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Man on Fire
Director: Tony Scott
Screenplay: Brian Helgeland (based on the novel by A.J. Quinnell)
Voices: Denzel Washington (Creasy), Dakota Fanning (Pita), Marc Anthony (Samuel), Radha Mitchell (Lisa), Christopher Walken (Rayburn), Giancarlo Giannini (Manzano), Rachel Ticotin (Mariana), Jesús Ochoa (Fuentes), Mickey Rourke (Jordan), Angelina Peláez (Sister Anna)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 2004
Country: U.S.
Man on Fire DVD
Man on Fire Director Tony Scott is quickly becoming his own worst enemy. Scott, who began his career shooting commercials, has always been known as a stylist, a filmmaker for whom flashy aesthetics and eye-grabbing montage editing are his principal weapons. Not surprisingly, most of his films have been derided as exercises in style over substance. But, at least in the past, Scott’s style has been digestible, if not particularly nourishing. The visuals in Man on Fire, on the other hand, are almost too much to swallow.

Scott has been on a fast track to this kind of stylistic overkill; his filmography is like a steady descent into the realm of the hyperkinetic, moving from jazzy, but smooth visual cool to ADD-fueled insanity. There is nothing wrong with Scott’s visual tricks and editing rhythms in and of themselves; rather, it is his incessant and indiscriminant use of them that grates. It’s hard to derive much pleasure from such self-conscious devices as multiple exposures and discontinuity editing when they apply equally to moments of great emotional weight and banal everyday activities. Stylistically, shooting someone in the head and taking off your sunglasses have the same import.

Scott had originally planned to make Man on Fire back in the early 1980s, after his first film, 1983’s erotic vampire tryst The Hunger, flopped (he couldn’t get the backing, and instead went on to make Top Gun, which is still the pinnacle of his career). Based on a novel by A.J. Quinnell, it was made into a bizarre 1987 film shot in Italy, helmed by a French director, and starring a mostly American cast. Luckily for Scott, most people don’t remember that film, thus Man on Fire doesn’t come across as a remake.

Screenwriter Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential, Mystic River) has wisely restaged the story of kidnapping and revenge in Mexico City, one of the kidnapping centers of the world (back in the 1970s, when the original novel was written, this was true of Italy). The gritty, grimy nature of Mexico City, one of the world’s most polluted and overpopulated cities, is a perfect object for Scott’s rattling gaze, and he ceaselessly punctuates the film with unmotivated shots of the city from above, as if trying to funnel its sense of danger into the anonymity of dilapidated row houses and interchangeable skyscrapers. The film ends, oddly, with a title card that refers to Mexico City as “a very special place,” which makes absolutely no sense given that the film portrays it as a den of physical and moral pollution, in both the back alleys and the heavily guarded upper-crust houses of the business class.

The hero of the story is a man named Creasy (Denzel Washington). When we first meet him, he is a despondent drunk; apparently, his years as a deep-cover CIA operative and assassin have corroded his soul and left him an empty shell. Desperate for something, he visits an old partner named Rayburn (Christopher Walken), who has retired from the military, married, and moved to Mexico City. Rayburn sets Creasy up with a job working as a bodyguard for a rich family. The father (Marc Anthony) is Mexican, while the wife (Radha Mitchell) is blonde-hair-blue-eyed American. Creasy’s job is to protect their precocious moppet of a daughter, Pinta (Dakota Fanning), who is an obvious target for a kidnapping.

Being a shell of a man, Creasy doesn’t immediately take to Pinta, who wants him to be her friend first and protector second. Of course, all the Jack Daniels consumption and morose reading of the Bible in the world can’t keep Creasy completely insulated from Pinta’s probing charms, and soon his barriers have broken down and he finds himself stepping into an unexpected surrogate father role, helping Pinta prepare for a swim meet and generally filling in the gap left by her frequently absent and overly busy parents.

Thus, it is all the more painful for Creasy when Pinta is snatched out from under his watch. To be fair, it is a professional kidnapping and Creasy is greatly outnumbered; even though he takes out four of the kidnappers, he is still shot several times and Pinta is taken away. Creasy feels all the more guilty about it because she might have escaped had she not been so enamored of her protector that she ran back to help him.

Thus fueled by a combination of rage and guilt, Creasy sets out to be an avenging angel, tracking down the kidnappers one by one and dispatching them with brutal authority. Denzel Washington’s powerful performance goes a long way toward giving Creasy’s righteous mission of violence a sympathetic dimension, even when he’s employing such nasty tactics as slicing off fingers and sticking a bomb up a corrupt police officer’s rectum. His methods are justifiable only insofar as we can see them as both necessary and appropriate, and Scott works overtime to convince us that Creasy’s victims are scum worthy of their torture and subsequent annihilation.

