sprawling finale to author J.K. Rowling’s boy wizard saga into three parts — as opposed to its chosen two-part incarnation — might have come across as shameless profiteering (admittedly a not-uncommon practice in this town) but it wouldn’t have been without merit. At 759 pages Rowling’s source novel is said to be a rather dense work plot-wise; surely it could have easily warranted another installment?
I only say this because Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 though certainly a decent film clearly strains from the effort required to fit the book’s proceedings into a two-act structure. While Part 2 slated to open approximately six months from now is alotted the story's meaty parts — namely the spectacular Battle of Hogwarts and its emotional denouement — Part 1 must bear the burden of setting the stage for the grand confrontation between the forces of Light and Dark magic and framing the predicament of its three protagonists teen wizards Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) and Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) in suitably dire terms. And it's quite a heavy burden indeed.
As the film opens the evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) having assumed control over Hogwarts since the events of the preceding film Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince has wasted no time in initiating his reign of terror. As far as historical evil-dictator analogues are concerned Voldemort appears partial to the blueprint laid by Stalin as opposed to that of his genocidal pact-pal Hitler. Enemies of the Dark Lord's regime are prosecuted in dramatic show trials presided over by the Grand Inquisitor Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) while muggles (non-magic folk) and half-bloods are denounced as "undesirables" and “mudbloods” in Soviet-style propaganda posters and forced to register with the authorities.
As the only viable threat to Voldemort’s dominion Harry and his allies are hunted vigorously by Bellatrix LeStrange (Helena Bonham Carter) and her goon squad of Death Eaters. The Boy Who Lived now fully grown and in more or less complete command of his powers is still no match England's nasally scourge. Labeled "Undesirable No. 1" by the Gestapo-like Ministry of Magic he's is forced to go on the lam where he labors along with Ron and Hermione to solve the riddle of Voldemort’s immortality.
For those not well-versed in Rowling’s source material the film’s opening act is a frustrating blur: After an all-too-brisk update on the bleak state of affairs in Hogwarts we are hastily introduced (or re-introduced) to a dozen or so characters the majority of whom are never seen again. A few even perish off-screen. Had we gotten a chance to get to know them we might be able to mourn them as our heroes do; instead we’re left racking our brains trying to recall who they were and how they figured in the plot.
Rowling's flaws as a storyteller — the over-reliance on deus ex machina devices (in this case we get both a doe ex machina and a Dobby ex machina) the ponderous downloads of information (not unlike those of that other uber-anticipated and somewhat overrated 2010 tentpole Inception) the annoying ability of characters to simply teleport (or "disapparate") away from danger etc. — are more evident in this film than in previous chapters. And rather than obscure these flaws director David Yates and screenwriter Steve Kloves both franchise veterans arguably amplify them.
What saves the film are Rowling's three greatest achievements: Harry Ron and Hermione who along with the actors who play them have evolved beyond the material. The film's narrative gains its emotional footing during the heroic threesome's exile ostensibly a series of camping trips — with tents and everything — during which they reflect on their journey together the challenge that awaits them and the sacrifices it will require. Though they occasionally verge on tedious these excursions into Gethsemane allow us precious quality time with these characters that we've grown to adore over the course of seven films even if the plaintive air is spoiled a bit by some rather puzzling attempts at product placement. In their rush to flee the Dementors and Death Eaters it seems that they at least took care to pack the latest in fall fashion:
As devout readers of Rowling's novels know all too well the only foolproof shield against Voldemort's minions is the Bananicus Republicum charm.
Based on the A.J. Quinnell novel of the same name the story is set in Mexico City where kidnappings have become a business causing panic among the wealthier citizens and making bodyguards a necessity. John Creasy (Denzel Washington) an ex-CIA operative/assassin whose past has turned him into a shell of a man comes to the city to visit his old friend Rayburn (Christopher Walken)--and ends up reluctantly taking a job as a bodyguard to nine-year-old Pita Ramos (Dakota Fanning) the precocious daughter of Mexican industrialist Samuel Ramos (Marc Anthony) and his American wife Lisa (Radha Mitchell). For Creasy it just a means to an end and he has little interest in getting to know Pita even though the little girl continually pesters him with personal questions. She eventually gets through however chipping away at Creasy's seemingly impenetrable exterior and opening up his wounded heart. Then just as the two bond bam! Pita is kidnapped. Although seriously wounded during the kidnapping Creasy's inner Fire has been released healing him just enough so that he can track down and kill anyone involved in with or around the kidnapping. As Creasy says "Revenge is a meal best served cold."
Washington puts in a yet another multifaceted tortured performance as ex-assassin Creasy who has a suicidal disposition and drinks excessively to help wipe out bad memories. Luckily for him Creasy is saved somewhat from a fate worse than death when he lets Pita in his heart. Here we see the easygoing Washington we know and love as he and Fanning (I Am Sam) display some genuine chemistry. Not surprising with a pixie face and infectious charm like hers. Yet when the kick-ass Washington emerges--a part the actor dishes out with chilling accuracy--the film suddenly asks you to really suspend your disbelief. Creasy is in a serious world of hurt after the abduction but because he's all fired up he becomes superhuman. That means all he has to do is slap on some gauze bandages so he come out guns a-blazin' as well as periodically soak himself in pools to--what let the blood flow out of his open wounds? Please. Maybe the film should be called Man on Fire Whose Bleeding Gunshot Wounds Won't Stop Him.
Director Tony Scott (Spy Game Top Gun) does an excellent job setting the scenes such as Creasy and Pita bonding or Creasy inflicting his particular methods of torture on his enemies and though he may not be quite as talented as his brother Ridley (Matchstick Men) he does have a specialty--he's all about the action. Man on Fire is at times very much an adrenaline ride especially when Creasy is on the warpath with fast cuts and documentary-style camerawork. Shooting entirely on location in Mexico City the director succinctly captures the city's pollution traffic and cacophony that bombards its citizens heightening the sense of panic and pandemonium at every turn. (One wonders why any wealthy person in their right mind would let their kids live there if there's a likelihood they could get kidnapped--but that's besides the point.) It's the film's plodding underwritten story that fails to keep up with the pace. Creasy has to go through a myriad of corrupt cops and corrupt lawyers (is anyone here not corrupt?) to get to the main kidnapper known only as "the Voice." To do so Creasy elicits the help of a sympathetic newspaper reporter (Rachel Ticotin) and the city's seemingly one honest cop (Giancarlo Giannini) to get information all while still bleeding from his wounds. Enough already. About two-plus hours later we finally get to the end and it's pretty anticlimactic.