Man on Fire: All Access Collector's Edition Review
Adapted from a book of the same title by A. J. Quinnell, though with a different setting (the film uses Mexico instead of Italy) and a different ending, the 2004 production of Man on Fire boasts a stellar cast and a good, solid crew, coming together to create a very watchable – if rather distasteful – revenge movie. Just to quickly reiterate, this is the most recent film of this name, not the 1987 version with Scott Glenn in the main role.
The action revolves around John Creasy (Denzel Washington), a washed-out Special Ops officer… or something very similar; it’s never explicitly spelled out in the film. Psychologically and emotionally scarred by his long military career and a little too dependent upon alcohol to get through each and every day, he travels down to Mexico to visit his old friend Rayburn (Christopher Walken), who offers to help him find another job. Because of all the kidnappings in Mexico, there’s a lot of work there for bodyguards, especially positions protecting the children of the rich. And so it’s not long before Creasy is employed by an affluent family: Samuel (Marc Anthony), a local son of substantial means, his American ex-pat wife Lisa (Radha Mitchell) who warms to Creasy immediately, and Pita (Dakota Fanning) – the daughter Creasy has been hired to protect.
At first Creasy remains aloof and conducts his work while trying to maintain a barrier between his subject and himself, but Pita’s natural charm begins to wear his barriers down. It all seems relatively straightforward plot-wise; we’ve seen gruff, mean men taught to smile by cute little girls before… but the acting and writing raises the level of the story, so that the audience is carried along with the plot.
However, when Pita is kidnapped the film changes gear, becoming a revenge film in the tradition of Deathwish. Creasy will stop at nothing to get all of the information he needs to actively punish those responsible for Pita’s kidnapping, and he swears to Lisa that he will kill everyone involved. From here on in, things get rather gruesome and Creasy’s background and training become more apparent from the examples of torture we witness him partaking in. He gets some assistance in chasing up the leads he uncovers from reporter Mariana (Rachel Ticotin) and an ex-Interpol chief (whom the film more or less styles as the only non-corrupt cop in Mexico City), played by Giancarlo Giannini. But essentially this is the story of Creasy’s vendetta, brutal to watch and brutally played out, spiraling down towards an end which many will see coming (and for spoilers' sake I shan't discuss further).
The strengths of the film are many, not the least of which being the cast. Denzel Washington is brilliantly on form here, displaying the toughest of tough sides and inner strength as well as the ability to show more tender emotions. Dakota Fanning has been an incredibly watchable actress in every role she’s played so far and this one is no exception – she had to learn to swim, to speak Spanish, and to play piano to portray Pita and that takes quite some commitment for one of such young years. She brings Pita to life and manages to keep her from straying into that dangerous 'sickly sweet' territory that so many child actors run afoul of (and as I’d slightly feared she might from the initial trailers for Man on Fire). The rest of the central cast also shine. Christopher Walken specifically requested to play Rayburn – an unusually ‘good-guy’ role for him – and he’s pleasantly understated and a calm presence.
I was also positively surprised by Marc Anthony as Samuel, Pita’s father. Normally the presence of Jennifer Lopez' latest husband (and a popular singer in his own right) as one of the supporting characters would be somewhat distracting – but while there’s a lot he has to convey emotionally through the film, he plays his role well enough that after that initial face recognition, he blended right in and handed over a solid performance. In the same vein, Radha Mitchell gives a good range of emotion to Lisa, as well as those hidden strengths which are needed through the film. Finally, Mickey Rourke, though not on-screen very much, also performs well as the family lawyer. It’s not just that the cast are known and good actors though, they also perform on the top of their form here which really helps raise the entire standard of the film.
Of course, another massive thing this film has going for it is the tight scripting provided by Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential, Mystic River)… who has apparently included new subplots while supplementing dialogue from the original novel. Aiding in this and tying everything together is, of course, Tony Scott. The direction is quite flashy here, with lots of fast inter-cut camerawork and dynamic subtitling that I particularly enjoyed. The method employed is quite striking, with the most gruesome of scenes shot in such a way they don’t lead to closed eyes or turning away from the screen. Likewise, the action sequences are shot on high-speed film and deliberately left grainy, realistic, fast and furious. The device of trying to show Creasy’s mindset at various stages also works well in Scott’s hands, and may have been a catastrophic failure in anyone else’s. There’s a very stylised process going on here, and one which really worked for me – though I’d guess some might find it a little off-putting. But without the core of a good script and fantastic cast on top-form, the style would come across as hollow – so it’s really in bringing together all the disparate elements that Scott should be lauded for.
