Man on Fire
March 18, 2005
Tony Scott is a journeyman action film director capable of producing an excellent film when given the right material (True Romance) and truly abysmal ones when given the wrong material (The Fan). Either way, his films all have a distinctive look of a beautiful advert or music video regardless of their content. His latest, Man on Fire (2004), continues the typical Scott look: fractured editing, jump cuts, and slow motion action—the epitome of music video chic. This film also continues his fascination with down-on-their-luck losers who must kill many people on their way to redemption.
CIA operative John Creasy (Washington) is more than down on his luck; like previous Scott protagonist, Joe Hallenbeck (Bruce Willis) in The Last Boy Scout (1991), Creasy has hit rock bottom with a head full of regrets. He has spent his life doing his country’s dirty work and has become an alcoholic in desperate need of some redemption. He visits an old friend—Rayburn (Walken)—in Mexico and he tells him of a job: bodyguard for an affluent Mexican family. The father, a car plant owner (Anthony) asks Creasy to drive his daughter, Pita (Fanning), to and from her exclusive private school every day.
Creasy takes a shine to Pita who gradually chips away at his shell of burnt-out cynicism. He actually begins to care about something. As if on cue, Creasy is ambushed one day and shot up in a chaotic gun battle that results in Pita being kidnapped. To make matters worse, Creasy is framed for killing two corrupt cops. The husband messes up the ransom pick-up, effectively signing his daughter’s death warrant. Understandably upset, Creasy, with the help of Rayburn, decides to exact some good ol’ fashion revenge and find and kill everyone responsible for the kidnapping as he works his way up the country’s ladder of corruption.
Scott spends the first fifty minutes establishing the relationship between Creasy and Pita. As we watch them bond there is a nervous anticipation as we wait for the other shoe to drop. When will she get kidnapped? Once Creasy amasses a sizable arsenal for his revenge mission, the film veers dangerous close to taking all leave of its senses as it almost becomes one of those one-man-army action films that Arnold Schwarznegger and Charles Bronson made popular in the ‘80s.
Denzel Washington certainly makes an impressively ferocious and determined assassin dedicated to making those responsible pay with their lives. He fearlessly plumbs the depths of his character and goes to even darker places than he did in Training Day (2001). His scenes with Dakota Fanning are good. They feel natural as the interplay between them builds gradually with the little girl holding her own against the veteran actor. Like Creasy, we become emotionally invested in Pita and care about what happens to her.
The problem with Man on Fire is Scott’s frenetic editing. Sometimes it works, like in the action sequences and other times it falls flat, like when Creasy hits the bottle and contemplates suicide. This scene would have been more effective dramatically without all the fancy editing, spiraling camerawork and Nine Inch Nails blasting on the soundtrack. Just let Washington do his thing! The man is a brilliant actor and his performance in this scene is obscured through needlessly showy camerawork.
There is a refreshingly candid audio commentary by director Tony Scott who covers various technical aspects of the filmmaking process, like the various film stocks that he used, casting and how he works instinctively. Best of all, are the anecdotes, including a hair-raising encounter while making the movie in Mexico that mirrored the scary action in the movie! He is a well spoken man and delivers an informative track.
The second track features producer Lucas Foster, screenwriter Brian Helgeland and actress Dakota Fanning. All three talk about who they got involved in the project. Foster talks about how the studio didn’t like Denzel’s beard and how they had to negotiate exactly the amount of screen time he would be sporting it (apparently, the execs felt that audiences liked clean shaven Denzel more). Foster dominates the track and recounts many production anecdotes while asking Fanning and Helgeland questions as well.
Man on Fire is a throwback to the ‘80s Hollywood action film which featured the lone, empowered American who shows the uncultured natives the true meaning of power through military might with God as his co-pilot. In this respect, the politics in Scott’s film are troubling to say the least. By setting it in Mexico and showcasing the levels of corruption that exist there, Man on Fire will certainly not be featured in that country’s tourism brochures. The film is a little long and Washington’s performance is sometimes obscured by Scott’s heavy-handed symbolism and frenzied editing.