A very necessary tribute to Denzel Washington and an underrated masterpiece, Man On Fire
What a film!
In case you haven't seen Tony Scott's revenge epic, the story is set in the kidnapping hotbed of Mexico City. The plot revolves around a burned-out ex-CIA operative/assassin John Creasy (Washington) who's hired by a wealthy family to protect their precocious daughter, Pita (Dakota Fanning).
Creasy has given up on life and can only find comfort in two things, the bible and whiskey. This being said, with every passing conversation and a half-smile, Pita chips away at his seemingly impenetrable exterior and gives the despair-tinged killer a ray of hope in the darkness.
When the little girl is snatched, Creasy sets forth on an unstoppable rampage of revenge. While initially released to mixed reviews, here's why Man on Fire still resonates 14 years later.
"There is no such thing as tough. There’s trained and there’s untrained.”
Before we discuss the carnage that unfolds on screen, it's worth noting that Tony Scott's action epic is actually based on two existing properties. A. J. Quinnell wrote the original novel in 1980 which was adapted into a film in '87 that starred Joe Pesci and Scott Glenn.
In fact, Tony Scott was originally slated to direct that adaptation, but the studio said no to him because they felt that he was not accomplished enough to pull off the project.
Scott went on to direct Top Gun instead and cement his status as one of the most in demand directors in Hollywood.
Truth be told, it's better that he waited to get his shot at Man On Fire because his version is that rare beast; an action film that combines style, adrenaline and raw emotion.
"Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good."
We all have our favourite version of Denzel on-screen.
Films like Glory, Malcolm X, Training Day, The Hurricane and more have given us a glimpse at his remarkable talent, but in Man On Fire, we saw a different side to the iconic actor.
The charisma and swagger was gone. At the start of the film, we're watching a man that has given up on life. Creasy is an alcoholic that drinks in a desperate bid hold back the the tears. He even asks Rayburn "Do you think God'll forgive us for what we've done?"
At one moment, he even puts a gun to his head. There's hurt in every scene but the audience needs to see this.
Why? Well, broken Denzel is here to set things up for ruthless Denzel. The film's biggest strength is the fact that it takes the time to develop its characters, something that's desperately missing from other films in this genre.
Credit to cinematographer Paul Cameron because in the first few frames, he instantly creates an atmosphere of danger, tension and violence with every whip-pan, jump-cut and crash-zoom around Mexico's streets. This is a city where nobody is safe.
The neon-swathed streets are direct contrast though to the washed out visual style that Scott uses to portray Creasy's inner turmoil.
Tony Scott has always been a very stylish director, but here he uses it to create two worlds, moods and atmospheres. It's time for Creasy to step out of the darkness and into the light.
“The gunshot holds no fear”
Creasy is man that can take a bullet before killing five men, but he can't make smalltalk. This ends when he's forced to drive Pita to her school and these scenes are vital because there's such an effortless and easy chemistry between Washington and Fanning that's hard to fake.
At the very beginning, Pita's curiosity about Creasy's personal history and credentials is met with an initial frostiness because he's he’s unable to let people in.
This changes though when he begins to take a personal interest in her swimming classes. The fact that he's a mentor is just a side point to the real issue that's at hand.
Pita needs a father figure. Her own dad is too busy trying to revive his failing business and even when he is around, he insists that she devotes her time to piano lessons over swimming.
Fanning's astonishing naturalness gives the relationship with Creasy remarkable warmth and resonance. Take a look at the scenes where they try to make each other laugh, when the nun tells Creasy that “You’re her father today", the hug between them after Pita wins her race or when Washington smiles after hearing Pita belch.
Hell, she even names her bear after him.
Simply put, Pita gives Creasy a reason to live.
We're constantly being reminded by the main kidnapper that "the most important thing in life, is family." He should have known better than to mess with Creasy's surrogate daughter.
