Movie Resurrection: Man on Fire

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Sometimes, the critics are just wrong. This week, we’re bringing Tony Scott’s Man on Fire back from the dead.

Man on Fire (2004)

Dir: Tony Scott

Starring: Denzel Washington, Dakota Fanning, Marc Anthony, Radha Mitchell, Christopher Walken

IMDb rating: 7.7

Metacritic rating: 47

Tony Scott is the godfather of action cinema. When he directed Top Gun in 1986, he set the template for what big blockbusters should look like. This makes his output in the early 2000s a very interesting period in his career: He discarded the template he helped create and experimented with the relationship between images and sound; first with Spy Game in 2001, then reaching an apotheosis with Domino in 2005. The middle film in this ‘trilogy’ is a much maligned entry in Scott’s filmography, but it remains a very important one.

Man on Fire deserves recognition as a turning point in Tony Scott’s career as one of the true masters of action cinema

Man on Fire finds alcoholic ex-military specialist John Creasy (Washington) taking a job as a bodyguard to Lupita (Fanning), the young daughter of a wealthy family living in Mexico City. Dulled by drink and PTSD, Creasy is a wreck. Lupita, though, wants a friend and reaches out to Creasy, whose icy exterior begins to melt as they grow closer together. No sooner are they BFFs than kidnappers gun Creasy down and take Lupita. An attempt by her parents to make a ransom drop goes awry, and the young girl is apparently killed. When news gets back to Creasy, he swears revenge and unleashes a wave of extreme violence upon those responsible.

Man on Fire is an action movie that eschews the quick pace and set pieces required of the genre that Scott helped define. Clocking in at two hours and twenty minutes, it takes its time in introducing and developing its characters. The first 80 minutes tell a sweet, if slightly cloying story about a grumpy alcoholic soldier and his young charge. It is only in the final hour that Scott (and Creasy for that matter) goes off the leash and the film becomes something else – a frenetic, experimental tour de force.

man on fire denzel

The late Tony Scott has never been accused of subtlety, and Man on Fire is no exception. He bludgeons the audience with montage and religious imagery. Repeated musical clues also provide a shorthand for the internal lives of the characters – Debussy’s Clair de Lune is deployed constantly to represent the harmony that Lupita brings to Creasy’s tortured soul. Stylistically, Scott doesn’t do much with these scenes other than give them the slick, millennial gloss that he does so well and continued to refine toward the end of his life. He hammers home these tropes to engender sympathy from the audience, to (hopefully) get them through the horrors that are to follow.

The final hour of Man on Fire is a violent experimental film in its own right, cutting between colour, black and white and strobe effects

The final hour of Man on Fire is a violent experimental film in its own right; the camera spins and crash zooms wildly. The editing, machine gun quick, cuts between colour, black and white and strobe effects. Subtitles dance across the screen, sometimes cutting straight through the middle of the frame. Music jumps in and out, utilising disparate genres and artists, from Nine Inch Nails to Tony Basil. Like the violence inflicted by Creasy, Scott’s methods are quick and messy, but with a cold calculation behind them that speaks to the professional at the heart of the work. Christopher Walken’s character Rayburn says that, “Creasey’s art is death. He’s about to paint his masterpiece.” Here is a visible parallel between director and character.

Man on Fire was first produced in 1987 and Scott was attached to the film, but the deal fell through. It’s hard to know that, if the Tony Scott of the 1980s had made the film, there would be any more to discuss. But as it stands, the Man on Fire of 2004 is an intriguing film, one that plays directly into Scott’s strengths, but also flings wildly into almost every direction at once. Somehow, through sheer act of craft, the experiment works.

It is easy to see how audiences were alienated by Man on Fire. Those who enjoyed the dynamic of the first part of the film would have been completely turned off by the violence of the last hour, while those who came for the action would have been bored by all that preceded it. Man on Fire is an extremely important film in Tony Scott’s filmography and one that deserves more recognition as a turning point in his career as one of the true masters of action cinema.


All images: 20th Century Fox

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