Special Review: “Man on Fire” (2004) – In Memory of Tony Scott
Produced by: Lucas Foster, Arnon Milchan, Tony Scott
Written by: Brian Helgeland
Cinematography by: Paul Cameron
Music by: Harry Gregson-Williams, Lisa Gerrard
Starring: Denzel Washington, Dakota Fanning, Christopher Walken, Giancarlo Giannini, Radha Mitchell, Marc Anthony, Rachel Ticotin, Mickey Rourke
Based on the 1981 novel Man on Fire by A.J. Quinnell (Philip Nicholson)
While I had already seen a few of Tony Scott’s films well before this one — Top Gun, Crimson Tide, and Spy Game specifically — it wasn’t until his 2004 adaptation of A.J. Quinnell’s novel Man on Fire that I truly became aware of Tony Scott as a director and, more specifically his signature style: the high contrast, gritty visuals combined with high saturation of color, the energetic and often hectic editing, and the often broad portrayal of the characters featured in his films by big name actors… Man on Fire may not have been the first Tony Scott film I’d seen, but it came out at a time when I was transitioning into my interest in cinema beyond just the entertainment value. I remember when I first rented Man on Fire, which was also the last time I had seen the film before just this past week, how enamored I was with the movie’s sleek and arresting visuals, which extended into the film’s extensive use of subtitles, and the story’s relentless and violent portrayal of a damaged man being finally broken.
When I heard that Tony Scott had committed suicide not too long ago, I knew that this was the film I had to review in his honor, based primarily off of the strong impact it made on mey all those years ago. I had been fairly entertained by Domino not too long ago, and Unstoppable was excellent and exciting action entertainment that managed to pull it all off without the aid of colorful villains or grand spectacle, but Man on Fire, in my memory, was the crown jewel of Tony Scott’s style, at least in my memory. And so, as I did many years before, I went out and rented it… only to find out that, unfortunately, my tastes had apparently changed drastically since my last year of high school. This second viewing of the movie revealed to me an often engaging but fundamentally flawed production that throws one too many stylish punches at audiences’ heads.
It isn’t so much that Man on Fire is a bad movie, but it is relentless in assaulting your senses and your sensibilities, and that can often be unpleasant, at best. While this is obviously the intended effect in many cases, there are times when holding back a bit would have been welcome, letting the impact of the story’s events sink in a bit before moving on to the next bludgeoning.
The perfect scene to highlight this is the techno club where Denzel Washington’s character, ex-CIA operative John Creasy, tortures a man for information before executing him, all while his blubbering accomplice is bound and blindfolded in the background. Along with the torture comes a few key revelations about the organization he’s up against, and the whole scene ends with Creasy hearding the still-dancing club patrons out of the building with a few shotgun blasts to the ceiling before burning the place to the ground.
This isn’t the first such scene in the film, and it’s not even the most brutal, but the magnitude of this sensory assault is a perfect example of what to expect in the latter half of the film. This has the effect of making it unlikeable to watch, if not for the actions of its star character, then just for the fact that it seems intent on making the audience feel every ounce of anguish in the torturer and his victim. It’s definitely intended, but it doesn’t exactly result in me feeling empathy for either character, one way or another.
It must be said, however, that Tony Scott is not afraid to have his character to horrible things to people. He’s not concerned about what the audience thinks about Creasy so much as they just consider why he is. Luckily, with the first half of the film, Scott is at least kind enough to at least give plausible, questionably reasonable motivation for Creasy’s actions. You see, these men he’s going after are part of an organization known as La Hermandad, a group made up of criminals and corrupt public servants who kidnap their victims and hold them for ransom, and the little girl they just happened to have kidnapped this time had recently made a very powerful friend, a bodyguard assigned to protect her named John Creasy.
This first half of the film, though just as contrived in its development of Creasy and the girl’s relationship as it is in portraying Creasy’s vengeful attack on the organization, is arguably the film’s stronger half. Denzel Washington has sort of made a career out of portraying suave and articulate characters, no matter their backgrounds, and while his Creasy still has some of that familiar Denzel Washington swagger, especially in the latter half, his portrayal of a potentially violent alcoholic and manic depressive is often disturbing and yet also vulnerable. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but it is a good performance.
The same could be said for Dakota Fanning as the little girl, Pita. Being the victim in a movie about a kidnapping, she’s only given a certain amount of screen time before she inevitably disappears. Like Washington, Dakota Fanning also began to be stereotyped in her performances (with SNL‘s “The Dakota Fanning Show” being a hilarious example), and yet she has never grated on my nerves the way other child actors can and has always come off as a particularly intelligent girl who simply knew how to get into her characters’ heads. Here she comes off as genuinely sweet and inquisitive without becoming obnoxiously precocious.
Together with Washington, the two of them form a genuinely amicable pair, making the inevitable kidnapping scene all the more impactful. Fanning’s amazingly real performance, with hardly any lines beyond calling out her protector’s name, combines perfectly with Tony Scott’s visuals, resonating throughout the latter half of the film to remind audiences why Creasy is doing these horrible things. Scott often handles the film with a heavy hand, and some of its peripheral characters, such as Pita’s mother and the informant journalist, are unremarkable or even problematic, but Washington and Fanning together make the film more worthwhile than your average thriller.
And while Tony Scott’s handling of the film may not have aged as well in reality as it had in my head, there’s no denying that this is a film that demands your attention throughout, and he’s largely successful in capturing the emotional state of his lead character in the film’s visuals, sound, and plot, even if it comes at the expense of making the film a sometimes unpleasant experience. As I said before, Man on Fire may not be Tony Scott’s best film, but regardless of my reevaluation of it, this was the film that put his name on my radar, leading me toward far more entertaining, engaging, and better made films later on in his career, while also encouraging me to go back and reexamine some of his older films. They may vary drastically in quality, but they were always engaging, nonetheless. It’s only a shame that we will no longer be seeing any more films from Tony Scott.
The Viewer’s Commentary Rating: 2.5 / 5