Tony Scott’s MAN ON FIRE (2004) is often mentioned in the same breath as some of his strongest films. To be sure, it’s certainly a polarizing film given its subject matter and Scott’s hyper-aggressive aesthetic. I tend to agree with those in the favorable camp, in that Scott backs up his flashy visuals with a real emotional connection between its two leads that lies at the center of the story.
MAN ON FIRE tackles a subject and a world that is unfamiliar to most Americans. In present-day Mexico City, wealthy citizens are faced with the sober reality of having to hire bodyguards for their children due to the regularity with which they are kidnapped and held for ransom by thieves looking to make a nice, easy payday. Enter Creasy (Denzel Washington), an alcholic, schlubby ex-serviceman who is hired to provide protection for Pita ( Dakota Fanning), the young daughter of wealthy expat parents. Over time, Pita’s charm causes Creasy to let his guard down and, subsequently, the two become close friends. When Pita is inevitably kidnapped and presumed killed in a handoff gone awry, Creasy bypasses the incompetent, possibly corrupt police to find her captors. However, his attempts at finding out the truth uncovers a wider conspiracy with shocking revelations and tragic consequences.
Like SPY GAME (2001) before it, there’s something about Scott’s direction that just fits. Mexico City is a seedy, dangerous place, and Scott goes to great lengths to capture the ugliness of its underbelly. It also doesn’t hurt that many members of the cast turn in strong performances. Like his turn in Antoine Fuqua’s TRAINING DAY (2001) or Spike Lee’s MALCOM X (1992), Washington turns in a damaged, career-highlight performance as the burnt-out Creasy. It’s a difficult role that requires the audience to sympathize with him as the protagonist, even when he’s brutally torturing Pita’s captors.
Fanning’s Pita is equally important to the success of the film, and a poor performance could derail the entire story. Thankfully, Fanning is more than capable– pulling off an astoundingly nuanced, believable performance beyond her years. Her love for Creasy feels palpable and realistic, and we can’t help but fall in love with her too. Fanning ably avoids all the traps of child acting (overacting, mugging, being annoying, etc.), and delivers a subtle performance that deals in gestures and the light in her eyes, rather than her words. Scott takes his time in developing her relationship with Creasy, so when the abduction finally comes, an hour into the film, it’s positively heart-wrenching.
The supporting cast is also effective, filled out by recognizable character actors. Christopher Walken, in his first appearance in a Scott film since 1993’s TRUE ROMANCE, plays Rayburn, an American expat living in Mexico City and Creasy’s closest friend. By 2004, Walken was in the throes of his “kooky/possibly insane old man” image in pop culture- but here, he delivers a nuanced, toned-down performance that perfectly fits our idea of someone who would leave the country and go live in Mexico City. His sunken eyes are an asset, suggesting a haunted past that he’s trying to escape from. Mickey Rourke, who was also enjoying a career renaissance at the time, plays the wealthy family’s trusted lawyer, Jordan. It’s a reserved performance that sees Rourke with short, cropped hair and impeccably tailored suits, in stark contrast to his wild, rock-and-roll persona in reality. The character of Jordan is a snake in the grass, who might know more about Pita’s disappearance than he lets on, and Rourke portrays that duplicity with his trademark flair. Rounding out the cast is an effective, if not entirely memorable Marc Anthony as Pita’s successful, slightly effete father, Radha Mitchell as the mother who finds the limits of her compassion tested, and CASINO ROYALE’S (2006) Giancarlo Giannini in Latino makeup as Manzano, the only uncorrupted member of Mexico City’s police force.
Now firmly within his new aesthetic, Scott takes the opportunity to test the limits of the style like had done in previous commercials. In his first feature collaboration with Director of Photography Paul Cameron, he incorporates all the mainstays of the “Scott Look”: extremely high contrast, and severely saturated colors that favor the green and blue spectrum of light. Overblown light billows through curtains, and the hard sun roasts the vibrant Mexico City setting. Scott’s affinity for dramatic skies continues– even normal blue skies have brilliant cloud formations. He also ramps up the energy with his music-video editing techniques, incorporating a whole host of processing tricks on top of the visuals– double exposures, flash frames, rolling/strobing exposures, generally overcooked colors, etc. The camerawork is hyper frenetic, ranging between locked-down and handheld, with the constant being that it’s always moving. Scott even finds room for 360 degree circling shots (a technique that I personally am not a fan of). On top of all this, Scott implements incredibly dynamic subtitles that animate across the screen, sometimes replicating the english dialogue for punctuation and emphasis. With MAN ON FIRE, Scott completely owns the look and effectively uses it to convey the chaos of its subject matter and setting.
Scott continues his collaboration with Harry Gregson-Williams on the score, which implements the Spanish guitar as a key musical component. What’s interesting is that the eclectic mix of score and pre-recorded source music is layered into the sound design in a surreal, experimental way. It’s filtered through a gauntlet of processors and sometimes even used as sound effects– quite an interesting approach. A stand-out musical moment finds Washington descending upon a hellish nightclub to extract some answers and up his body count. Scott features a feverish, techno rendering of Clint Mansell’s iconic theme for REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000) that echoes Washington’s chilly, unpredictable state of mind. Another moment finds Lisa Gerrard, the female vocalist who provided her haunting voice for Ridley Scott’s 2000 film GLADIATOR, performing a choral coda during the film’s climactic trading sequence.
MAN ON FIRE is a tough story, because it requires the audience to sympathize with the slightly evil, yet justified, actions of a man lusting for retribution. One of the film’s standout sequences involves Creasy extracting information from a gangster whose hands are tied to the steering wheel of his car. When the thug is unable to come up with an answer to Creasy’s questions, Creasy brutally saws one finger off at a time and cauterizes the wound with a car cigarette lighter. It’s a squirm-inducing sequence that is certainly cold-blooded, but it’s also very timely from a socio-political perspective. MAN ON FIRE was released during the height of the Iraq War, when the United States was forced to examine its conscience in light of reports about the horrible torture methods government officials used to extract information from our perceived enemies in the war on terror. These shocking leaks forced Americans to ask themselves: how can we root for ourselves when we’re just as beastly as those we’re fighting against? MAN ON FIRE intelligently adds that ambiguous morality into its themes and subtext, and as a result, makes the story that much stronger. If you ask me, that’s why it’s so highly regarded amidst Scott’s canon. It’s a pulpy thriller that isn’t afraid to ask its audience some hard questions.
Of course, it stands to reason that the cliched explosions and gunplay dilute that message and keep a good movie from being great, but Scott has crafted a fine piece of mass entertainment with a relevant message. Its standing in the hearts and minds of cinemaphiles has grown over time, and will most likely go down as Scott’s late-career masterpiece.
MAN ON FIRE is currently available on high definition Blu Ray from Twentieth Century Fox.