Man on Fire (2004)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #57

A promise to protect.
A vow to avenge.

Country: USA & UK
Language: English & Spanish
Runtime: 146 minutes
BBFC: 18
MPAA: R

Original Release: 23rd April 2004 (USA)
UK Release: 8th October 2004
First Seen: in-flight, c.2004

Stars
Denzel Washington (Philadelphia, Training Day)
Dakota Fanning (War of the Worlds, The Runaways)
Radha Mitchell (Pitch Black, Melinda and Melinda)
Christopher Walken (The Deer Hunter, Hairspray)
Marc Anthony (Bringing Out the Dead, El cant ante)

Director
Tony Scott (Top Gun, Enemy of the State)

Screenwriter
Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential, Legend)

Based on
Man on Fire, a novel by A.J. Quinnell.

The Story
As a wave of kidnappings from rich families sweeps Mexico City, burnt-out former soldier Creasy is hired as the bodyguard of little Pita Ramos. She begins to bring him out of his reclusive shell, so when he fails to prevent her abduction, he vows to make the people responsible pay — very, very violently.

Our Hero
Washed-up alcoholic former Marine and ex-CIA operative John Creasy is a broken man, only taking bodyguard work in Mexico City because he needs the cash. He still has a particular set of skills at hand when needed, though.

Our Villains
An array of ruthless kidnappers and corrupt cops, though some of the villains may be closer to home…

Best Supporting Character
Dakota Fanning has relatively limited screen time as little Pita, at least after the first act, but it’s enough for the viewer to warm to her as much as Creasy does, getting us on side for the violence to come.

Memorable Quote #1
“Creasy’s art is death. He’s about to paint his masterpiece.” — Rayburn

Memorable Quote #2
“Forgiveness is between them and God. It’s my job to arrange the meeting.” — Creasy

Memorable Scene
After corrupt detective Fuentes is kidnapped by Creasy, he wakes up tied to the bonnet of a car wearing just his boxers. Creasy demonstrates how he built a small bomb, before informing Fuentes where that bomb is currently located. To be blunt: it’s in Fuentes’ ass. That certainly gives the interrogation a different flavour.

Technical Wizardry
The film’s visual style — jumpy cutting, heavy saturation, etc — is apparently designed to reflect Creasy’s fractured mental state. The most memorable part, at least for me, were the subtitles, which use various fonts, placements, and reveals to make them feel part of the whole package, rather than a bunged-at-the-bottom last-minute addition.

Making of
The film was really shot in Mexico City, under the real threat of kidnapping and/or other violence. Radha Mitchell was escorted by three bodyguards after her driver was carjacked at gunpoint; Denzel Washington was also surrounded by bodyguards at all times; several crew members were robbed at gunpoint, and, according to the police, the crew were also targeted for kidnapping

Previously on…
A.J. Quinnell’s novel was previously adapted in 1987 starring Scott Glenn, Joe Pesci, and Jonathan Pryce.

Awards
2 Golden Trailer Awards nominations (Best Action (for trailer C), Best Drama (for trailer B))
3 nominations for Dakota Fanning as supporting or young actress (Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards, Golden Schmoes Awards, Young Artist Awards)

What the Critics Said
“On paper, we have a well-worn initial-mistrust-gives-over-to-mutual-affection arc, but Washington’s despair-tinged reserve and Fanning’s astonishing naturalness give the relationship warmth and resonance. Fanning exudes more than enough charm and decency to make Creasy’s renewal of faith completely believable. […] As the action goes increasingly over the top, so does Scott’s visual pyrotechnics. Probably setting a new world record for the number of different film stocks in one movie, Scott and hot-to-trot cinematographer Paul Cameron (Collateral) whip-pan and crash-zoom to new levels of excess, heightening both the teeming life of Mexico City and the anxiety around Pita’s kidnapping. Best of all are the subtitles: rather than simply translating dialogue, they assault the viewer, conveying drama and emotion through aggressive graphic design. You’ve never seen any done like this before.” — Ian Freer, Empire

Score: 39%
(I had no idea this was so critically reviled! I thought it was quite well liked, in fact.)

What the Public Say
“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, [it] 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 do horrible things to people. He’s not concerned about what the audience thinks about Creasy so much as they just consider why he is.” — CJ Stewart, The Viewer’s Commentary

Verdict

On the one hand, Man on Fire represents the start of Tony Scott’s stylistic excess that would see him through the rest of his career — the jumpy editing, oddly saturated images, etc. (It’s also present to an extent in Spy Game, though.) It would get a bit much at times (Domino), but Man on Fire uses it effectively. On the other hand, the film works just as well as a character-driven revenge drama. Rather than rush to the shooting-and-killing, Scott and screenwriter Brian Helgeland take their time to build the relationship between Creasy and Pita, so that when we do reach the vengeance portion of the story, you’re as invested as the characters are. Of course, from there it is (as a film from the year before would put it) a roaring rampage of revenge.

#58 will be… practically perfect in every way.

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