Man on Fire: Special Edition Review
When Charles Bronson laid waste to a criminal empire in Death Wish, he opened a can of worms that still wriggle and squirm in Hollywood today. The worm in question, is the revenge picture - a nasty little off-shoot of the action genre, that can be exciting, brutal and in some cases, very trashy indeed. 2004 heralded a return to this fertile ground, and cinemas greatest anti-hero, “the vigilante”, was once again on the prowl. Tarantino offered us the sub-genre on a blood-splattered plate, with his over-the-top opus Kill Bill; a film that shouldn’t have worked, but managed to redefine the guilty pleasure. Soon after, Marvel Comics resurrected Frank Castle, a character who followed in Bronson’s well-trodden footsteps. Yet, The Punisher was no success, dying slowly at the box office. Perhaps audiences were tired of the bang-bang-you’re-dead routine? Apparently not, since Tony Scott delivered his own cocktail of painful retribution, and cut-throat heroics. If Man on Fire proves anything, it’s that the worm has yet to turn...
Scott’s mean thriller is clearly an exploitation movie, wrapped up in studio gloss and expensive eye candy. Yet it’s a credit to the director, that the darkness of his tale seeps to the surface. He also deserves praise for hiring Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential), whose writing skills can save a flimsy story from the dustbin. Actually, Man on Fire is nothing new. Based on A.J. Quinell’s novel, the tale was filmed back in 1987, with Scott Glenn taking the lead as tortured bodyguard Creasy; a man who really needs to work out his issues. For 2004’s adaptation, Scott has roped in Denzel Washington, an actor that has remained consistently watchable throughout his career. Thankfully, his performance here is first-rate, and when Man on Fire shows signs of skidding off the rails, he’s there to take control.
We find ourselves whisked away to the forbidding vistas of Mexico City. Well, it’s forbidding in Scott’s world - a swirling storm of colour, noise and rising heat. Dropping by, is John Creasy (Washington), an ex-assassin with an alcohol problem, and acute depression. However, a meeting with his long-time friend Rayburn (Christopher Lee), leads him to a new job. His task? To act as a bodyguard for the young Pita (Dakota Fanning), daughter of rich Mexican Samuel (Marc Anthony) and fellow American Lisa (Radha Mitchell). Abduction in Mexico City is rife, and Pita needs the best protection possible. However, Creasy is gunned down during a frantic assault, and his charge is kidnapped, with ransom in mind. An operation to pay the kidnappers is mounted, but it goes awry in spectacular fashion, signalling the death of Pita. But Creasy survived. Rejuvenated, he’s now a man with a mission. To quote a famous tag-line, “he’s in town with a few days to kill.”
It’s clear from the start, that Scott and Helgeland wanted Man on Fire to be something more than the average thriller. After all, nearly an hour elapses before the main story begins. It’s more concerned about tone and execution than the brash silliness of Death Wish. Scott wants us to know these characters, and the first act is all about build-up. The script paints a full portrait of Creasey, a role that might have been a cipher in someone else’s hands, but is given extra depth by Washington’s thoughtful, multi-layered portrayal. His relationship with Pita is the building block on which the entire film stands. A miscalculation here or there, would have resulted in collapse, and the director is smart enough to let the actors gain our sympathy.
In most respects, filmmakers have only scratched the surface of Fanning’s talents, and Scott shows us that she might blossom into a fully-capable actress, with a wider range than most. As Pita, she still retains those sickly-cute characteristics, but her chemistry with Washington is admirable and involving. Likewise, Washington seems totally at ease with his child co-star, and her surprising maturity gives the material a realistic edge. It isn’t hard to believe that Creasy would care for Pita, and his attempts to become a better man give Washington plenty of scope for emotion. Therefore, the film is dripping with suspense when the abduction takes place, and when Fanning disappears, the film takes a major shift in tone. The touching character moments are replaced with sordid, and often repulsive scenes of retribution, that really earn the films 18 certificate. Creasey is one guy you don’t want to piss off.
