Man on Fire (2004)
Starring Denzel Washington, Dakota Fanning, Christopher Walken, Radha Mitchell, Marc Anthony, Giancarlo Giannini, Mickey Rourke, Rachel Ticotin
Director of Photography: Paul Cameron
Music by Harry Gregson-Williams
Edited by Christian Wagner
Written by Brian Helgeland
Directed by Tony Scott
Rating: 5,5 out of 10
Man on Fire is a standard vigilante/revenge movie wrapped up in a redemption story coupled with a little girl likes killer story. Because it’s a Tony Scott film, all of it is mixed with nervous editing, shaky camera, color filters and a mixture of music cues from this and other movies (seriously, if you know film music, it’s really weird to see a big studio movie that simply uses music from other movies). It has a great and large cast and some interesting individual scenes, but overall it’s a bit of a mess. It seems unfair to say that because so much of it is simply Scott’s later-years style, but it works more for some movies than for others (Domino, for example, was slightly better). My main issue (besides the revenge aspect I’ll discuss in a second), is that the film is so off structurally. It’s too long and divided into two uneven halves. If you like these kinds of movies, it’s certainly okay, but the imbalance in tone and story really bothered me.
It takes at least 45 minutes until anything really happens. In that time we see the relationship between Creasy (Denzel Washington, doing more with his role than it deserves) and Pita (Dakota Fanning) develop as he is her bodyguard to protect her from being kidnapped. It’s the “tough-scarred-guy-gets-softened-by-cute-kid” trope we have seen before. And it works, to a point, because both play their roles so well. But there is something weird about it in retrospect. We know Creasy has some kind of dark past, but in Pita’s eyes he is just a “sad bear.” And that’s the take we’re supposed to have on him as well.
After that 45-minute mark, though, Pita is kidnapped, of course and not only that but (despite what the poster wants you to believe) basically disappears from the movie completely. We are told she is dead, but we don’t believe that and despite there being some hope later on, she only comes back in the last few minutes. In-between (which means for about 100 minutes) we see Creasy vowing that he will kill everyone who took part in kidnapping her. Yes, he doesn’t even say killing, it’s not exactly “an eye for an eye”, he also doesn’t say “I will find her.” No, he says, when asked what he will do now:
What I do best. I'm gonna kill 'em. Anyone that was involved. Anybody who profited from it. Anybody who opens their eyes at me.
And then he does. The violence is cruel, bloody, mean, inventive even (where would you put a grenade in someone’s body to make them talk?). He is merciless and only holds back when it comes to women who are involved. No, he doesn’t seem to enjoy the violence, but are we supposed to? And even if he doesn’t enjoy it, why is he so elaborate about it? Rayburn (Christopher Walken, almost wasted in a role as a good guy because he’s barely on screen) uses a line that seems written to be quoted: “A man can be an artist... in anything, food, whatever. It depends on how good he is at it. Creasey's art is death. He's about to paint his masterpiece.” That is exactly what it seems like, he acts like an artist but there is no need to do that for his purpose. Who is that masterpiece for?
It’s for the audience, of course, because no one else is there to see it. And this makes me wonder, just like in Saw, why we want to see this, why we are supposed to enjoy his setups, his methods, the brutality of it all? While the violence in Saw is done to random strangers we never get to know, here it’s clearly (at least in Creasy’s point of view) bad people, so I guess they deserve it. That’s the purpose of the whole vigilante genre, that these people, who are so capable of violence, have somehow gained some wisdom about good and evil which justifies their deeds. I don’t even want to ask if his methods are justified because the movie certainly doesn’t. But we are supposed to find some joy in seeing these bad guys being punished because no institution in the movie ever questions it, neither the police (represented by Giancarlo Giannini) or the media (represented by Rachel Ticotin).
In the last scenes, Pita is still alive and Creasy gets her back by essentially trading his life for hers. They have a final heart-to-heart and there is something about that scene that felt really wrong. It doesn’t feel like torture and mutilation were the only ways to get to that point, mainly because the overarching bad guy is never really hurt. But it also is strange to see Creasy, the one we’ve been seeing not caring about human lives if he considers them evil, to become the sad bear again. The balance the movie would have needed only comes with Pita, but of course having her in mind, imagining she knows what Creasy did to other people to find her, simply doesn’t add up. You can’t use the image of a cute little girl to justify shooting someone’s fingers off (although the movie still tries that). And in the last shot, we see Creasy peacefully fall asleep to never wake up again. He dies, yes, but it’s serene, it feels like salvation. All is forgotten and the little girl is safe. The movie tries to take the easy way out, but I can’t help but feel a bad taste in my mouth after seeing this ending. It says: “Creasy was a good man who did what had to be done, so just leave him alone.” It is a manipulative and romanticized ending that encaptures all of the tonal and moral confusion of this movie.