Clip via - kidd W
"A man can be an artist... in anything, food, whatever. It depends on how good he is at it. Creasy's art is death. He's about to paint his masterpiece."
Make no mistake about it, we're in a different film now. The swagger, ruthlessness and aggression of Denzel is back with a bang because Creasy embraces his raw anger to do "what I do best. I'm gonna kill 'em. Anyone that was involved. Anybody who profited from it. Anybody who opens their eyes at me."
Unlike other action films, because we're already invested with the characters, those moments when the bullets, blood and bum-bombs are far more explosive.
Christopher Walken's character says "You’re talking about war, Creese" and holy Christ, he really does commit to a one man war.
There's no denying the giddy pleasure that comes from seeing Denzel walk though a nightclub while firing a shotgun into the air, or methodically taking his time before blasting an RPG down the streets of Mexico.
It's in these cold and calculated moments that the character of Creasy really becomes a memorable action icon.
Take a look at the sheer joy that he gets from lopping off the fingers of corrupt cops, toying with kidnappers to "say goodbye" to Pita before blasting them into oblivion, or every frame in this scene.
This wonderful scene.
Like Samuel L. Jackson, Al Pacino or Robert DeNiro, Washington really knows how to deliver memorable dialogue and command every inch of the screen.
Marvel at how cold the delivery of this final line is, "I wish...you had...more time."
Clip via - Movieclips
"I'm gonna take your family apart piece by piece, you understand me? PIECE BY PIECE!"
There are so many wonderful ancillary moments and memorable lines in Man on Fire that all combine to enhance the overall film.
The soundtrack features some impressive scores and music cuts - we especially loved the final moments - but almost every cast member delivers an impressive performance. While people cite The Wrestler as Mickey Rourke's comeback role, it's easy to overlook just how good he was the shady lawyer, Jordan Kalfus.
Marc Anthony also manages to infuse his character, Samuel Ramos, with a cocky arrogance while Christopher Walken, well, he's Christopher Walken.
All this without mentioning lines like: " He'll deliver more justice in a weekend than ten years of your courts and tribunals," or "I'm gonna ask your wife a couple of questions. You move... you make one sound... I'll snatch the life right outta you, understand?"
"A bullet always tells the truth."
At the present moment, Man On Fire only has a 39% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and 47% on Metacritic - two websites that aggregate the reviews of critics. We know what you're thinking. Why the hell would we decide to write about something that the majority of critics hated?
Well, like any art other form, film is always subjective. Just because the critics hated something doesn't mean the audience will, and we're firmly of the opinion that Man on Fire will age much better than other 'action flicks' of the era. Yes, it's not a perfect film but it's far better than most.
Aside from John Wick and The Raid, hold Man on Fire up against any other action film from the last decade. It looks pretty damn good.
For further proof, take a look at its ending. There's no massive shootout, explosions or epic fights. It's just an emotional embrace between two friends.
(There's an alternate ending thought and you can view it below. Thank god they changed it)
Clip via - Michael Yee
Critics be damned, audiences still love Man On Fire. We're with them.
If you've never watched Man on Fire, you're missing out. Denzel at his best. #Oscars
— Sebastian Herrera (@SebasAHerrera) February 27, 2017
— Josette Covington (@Venus_energy71) March 3, 2017
Denzel Washington "Forgiveness is between them and God. It's my job to arrange the meeting." - Man on Fire https://t.co/OcWkjStYWG
— ADIGE ✨🪴 (@SED_MERECKY) March 2, 2017
Watching Man On Fire...😭😭 gets me every time!! Damn that Denzel!!
— Tina Green (@tina6378) February 28, 2017
With a CV that boasts the likes of True Romance, Top Gun, Enemy of the State and Crimson Tide, Man On Fire will remain as one of the most beloved films from the much-missed Tony Scott's body of work.
We highly recommend another viewing when it airs on Film Four tonight at 11.15pm.
Clip via - 20th Century Fox