Tony Scott’s slick, gritty and highly influential 2004 revenge thriller Man on Fire holds even more fiery resonance today than when it did upon first release. Brian Helgeland’s hard-nosed, straight-ahead screenplay set a simple foundation for Scott to run amok with his distinct brand of directorial tricks. The film is a stylistic tour de force and serves as a bridge from the post-Bruckheimer era to the more experimental/artiste period for the filmmaker. By mixing envelope-pushing editing techniques (Christian Wagner’s harsh yet beautifully staccato cutting patterns are nearly out of bounds) with varied film-stock cinematography by the brilliant cameraman Paul Cameron, Scott was able to craft a genre picture that occasionally bordered on the avant-garde. And he’d further push his maximalist style to the breaking point in his next film, the career-defining genre-bender Domino.
Scott also utilized wildly creative subtitles (notice the fonts and screen placement) and a hyper-layered soundtrack of both scored and sourced music, with threatening ambient sounds, thus achieving a fractured-nightmare quality that sneaks up and envelopes the viewer, as it does lead character Creasey, played with stoic resilience by Denzel Washington. And because the narrative allowed for room for the performances to grow and register, while developing the bond between Creasey and Pita, played wonderfully by Dakota Fanning with the perfect mix of precocious intelligence and inner compassion, the film’s nearly apocalyptic sense of death and revenge feels earned however morally questionable.
Bloody and violent but never unnecessarily so, Man on Fire has a mean-streak a mile wide, but also contains, like so many other Scott films, a seriously warm heart and genuine love for the characters within the frame. The restless, nervy filmmaking aesthetic intelligently meshed with the damaged psychological complexities of Washington’s character; it’s a slow burn performance and one of Denzel’s absolute best and most compelling. And every bit his equal was Fanning, whose enormously affecting performance as the girl-in-trouble makes the viewer care each and every step of the way, no matter how dark and nasty things get within the parameters of the story. Creasey’s about to paint his masterpiece, and we’re invited to the wild show. Man on Fire is one of the best examples of its genre.
Review by Nick Clement