These are all the strengths of the film. But it also has weaknesses. Creasy isn’t a terribly sympathetic character and his treatment of others in his hunt for vengeance is simultaneously understandable and despicable. In fact, few of the characters are particularly sympathetic, aside from the women – Lisa, Mariana and Pita – and the one non-corrupt cop! Which leads on to my next point… that the depiction of Mexico as a step away from Hell is a little extreme. Cops are ridiculously corrupt, society is indifferent and unruly (one scene in the film shows an entire night club's worth of people cheering as the venue they were just in burns to the ground), etc. etc. – all things I’m sure modern-day Mexico would rather not be represented as. Although Scott does explain that they felt it necessary to move the action away from Italy and towards Mexico based upon the real-life numbers of kidnappings in today’s society, the depiction here is rather savage.
Overall, I found Man on Fire to be something of a surprise compared to what I imagined from the trailers. It was a much harder film to watch and also a much more stylish one. While I revelled in the style and acting, the actual harshness of the plot and action was quite difficult at times. I did come away from it recommending it to friends though; it’s a definitely one to watch as long as you’re not too squeamish, but not sure it’s one I’d say I loved.
The film is extremely interesting to watch and this transfer does it full credit, a gorgeous anamorphic presentation in the original theatrical aspect ratio of 2.40:1. The colours are rich, the blacks are deep, and the skin tones are true… very important for a film that moves rapidly between darkened rooms, back alleys, and out into the blistering sunshine. Where the picture is grainy or there’s use of over-exposure, it's clearly deliberate and also looks very hip – every cinematographic device Tony Scott has wheeled in comes up trumps visually. Overall it's a very stylish film and the picture quality on this DVD transfer does that proud.
There are two English language tracks, one DTS 5.1 and one Dolby Digital 5.1 – I concentrated on the latter due to my home cinema equipment. No complaints here on the use of the surrounds; the soundtrack is extremely effective, making superb use of the rear soundstage and forward left/right directionality in order to heighten the emotion and evoke the exact mood desired as the film progresses. Nor is the soundtrack a loud, booming affair; it’s subtler than that and I found it very effective throughout in creating the right atmosphere. Dialogue is extremely clear throughout.
Being the ‘All Access’ edition, you’d naturally expect a decent array of special features, and that’s what’s presented here. Very similar to the R2 Special Edition – though with an additional commentary – this DVD is also split across two discs for its extras.
On the first disc the features comprise two commentaries. The first is by Tony Scott, director of the film, riding solo. It’s a very interesting piece, especially regarding filming methods, and deals with both technicalities and the process of putting across the emotion of the story within the film medium. Especially intriguing were his breakdowns of how specific techniques can be used to bring out reactions in the audience and his fluency with visual language again holds a lot of interest. But this isn’t just a dry methodology lecture; there’s also anecdotes and comments about the cast and what it was like working with them.
The second commentary brings on board producer Lucas Foster, screenwriter Brian Helgeland, and Dakota Fanning in a more standard commentary about plot and character. While they discuss the differences between novel and screenplay, the presence of Fanning leads to some chat about how she found the film to work on and her preparation. Less fascinating than the Tony Scott commentary by far, it remains an interesting insight into the role of the producer – which is given a fair amount of air time – and I always find it somewhat engaging to listen to an actor describe her time on a project. Though I was somewhat surprised that the actor contribution here was made by the youngest cast member, she does have some interesting things to say.
The second disc has the remaining features, which are an solid mix of the engaging and the fluff. The biggest and most appealing feature is a massive documentary, Vengeance is Mine, which runs over 70 minutes. It’s broken into sections which you can select separately, but I just watched it through with ‘play all’. Cast and crew are interviewed in much more depth than you get in the standard ‘featurette’ and due to this – and the length allowed for this feature – there’s a wealth of intriguing information included here, and it’s definitely worth a watch. I particularly enjoyed hearing Dakota Fanning explaining her secret method of bringing out the tears…
Another interesting extra is the multi-angle sequence of Pita’s abduction where the scene is shown from the various camera angles. There’s also the option of looking at the original storyboards. It’s always interesting to get a real insight into the work of director/editor and these kind of features definitely allow for this.
Deleted scenes have been limited to the ones Tony Scott thought were especially interesting to a viewer: ones which show other directions the film could have taken (including a romance element). Also included here is the alternate ending thought up by Denzel Washington. All of these can be watched with or without director commentary – which generally says why the scenes weren’t included, whether it be for timing, for plotline or simply to leave the viewer guessing. I’m glad to say that while interesting, in this case (and I can’t remember the last time this was 100% true) I was happy none of these scenes made it to the final cut. This is especially true of the alternate ending!
The extras are completed by a photo gallery, the music video for ‘Oye Coma Va’ and a thorough-looking list of trailers and TV spots.
Man on Fire is an extremely stylish film with an excellent cast and decent enough plotline to keep the viewer interested in the action. That being said, it’s quite violent, a little stereotypical and very few of the characters are particularly likeable. I enjoyed it more than I thought I would, however, and this special edition DVD package provides an excellent sound and video transfer of the film with a good, solid package of extras.