When I first watched Tony Scott’s Man on Fire (2004) shortly after it was released on home video, I dismissed it as an empty exercise in trying to recreate the 1980s action movie that the director himself helped popularize with the likes of Top Gun (1986) and Beverly Hills Cop II (1987). I was put off by the film’s wildly fractured editing, jump cuts and slow motion mayhem but now I realize – only with the benefit of hindsight – that I didn’t understand what he was trying to do. With Man on Fire, Scott was leaving behind traditionally presented storytelling in favor of what Nick Clement has described as “cubist-cinema,” utilizing experimental editing rhythms and camerawork to immerse the viewer in the worldview of the protagonist so that we are experiencing things almost as fast the way the mind works. This film would be his first foray with this approach but not the last, culminating in his masterpiece Domino (2005).
Scott boldly introduces this new aesthetic in the opening credits, which depict a man being kidnapped in a public place in broad daylight with its entire tragic arc playing out via rapid, jarring edits and a grungy visual look that is aggressively in-your-face. With this sequence, Scott is making a statement by establishing not just the style of the film but also his subsequent works. It’s a ballsy move on his part but then I wouldn’t expect anything less.
Former CIA operative John Creasy (Denzel Washington) is more than down on his luck; like previous Scott protagonist, Joe Hallenbeck (Bruce Willis) in The Last Boy Scout (1991), he 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. As he tells an old friend early on, “Do you think God’ll forgive us for what we’ve done?” For the rest of the film, Creasy is looking for this forgiveness.
He visits Paul Rayburn (Christopher Walken), an old friend from his CIA days who now runs a security firm in Mexico. He tells Creasy about a job: bodyguard for an affluent Mexican family. The father, Samuel Ramos (Marc Anthony) is a car plant owner and he asks Creasy to drive his daughter Pita (Dakota 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 dangerously close to taking all leave of its senses as it almost becomes one of those one-man-army action movies that Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone made popular in the 1980s complete with the dubious moral underpinnings.
Scott immerses us in the Mexican underworld where kidnappings are rampant as Creasy tracks down the people who have taken Pita utilizing his unique skill sets. It’s a grim Death Wish (1974) meets Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974) kind of journey as the director rubs our faces in ugly, brutal violence as Creasy tortures and kills his way up the kidnapping food chain. At this point we’ve become invested in Creasy’s journey and on a basic level welcome his scorched earth policy because we want to see the bad guys punished.
Outside of his very successful collaborations with Spike Lee, Scott was able to get the very best from Denzel Washington. They obviously had a real kinship and enjoyed working together as evident from their numerous collaborations. The actor understood his director’s worldview to the extent that he was able to convey it successfully on-screen.
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). The actor is very effective at playing a drunk with nothing left to lose. He looks the part, sporting a ragged, uneven beard early on. Even after he’s cleaned himself up for the job there is a look in Creasy’s eyes and the way he carries himself that conveys the vibe of a self-destructive burn-out while still maintaining the air of a highly trained professional. It is a tricky balancing act that Washington pulls off effortlessly. His gig with the Ramos family is probably his last chance at a halfway decent gig. The actor also conveys a tragic vibe, hinting at a time when he was on top of his game but has since lost his way.
The scenes between Creasy and Pita are refreshingly devoid of the cutesy shtick that most relationships of this kind are portrayed and this is because he doesn’t talk down to her. He’s honest with her and she isn’t one of those annoying kids. The interplay between them feels natural and builds gradually, showing how they bond over her swimming competitions, 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. He also realizes that she may be the key to the redemption he so desperately needs.
Scott’s frenetic editing is effective throughout, especially in the scene were Creasy and Pita are idling at a traffic light and are beset by panhandlers. While he tries to continue an uncomfortable conversation with her, he deals with all of these distractions and the editing conveys the disorientating effects all these sights and sounds have on him. It is ominous, visual foreshadowing of what’s to come.
This hyper-kinetic editing is also used during moments when Creasy is alone, wallowing in self-doubt and a powerful moment where he hits rock bottom. It is heavy-handed but that’s the point as Scott wants us to experience this man’s troubled worldview. He wants to immerse us in it so that it’s almost tangible for the director is a sensualist.