“Creasey’s art is death, and he’s about to paint his masterpiece...”
This is what The Punisher was sorely lacking - real punishment. One criminal has his fingers cut off one-by-one, before taking a ride off a cliff. Another gets his knee caps blown apart at close-range, and most memorably of all, a corrupt cop gets a C-4 enema. Ouch. The box art proudly highlights a quote from Tarantino, stating that the film is “tough as hell.” I couldn’t argue with that. Scott’s film packs a wallop, and any intelligence the film might have had is drowned out by gunfire, explosions and bodily dismemberment. My colleague Mike Sutton, faced a similar problem when writing his review - Man on Fire is reprehensible entertainment; leaving its mark on the audience. Unfortunately, the viewer doesn’t know what to feel. Scott’s film boils down to B-movie theatrics - no different to many low-grade shockers that have come and gone over the years. Cinematic violence usually appeals to me, but Man on Fire seems to be hiding from the truth. It’s too serious for its own good, and the sky-high production values help to confuse our sensibilities. Scott’s tone is morally ambiguous, raising several questions he might not be able to answer. Should we champion Creasey’s brand of justice, or lament his downward spiral?
The films mean-spirit spreads to the mise-en-scene, visuals and urban backdrop. The end credits thank the citizens of Mexico City, which in my mind, is mildly insulting. Scott has depicted the city as a scum-ridden open-sewer, filled to the brim with hateful people. Even the photography makes the place seem harsh, with washed-out colours and a gritty texture. Imagine the sun-drenched look of Robert Rodriguez’s Mariachi trilogy, mixed with the grim vigour of Se7en. This misrepresentation also dogs Helgeland’s script, which features some distasteful stereotypes. Are all Mexican’s greasy low-lives with a distaste for human life? Sometimes I have to wonder. The inclusion of good guys Giancarlo Giannini and Rachel Ticotin doesn’t help, since their roles are so minor. Still, it’s Scott’s visual prowess that might annoy the most. Whip pans; fast and slow-motion combined; exaggerated editing, and some of the loopiest subtitles ever, impress on a technical level, but mostly got on my nerves.
These problems aside, I enjoyed Man on Fire, to a degree. The last act is exciting, with a revelation that changes the course of the picture; giving us a ray of hope amidst the body count. Scott’s film is powerful - there’s no doubt about that, but its only defining element is the relationship between Washington and Fanning - one that we genuinely care about. The film grips, and tightens like a vice, but when it was all over, I wasn’t in the best of moods...
In what appears to be a new trend lately, Region 2 users are granted a deluxe edition of Man on Fire, while US buyers have to make do with a one-disc affair. Their “Special Edition” is due for release, but we get it first. Thankfully, it was worth the wait, and Fox continue to set new standards for home video quality. In other words, this two-disc set is packing heat...
The Look and Sound
When a film is directed by Tony Scott, you’d better pray that the transfer is up to scratch. Naturally, this anamorphic widescreen (2.40:1) treatment does the job well. Every visual trick employed by the filmmaker is displayed with passion here. The image has a depth and clarity, with finely delineated colours and resonant blacks. It’s a sharp transfer, but it took me a while to realise its quality. This was mostly due to the over-stylised nature of Paul Cameron’s cinematography, which gives the film a drab, dusty look. The picture is grainy and overexposed on purpose, making it difficult to assess the experience overall. Stay with the film for long, and it’s clear that Fox have done a first-rate job here. Scott’s command of light and filters makes Man on Fire a visual treat, and if there were flaws, they were well-concealed by the eye candy. The transfer lets the film breathe, and it’s doubtful that the picture could look better on DVD.
