Man on Fire was not Tony Scott's first triumph, having streamlined Quentin Tarantino's script for True Romance into something that actually benefited from outside tampering and scored two solid genre movies with Enemy of the State and Spy Game. But it was his 2004 film that set off Scott's modern reinvention as perhaps the most daring, or at least egregious, talent in American action film. Using a glossy/grainy digital aesthetic, endless in-camera effects in opposition to CGI and and remarkably sensual approach to blockbuster filmmaking, Scott would take the slapdash construction favored by such sloppy directors as Michael Bay and forcibly bend it toward something approaching poetry.
Scott's visual élan explodes from the start, as alternately slow and fast motion film, heavy grain, overexposure and even a fade to black and white gussy up the first images of the film. A scroll of informative text rolls across the screen saying that a kidnapping occurs in Mexico once every 60 seconds. When the text disappears and the frame unfreezes, Scott leaps into pure frenzy, layering overexposed images as cars speed up and shove people into backseats as onlookers scream helplessly. In this moment, the director reveals his biggest stylistic leap, that of deeply subjective filmmaking, rooted in the perspective of agitated people under extreme stress.
American cinema has occasionally posited the idea of a bodyguard hired to watch over children, but usually in a comedic way, playing on the idea that burly-'n'-surly trained mercenary juxtaposed with precocious tykes equals yuks aplenty. Yet as Man on Fire notes, kidnapping has grown to such an epidemic in Mexico that the bourgeoisie there have taken to hiring bodyguards out of necessity. A retired CIA operative, Rayburn (Christopher Walken), invites his old friend John Creasy (Denzel Washington, in the first of his collaborations with the director) to his comfortable estate in Mexico City to offer him such work. Aware that Creasy, a former Recon Marine, has lapsed into alcoholism and despair, Rayburn thinks that a steady job looking after a panicky middle-class family would be a way for Creasy to get his demons under control. Rayburn's even got a job lined up for Creasy to watch the daughter of a businessman (Marc Anthony) who does not particularly fear any kidnapping but wishes to placate his American wife's fears as cheaply as possible.
Scott's muscular but tender approach finds its perfect outlet in Washington, who has been steadily bulking up his entire career as if combating the onset of a paunch years in advance. But he's yet to lose that twinkle in his eye and the disarming power of his smile, and he can still collapse and entire film around him with one good look. Before he mentions his substance issues or chugs a drink, Creasy lets us know of his problems solely through Washington's body language, still mostly erect through rigorous military training but sagging through revulsion, not sloth. Those eyes never seem to look anywhere but inward, and the glimmering chrysalis that encases them suggests Creasy doesn't like what he sees. He takes the job because he has no other options, and his isolated depression makes him a mobile obelisk following around the chirpy, mature-beyond-her-years daughter of Samuel and Lisa, Lupita, or "Pita" for short (Dakota Fanning).
Bravely, Scott devotes nearly a whole hour to Creasy's ingratiation into the Ramos household. This arc follows the expected path -- hardened ex-soldier slowly warms to young girl's charms -- but cliché is only ever unbearable when nothing about it is new, and Scott's inventive framing combines with believable performances from Washington and Fanning to make for a friendly chemistry that practically never exists between child and adult.
Pita, at this point used to having a bodyguard, has the forthrightness of a child mixed with the no-nonsense talk one has with an employee, making her almost unbearably blunt. "Being black, is that a positive or negative in Mexico?" she asks Creasy as he drives her to school. "Time will tell," replies Creasy in that sardonically chipper tone that says he's already fed up with the conversation. Yet the sudden reintroduction of the in-camera effects after the (relative) calm when street people swarm the car in rush hour show that as much as Creasy may not care about her, he still won't let her get hurt, and he's still got his sharp instincts.
Only when a night of heavy drinking leads to a failed suicide attempt does Creasy finally merge those retained instincts with an actual interest in Pita's safety. Scott is brilliant with the suicide sequence, the frame warping and skipping as Creasy stumbles around in despair not unlike Willard at the start of Apocalypse Now. The cuts bewilder in a meaningful way, disorienting as the character is disoriented, occasionally stopping on such minor, beautiful images as whiskey dripping from John's sagging lip. The bullet he places in his gun misfires, and suddenly the frame calms as the experience centers Creasy. Scott isn't just playing around, he's getting at something here, a feeling rather than merely a presentation.