The film’s first action sequence – Pita’s kidnapping – is a fantastic showcase for Scott’s new direction in depicting action. We are thrown into a chaotic situation from Creasy’s perspective, including him picking up the signs of the impending kidnapping and then his increasingly disintegrating point-of-view as his gunshot wounds disable him. The editing creates a disorienting effect, which is intentional. The last hour of Man on Fire sees Scott cut loose with this new style as he gets down and dirty with his own version of The Limey (1999) as Creasy exacts revenge on those responsible for kidnapping Pita albeit filtered through his fractured mind.
Regency Enterprises owner Arnon Milchan purchased the film rights to A.J. Quinnell’s 1980 novel Man on Fire because he believed it had cinematic potential. He approached Tony Scott, who had just come off of directing The Hunger (1982), and the director was enthusiastic about the material but he ended up not doing it. Scott moved on Top Gun (1986) while Milchan went on to produce the 1987 version starring Scott Glenn, but over the years the filmmaker never forgot about it: “I never really lost sight of it.”
Years later, producer Lucas Foster teamed up with Regency to adapt Man on Fire yet again with screenwriter Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential) writing the script. In 2003, Scott agreed to direct. Helgeland’s initial drafts were set in Italy but Foster and Scott found out that tough new laws had virtually eliminated kidnappings there and scouted locations in Brazil, Guatemala and Mexico. They picked Mexico because kidnapping had become commonplace there: “Kidnapping is a huge business there – very controlled and organized. It’s an actual industry,” he said. To this end, he researched case histories of kidnappings in Mexico and had Helgeland adjust the script accordingly.
Scott had previously worked with Denzel Washington on Crimson Tide (1995) and knew he wanted him to play Creasy because of his “obsessive quality and his internal darkness. There’s a hardness to Denzel that’s really interesting. He knows how to draw it out and use it effectively.” After seeing Dakota Fanning act opposite Sean Penn in I Am Sam (2001), Foster and Scott cast her as Pita. She spent months on swimming training, Spanish lessons and piano lessons.” Originally, Scott thought of casting Christopher Walken as the Ramos’ corrupt lawyer but the actor told him that he was tired of playing bad guys and wanted to play someone good. Scott decided to cast him as Rayburn instead.
The traffic-congested Mexico City proved to be a challenge for the production as they moved more than 50 vehicles of cast, crew and equipment through the narrow and crowded streets. In addition, general strikes were a daily occurrence forcing them to navigate Mexico City’s complex bureaucracy of 17 mini-states, each with its own municipality and governor.
To create the stunning look of Man on Fire, Scott worked closely with director of photography Paul Cameron (Swordfish) in an attempt to reflect Creasy’s emotional state by doing things like hand-cranking the camera to slow down or speed up movement, using reversal film stock to make colors more vivid, creating multiple exposures by imprinting three sets of images on the same plate of film, and for some sequences employing multiple cameras, which caused Washington to refer to his director as “Nine-Camera Tony.”
Man on Fire received mostly negative reviews. Roger Ebert gave the film two-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, “Man on Fire has a production too ambitious for the foundation supplied by the screenplay. It plays as if Scott knows the plot is threadbare, and wants to patch it with an excess of style.” USA Today also gave it two-and-a-half out of four stars with Mike Clark writing, “Seventeen years from now, we may well remember this version of the story – just as one remembers getting hammered on the head repeatedly with a 2-by-4.” In his review for The New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “Mr. Scott, meanwhile, with his characteristic blend of cynicism and heavy-handedness, infuses even the quietest moments with nerve-jangling dread.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “D” rating and Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote, “But the movie’s mortal failing is echoed in the religious medal Pita gives Creasy in a gift of innocent, uplifting love: Finding heft or coherence within all the lugubrious agitation is a lost cause worthy of St. Jude.” Finally, in his review for the Los Angeles Times, Kenneth Turan wrote, “Despite its high craft level and Washington’s participation in it, this movie’s showy violence is finally as deadening as the over-emphatic violence in these kinds of films generally is.”
Man on Fire trades in the same kind of redemptive nihilism as Scott’s underrated thriller Revenge (1990), which is also a very sensual film. Both are prime examples of his romantic tendencies albeit in very Peckinpahian terms – i.e. tough love bathed in violence. On a superficial level, this film 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 any time soon.
Man on Fire Production Notes. 20th Century Fox. 2004.