As for audio, I expected a loud, booming mix, which this disc mostly delivers. That said, the tracks probably don’t qualify as demo material, which is what I was expecting from the exuberant Scott. We get the customary Dolby Digital 5.1, and DTS 5.1. Both are pretty great, with spectacular use of the surrounds. The channels are used carefully, creating mood efficiently (skip to the abduction scene, and marvel at how the sound design throws you off balance.) That said, it’s amazing how low-key much of the film sounds. It takes a long time for the “action” to erupt, with only sporadic uses of deep bass. The opening credits, which boasted a great deal of activity, could have been more forceful. It’s loud, but not engrossing. Startling, but not powerful. Of the two tracks, the DTS comes out best, as to be expected. The dialogue is crystal clear, with every gunshot, explosion and exclamation point projected with panache. It needed more oomph...more intensity...but I suspect I’m being too picky. Man on Fire is a technical wonder.
Anamorphically-enhanced, these menus retain the look and feel of the feature, with flashy animation and noisy transitions. They have a pleasing appearance, yet are pretty unremarkable. Still, they’re better than most. An ideal fit for Scott’s hyper-kinetic direction.
The disc begins with trailers for Dodgeball, Alien Vs. Predator, Johnson Family Vacation, and the US remake of Taxi. Thankfully, they are skippable.
Audio Commentary by Tony Scott
The Brit director is an engaging presence on this track; my first commentary with Ridley’s younger brother. He takes his time, discussing the project in pleasing detail. For instance, the project was supposed to be his second feature after The Hunger, but he was pulled toward Top Gun instead. Elsewhere, he delves into the eclectic cast, and how he chose Washington for the part. Apparently, a chance meeting with his Crimson Tide star was enough to convince the director that he was right for the role. He also gets to grips with the choice of location (which was Italy in the book), and highlights the political climate and dizzying levels of abduction in Mexico City. He’s a confident speaker, that clearly loves his job, and he goes into great relish about how he composed Man on Fire’s unique look. The odd dead spot aside, this is a worthwhile track for fans of the filmmaker.
**Note - This release is missing the second commentary with Brian Helgeland, Dakota Fanning and the producer, which was found on the R1 disc.
There are five of these, which come with optional commentary by Scott. None of them are particularly memorable - mere scene extensions or dialogue pieces; the kind that we usually get. That said, there’s a sex scene, which is directed in true MTV-style (it’s pretty tacky, but we get to see more of the lovely Radha Mitchell.) Thankfully it was cut, and Scott justifies the removal, but it’s nice to see lost material included here.
The first disc concludes with Fox’s regular sneak-peek at an up-coming feature. This time, it’s the Robert De Niro chiller Hide and Seek, which has Dakota Fanning in a supporting role.
“Vengeance Is Mine: Reinventing Man on Fire”
This is a great documentary, which runs for just over 70 minutes. It’s split-up into different chapters, which can be selected from the menu, or played as a whole. It includes interviews with most of the principle filmmakers - Scott, screenwriter Brian Helgeland, Washington, Fanning and DP Paul Cameron, as well as many others. It covers the key bases - scripting, pre-production, shooting, casting and the various methods that Scott and his crew employed. Much attention is made to the visual elements of Man on Fire, and to see behind-the-scenes footage is a major plus; showing Scott as a filmmaker who tries to push the boundaries. There is some considerable overlap with the commentary, but not enough to spoil the experience. Helgeland offers some very amusing anecdotes, including his own desire to direct the film, and the recommendation he was given by Tarantino to rent the original Man on Fire, back when he was an unknown video clerk! This is a fun insight into the production, that I’d probably watch again.
The key scene is dissected for your viewing pleasure. You’re given the choice of viewing Scott’s original storyboards, or the raw footage from different angles; giving us a neat look at how the scene was cut together.
The set rounds-up with a decent photo gallery, the “Oye Coma Va” music video by Kinky, and a set of trailers/TV spots. An above-average package.
Man on Fire was never going to win any awards, but it is a thought-provoking thriller that offers more than most Hollywood pictures. It can be graphic and shocking at times, making it ideal for those with stronger stomachs. Still, the main reason to see it, is for Washington’s blistering performance - without him, the film would have been mediocre at best. If you’re a fan of the film, Fox’s “Special Edition” is an easy purchase, and a definite rental. Man on Fire is a pretty explosive DVD.