Man On Fire Review
Man On Fire is a powerful, affecting and completely gripping piece of machine-tooled filmmaking. It’s also dubious trash of the lowest kind and I don’t think these things are necessarily unrelated. If Man On Fire were made with less skill then it might not be quite so morally offensive. On the other hand, if it were a worse film then it wouldn’t be so completely involving and, consequently, wouldn’t have the same kind of emotional impact. If I sound a little confused that’s because this is the kind of brilliantly accomplished filmmaking which leaves you startled at how easily you’ve been manipulated.
PLEASE NOTE THAT THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE END OF THE FILM. THESE HAVE BEEN MARKED SEPARATELY
Creasey (Washington) is a burnt-out case whose only chance for employment comes from a friend Rayburn (Walken) who recommends him as a bodyguard for a rich Mexican family. Creasey is initially sceptical but he gradually finds his soul returning through a friendship with the daughter Peta (Fanning). However, when Peta is kidnapped and a ransom drop goes wrong, Creasey becomes a vengeance machine, willing to do anything to anyone in order to get her back alive.
Although Man On Fire is based on a novel – previously filmed in 1987 – it’s basically a Charles Bronson film with added nutrients such as character, shading and decent dialogue. Creasey is played to perfection by the great Denzel Washington, surely one of the two or three best film actors currently working, but he stubbornly remains a straight-to-video vigilante stereotype whose supposed complexity – his search to ‘regain his soul’ – is Hollywood moonshine of the most familiar kind. How many Hollywood action heroes have regained their soul through a descent into increasingly despicable violence ? You may recall that Mr Bronson’s Paul Kelsey in Death Wish could only look his colleagues in the face, having lost his wife to muggers, after engaging in a lengthy session of killing lowlifes. The pig must be killed and, not only that, it’s head must be stuffed and mounted for all to see. Only occasionally has American cinema tried to address the ethics of revenge killing and two of the best explorations were by Clint Eastwood in Unforgiven and Mystic River. The former reminded us that, “It’s a hell of a thing killing a man. You take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have,” and showed us how vengeance and violence gradually destroys the soul of he who went looking for justice and found only a cycle of sordid brutality. The latter examined how revenge, however strongly motivated and perhaps even understandable, is self-consuming and, all too often, the very opposite of justice. Man On Fire, even though it begins with Creasy musing “Will God forgive us for what we’ve done?”, isn’t really interested in ethical conundrums and eventually settles down to being a reactionary, crowd-pleasing action movie with an ending that desperately flails at significance but doesn’t redeem the ugliness of the morality of what precedes it.
What I find troubling about this film – in a way that I don’t find, say, mediocre pulp like Ten To Midnight troubling – is that it’s so incredibly involving and emotionally intense that it whips up our feelings into a righteous frenzy. It’s largely done through incredibly simplistic moral dialectics. Yes, it seems to be saying, Creasey does horrible things but the kidnappers are scum and deserve everything that’s coming to them. And in any case, he’s only doing it for cute little Peta so he must be in the right. If you find yourself pausing even momentarily at this then you’re likely to find Man On Fire rather worrying. I’m aware this is a hopelessly liberal response to a relatively traditional Hollywood treatment of ‘righteous’ violence but on the other hand, I don’t think you have to be a liberal to be concerned about the glamorisation and, worse, the attempted moral justification of torture followed by cold-blooded murder. Nor am I sure that depicting Mexico City as a place where endemic violence is causing society to crumble is either realistic nor fair.
SPOILERS FOR THE ENDING OF THE FILM
There is some question about whether the ending of the film – where Creasey gives his life for Peta’s - justifies the earlier actions of the character. Personally, I think it makes no difference to the ultimate message. Creasey is made a romantic, tragic figure whose actions have got Peta back alive, no matter that he’s a torturer and killer. I see where this is coming from and that to some extent Creasey is a man who dies when the kidnap occurs and has to work through a river of shit in order to reach redemption. But I just can’t forget the sheer vileness of the sequence in the car when he cuts off some pathetic bastard’s fingers, cauterises them with a cigarette lighter and then shoots him. The ending, surprisingly uncompromising for a Hollywood film as it is, changes nothing about my problems with the film and, in a way, it magnifies them.