Creasy's epiphany leads him to start living life again, and he warms up to Pita in the usual way, helping her with history homework and awkwardly tiptoeing around the subject of concubines. Scott even devotes considerable time to the unnecessary sideplot of Pita's swim training just to allow her connection with Creasy to deepen. A full 45 minutes into the film, the biggest development in Man on Fire is the swim meet that allows Pita to put all the advice and practice Creasy helped her with into practice. Scott probably could have gotten away with making a film without any explosions or gunfights, so skilled is his ability to make this more human drama so kinetic.
Then, it all changes. Coming out of her piano lesson, Pita is cornered by kidnappers (and colluding cops), and not even Creasy's valiant efforts can prevent her seizure. Severely wounded, Creasy lies in a hospital bed as the police accuse him of murdering two officers and the Ramos family scrambles to retrieve their daughter, using an insurance policy Samuel took out to collect $10 million for a drop-off. But the drop goes awry and the kidnapper's nephew dies, leading the man to tell the family that he will not return Pita. When news of the girl's presumed death reaches Creasy's room, he wrenches himself from his bed and vows to kill anyone who had even the slightest involvement in Pita's kidnapping.
Unfortunately, Man of Fire soon lapses into too typical a revenge fantasy, presenting Creasy as a one-man army tearing his way through Mexico killing all in his path. Even the numerous twists of the narrative do not complicate the film so much as provide clever asides in Creasy's single-minded killing spree. He tortures information out of lackeys as he rises the ladder of a criminal organization, uncovering police corruption and even a more unexpected collaborator.
Scott's modern work is based fundamentally on feelings and moods, not the grandeur of typical blockbuster bombast, yet Man on Fire shows the director trying to fully break from the latter. Thus, the film occasionally shifts between his more intimate style and a larger focus, and the break from visceral immediacy hurts the film. Scott could also have done with some trimming, not, surprisingly, in the 50 minutes of build-up but the repetitive tedium of Creasy's rampage. Where the beginning displayed Scott's élan in such extraneous but delightful moments as the speeding up of the image as Creasy drives through a tunnel or the close-up of the daffodil Pita picked for Creasy situated next to his necklace of St. Jude, patron saint of lost causes (another gift from Pita), the rest of the film spends too much time playing Creasy's sickening bloodlust with a straight face. While the idea of Pita unlocking not only Creasy's humanity but his monstrous past brings up interesting if narrow possibilities, but Scott does not follow up on the potential theme.
Still, not all of Scott's violence here is as simple as it seems, and the more thoughtful approach he'd take to it later peeks through here and there. Pita's kidnapping is one of Scott's greatest sequences, communicating not Creasy's badass cool but his desperate concern for Pita's safety. He may have a steady aim and be seemingly impervious, but that's because his focus is entirely on the girl. The scene climaxes in a beautifully framed moment as a wounded Creasy and corrupt cop shoot each other, the sound cutting out so only Pita's terrified gasp is heard. Too often, though, I found myself pining for Scott's exciting framing of Pita's swim competition instead of the carnage of his his third-act mayhem.
Ultimately, Man on Fire is more coherent than Scott's subsequent Domino and Déjà Vu but lacks the avant-garde invention of those films. It also lacks the more focused narrative-driven tautness of Unstoppable. But the film still shows the major evolution of a director whom no one would suspect of being at the forefront of mainstream innovation. So many little touches, such as Scott's gleeful breaking of the 180o rule to the incorporation of subtitles into the frame, placing them in the middle and animating them to coincide with the mood -- Lisa's tearful Spanish spoken to the kidnapper is translated in wavy subtitles, while the oft-repeated phrase "I'm just a professional" appears on-screen despite the words always being spoken in English, a motif of self-absolution from those in Creasy's sights. Though it may lack the power of subsequent efforts, Man on Fire still has enough ingenuity to stand out among revenge fantasies, and as much as I continue to feel let down by the brutality, I also continue to find myself moved by the ending, which coalesces the violence back into the sensual feel of the film's first half. There, he gets it all together; later films would show him applying the combined skills in full.