Matt's Man on Fire Review
I saw Man on Fire in the theater when it came out in 2004 with a friend. I enjoyed it then, but oddly enough, it wouldn’t be till I revisited it a couple years later that the brilliance of the film would finally begin to sink in. Man on Fire is a hard-hitting, unflinching, uncompromising action movie. I call it an action movie for lack of a better term, but let me follow that up by saying, this is a movie that transcends the boundaries of the genre. I went into the theater expecting an action movie, but I walked out knowing I’d just seen something more than that.
Detractors over the years have come back to a number of elements in this film that are criticized, many of which I’d like to take this opportunity to discuss.
- The first is the frenetic, and somewhat disorienting style that is employed by Scott during select sequences in this film – for example the scene near the beginning of the film where Creasy attempts suicide. Detractors linked the visual style used by Scott in this film to a previous film City of God (2002). It is, however, not true that Scott borrowed this technique from another director. Early evidence of the technique Tony Scott is using in this film can be traced back to Enemy of the State (1998), an earlier film of his own, where he experimented with the technique – particularly in the opening credits.
- The subtitles – let’s get this out of the way right now, it’s a cheap shot that people who didn’t like the movie tended to talk about. As a significant amount of dialogue in the film was in Spanish – the characters sometimes switching back and forth between Spanish and English interchangeably – the subtitles had to be there. Using the subtitles the way he did accomplished two things, 1. He exacerbated the tension in several scenes, and 2. He drew attention to key lines of dialogue that he didn’t want the audience to miss. He even used the subtitles occasionally on English dialogue as a method of emphasis. Here’s the thing, it was a stylistic choice, you either go with it, or you don’t. I went with it.
- This is a violent film, no one is going to question that. It is rated R, and it’s a hard R rating. That being said, the violence is not enough to render the film unwatchable. Tony Scott was interested in making this movie and telling this story to the best of his abilities, WITHOUT a censor. The lengths that Creasy goes in his vendetta against Pita’s kidnappers are meant to be ugly. That’s part of the point. Those that are sensitive to violence need to stick to PG-13 thrillers and romantic comedies.
- Further on my point on the violence of this film, I’d like to talk briefly about Denzel Washington’s character Creasy. Creasy is not a hero, he is an antihero. A man haunted by his past who thought he’d found salvation in his father-daughter relationship with Pita Ramos. The kidnappers took that away, and he made a decision to make them pay. That’s what the movie is about. It is about revenge.
- Denzel turns in a powerhouse performance in the lead role. Even his character in Training Day wasn’t as icy as Creasy is. That’s not all the character is though, throughout the course of the film, the character goes through a huge range of emotions. Highs as well as lows. Denzel handles Creasy’s evolution beautifully.
- Dakota Fanning turns in her best performance to date in this film as Pita Ramos. Her charm and appeal is undeniable, and even though she is her usual precocious and brainy self, she’s a bit more accessible in this film. She hits all the right notes, and somehow manages to hold her own opposite Washington – one of the best leading men working today.
- Special attention has to go out to Christopher Walken for turning in such a memorable performance in so little screen time. No doubt about it, he is awesome in every movie he does.
- This movie has a wonderful ensemble, many, many character actors coming in and all turning in very strong performances in their various roles. Look for Marc Anthony, Radha Mitchell (Phone Booth), Giancarlo Giannini (Casino Royale), Mickey Rourke (Sin City), and Rachel Ticotin (Total Recall).
Music, Cinematography, and Special Effects
- The music was effective for the film, but is not a score that will stand well on its own. Although there are a few memorable songs heard in the film that would make good additions to anyone iTunes.
- The cinematography in this film is excellent. Despite Scotts crazy, and frenetic style, you do get a good look at the scenery in the film. He captures the feel of Mexico City beautifully.
- There were very few special effects in this movie, but when your watching this film, you will notice the way the film was shot and cut. It’s a style that Scott developed and would go on to use again in future films. He has yet to employ this technique again in such an effective manner. Here, it serves to make the film even more gritty, intense and visceral.
The Bottom Line
What sets this film apart from other action movies is just about everything about it. The pacing is very steady and deliberate, the characterization and the script is excellent – complete with lines and monologues you will be sure to remember – and the ending is pitch perfect. If it had been Tony Scott’s intention to make a standard issue action movie, he would have used a different ending, and the characterization would’ve been a lot more archetypical with a lot fewer moral ambiguities. As it stands the film is teaming with imperfect characters, some we like more than others. This is certainly not a film that could’ve been made even five years before it was filmed, it is definitely a product of the age that the film industry entered right after 9/11. Films in general became much more dark and gritty at that point. The line between the good guys and the villains can, at times, become rather thin.
Here is the bottom line though, because it doesn’t conform to the standard action film conventions, Man on Fire is a cut above the rest. Man on Fire is film that takes its time to develop its characters, and doesn’t flinch away from the harsh reality of its own story. That said, this is one of the best action movies to come out of the 2000s decade, impeccably executed from beginning to end. 9/10