END OF SPOILERS
However, let’s forget the ethics for now and concentrate on what makes this such a well made piece of pure cinema. Tony Scott began his film career with The Hunger which was a classic case of the asphyxiation of any trace of substance by a massive cushion of pseudo-style. But he’s learned fast and his films since the excellent True Romance have usually sported superb performances, intelligent screenplays and some stunning visuals. This film is no exception and Scott’s decision to adopt a self-consciously gritty and stylised technique pays dividends. Although it initially takes you out of the film by forcing you to focus so much on the style, his use of multiple cameras, hyper-intense editing, bizarrely exaggerated subtitling and often filming very close-in pays dividends in that it immerses you in the place and involves you with the people. By the time Creasey begins dispensing his version of justice, we feel we’ve been through a lifetime of experience with him. We really think we’ve been put through the mill. Denzel Washington’s completely credible performance is pivotal here. He’s a real actor and the power which made him so heartbreaking as Rubin Carter in The Hurricane works for him here, in a film which is the exact political opposite of that one.
Indeed, Scott’s direction of actors has becoming increasingly praiseworthy and his ability to bring the best out of a good cast is demonstrated here. Christopher Walken adds gravitas in a relatively minor role as a refreshingly normal character and there are good bits from strong presences such as the excellent Giancarlo GIaninni and Rachel Ticotin. However, the real revelation is nine year old Dakota Fanning as Peta. It’s the best performance from a child actress that I’ve seen in years and she shows immense promise. Dakota has the ability to be touching and funny without being obnoxiously cute and that’s a rare gift in American child performers. If her career is handled correctly then she could become a very promising talent indeed. All the actors are aided by Brian Helgeland’s script which is literate and often insightful, although he can’t resist throwing crumbs to the reactionary members of the audience and he falls into the trap of portraying the people that Creasey kills as somehow subhuman.
Can a film be simultaneously beautiful and repugnant ? I think Man On Fire demonstrates that it can. There is genuine beauty here, both in the ultra-stylised images of Mexico as an inferno of pain and in Denzel Washington’s emotionally grabbing, remarkably forceful performance. It’s all of a piece, a film which matches style to content to remarkable effect. But the relentless violence and the moral vacuum at the heart of the film are both quite repugnant. I found the film involving and moving – it coheres and resolves with complete consistency and, in the puny ethical scheme of the film, honesty. In pure filmmaking terms, it’s one of the best movies I’ve seen this year. Yet, in the end, my overwhelming emotion was how much I hated it. Quite a paradox.
Fox’s DVD of Man On Fire is technically superb and anyone wanting the best possible presentation of the film is unlikely to be disappointed. However, rather bafflingly, the only significant extra features are two commentary tracks. Considering that much less interesting films from Fox - League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, The Day After Tomorrow - have merited feature packed special editions, I’m a little surprised by how restrained this DVD is.
The film is presented in its original ‘Scope’ aspect ratio of roughly 2.40:1 and has been anamorphically enhanced. This is an excellent transfer, doing a very fine job with a film which must have posed immense coding challenges due to Scott’s decision to use different film stocks and his constant use of extremes of lighting. The image is very detailed without being over-enhanced and there are few problems with artifacting. I thought this picture was very impressive.
There are two English soundtracks offered, one in Dolby Digital 5.1 and the other in DTS 5.1 Surround. Both are very good although not as eventful as you might expect. The surrounds are used intelligently but not constantly as in most contemporary action films. The sub-woofer, on the other hand, is rarely allowed a moment’s rest with constant explosions, engine rumbles and gunshots to keep it busy. I noticed no dramatic difference in quality between the two tracks although the DTS track seemed a little more natural in terms of dialogue.
The only extras relating to the film are two audio commentary tracks. I thought both of these were very good with the first, by Tony Scott, impressing more than the second, featuring Dakota Fanning, Brian Helgeland and producer Lucas Forster. Scott talks in great detail about how the film was made and, probably wisely, doesn’t get heavily involved in moral quandaries. His discussion of filmmaking technique is fascinating. The second track is a lot chattier with Fanning seeming charming, if a little precocious, and the two men alternately patronising her and making comments about the differences between novel and film. They discuss ethical questions to a certain extent but don’t seem to arrive at any firm conclusions.
We also get brief trailers for I, Robot, The Day After Tomorrow and, god help us, Alien Vs Predator at the beginning of the disc, and “Inside Look” which offers a teaser for Hide And Seek and a truly dreadful look at the US remake of Taxi.
The film is divided into 28 chapter stops and there are subtitles for the main feature but not the commentaries.
Man On Fire is well worth seeing, both for the excellent performances and Scott’s direction which will certainly divide audiences between those who, like me, love it and those who find it gimmicky beyond rational understanding. However, I can’t pretend that I liked it and I found its ultimate message depressing and slightly upsetting. The DVD looks and sounds very good indeed and is certainly worth considering, although I would recommend seeing the film on the big screen when it opens in the UK on Friday 8th October.