Unfortunately, Scott’s moral vision is almost embarrassingly narrow, with any sense of ambiguity regarding Creasy thrown out the window in favor of simple righteousness. Man on Fire has a genuine cathartic kick to it, even if Scott’s visual overkill constantly threatens to bury the film’s emotional roller coaster in an avalanche of cuts, splices, slow motion, strobe effects, and mismatched film stock. Much like Steven Spielberg never quite trusts his audience to get his films’ messages, which is why they frequently have a to-the-point speech at the end (see Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan in particular), Scott doesn’t trust his audience to get in tune with the story’s emotional tug-of-war, which is why he is so incessant on keeping your eyeballs busy. He’d do better to trust in the primal thrill of righteous revenge, especially when it’s Denzel Washington dishing out the goods.

Man on Fire All-Access Collector’s Edition Two-Disc DVD Set

Aspect Ratio2.35:1
AnamorphicYes
Audio
  • English DTS 5.1 Surround
  • English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
  • Spanish Dolby 3.0 Surround
  • French Dolby 3.0 Surround
  • SubtitlesEnglish, Spanish
    Supplements
  • Audio commentary by director Tony Scott
  • Audio commentary by writer Brian Helgeland, producer Lucas Foster, and actress Dakota Fanning
  • “Vengeance is Mine: Reinventing Man on Fire” making-of documentary
  • 14 deleted scenes and an alternate ending (with optional commentary by Tony Scott)
  • “Pita’s Abduction” multi-angle scene study with script excerpt and storyboards
  • Stills gallery of photographs
  • Kinky “Oye Como Va” music video
  • Theatrical trailers and TV spots
  • Distributor20th Century Fox Home Video
    SRP$26.98
    Release DateMay 24, 2004

    VIDEO
    Like most of Tony Scott’s recent films, Man on Fire has a distinct visual look that is very nicely reproduced on this DVD. Scott shot much of the film on reversal stock which was then cross-processed, which results in a high-contrast, slightly grainy image with deep, desaturated colors that are particularly heavy on blue and green. The transfer is superb throughout.

    AUDIO
    Both the DTS 5.1 and Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtracks are guaranteed to give your system a workout. The film’s soundtrack has as much aplomb as its visuals, giving it a wide soundstage with catchy surround effects and good deal of thundering low end.

    SUPPLEMENTS
    There are two screen-specific audio commentaries, both of which were included on the original, single-disc release of Man on Fire. The first features director Tony Scott talking solo about the making of the film; he offers good insight into his stylistic choices (even though I disagreed with half of his reasoning), and his vicious comments about the film’s villains open a window into his moral worldview. The second commentary features screenwriter Brian Helgeland, producer Lucas Foster, and actress Dakota Fanning. This is much looser commentary, with the three frequently talking over each other. It’s not bad, although my regular readers know I don’t much like children on audio commentaries because they usually don’t have much of interest to offer, which Dakota Fanning proves here.

    The second disc has all new supplementary materials. It opens with an extensive, 75-minute making-of documentary, “Vengeance is Mine: Reinventing Man on Fire,” which is really five featurettes on the film’s 20-year project development, the use of technical advisors to discuss the realities of kidnapping in Latin America, casting the film, shooting on location in Mexico City, and the stylistic choices. The documentary features interviews with just about everyone involved with the film, including Scott, Washington, Fanning, and Helgeland. At one point, Tony Scott tells a story in a disconcertingly amused tone about his bodyguard getting beaten to within an inch of his life by a street gang while they were scouting locations in a tough barrio in Mexico City.

    “Pita’s Abduction” gives us an in-depth look at the abduction scene. It includes the script excerpt, Tony Scott’s rough storyboards, and a multi-angle breakdown in which you can watch the scene from any of four different camera angles or all four at the same time, with or without commentary by Scott. There are also 14 deleted scenes, as well as a (terrible) alternate ending, all of which have optional commentary by Scott (these are presented in nonanamorphic widescreen). Some of the deleted scenes are completely new, while others are extensions of scenes already in the film. The photo gallery includes a ton of behind-the-scenes shots, and there are three theatrical trailers (all in nonanamorphic widescreen) and four TV spots.

    Overall Rating: (2)

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright ©2005 20th Century Fox Home Video


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