Published on April 10th, 2006 | by Hans Fruck0
Man on Fire
Revenge and redemption are the themes of Tony Scott’s latest film, Man on Fire. John Creasy (Denzel Washington) is a former “agency” operative, a drunk, and a man tormented by all the blood he has spilt.
In the early scenes of Man on Fire, we see Creasy slumped in the back seat of a car as it crosses the US–Mexican border. Whores run at the car, and machinegun-toting Mexican soldiers line men up against a wall—and Creasy keeps on staring out the car window with eyes that don’t betray even a flicker of interest. He’s burning with so many crimes that he barely registers the corruption around him.
At the instigation of Rayburn, a friend who’s also a former agency man, Creasy accepts a job in Mexico City, where—as the opening sequence showing the abduction, ransoming, and release of a young Mexican man shows—kidnapping is rife. Creasy is to be the bodyguard of Pita Ramos (Dakota Fanning), the precocious 10-year-old daughter of a Mexican industrialist (Mark Anthony) and his American wife, Lisa (Radha Mitchell). The job interview is brief—as soon as Lisa realises Creasy is American, she hires him.
At first it doesn’t work out. Creasy tries to anaesthetise himself with Jack Daniels and in one bravura sequence even attempts suicide, only for his gun to misfire. A bible-reading man, Creasy takes this as a sign and stops drinking. Gradually, he takes responsibility for the impish and inquisitive Pita, with whom he develops a father-daughter bond. Predictably, given the film’s set-up, Pita’s kidnapped. A couple of plot twists later, a badly wounded Creasy has vowed to wreak bloody vengeance on all those involved in the kidnapping.
Like any vigilante film, Man on Fire raises a bundle of moral issues. Unfortunately, it addresses none of them. It’s not interested in questions of means versus ends, or revenge versus the rule of law. This is a film that favours the heart over the brain, and a sledgehammer over a scalpel. A nuanced treatment of such complex issues would diminish the gratification of using fear and force against the threatening and violent, and Man on Fire isn’t about to let that happen.
For sure, the film makes a few perfunctory gestures toward moral depth. Near the beginning, for instance, Creasy asks Rayburn whether he thinks “God will forgive us for what we’ve done”. This establishes that Creasy believes in God, a soul, and judgement; and believes that his actions will have repercussions in the afterlife. The decisions he makes, then, should be anguished, freighted with all sorts of religious and moral baggage—but there’s no sense of this. Instead he so readily reverts to killing and torturing that his torment and repentance are cheapened.
Compare this to Unforgiven, in which William Munny (Clint Eastwood), another reformed killer, fights the good fight. Munny resists his inner darkness with every fibre of his being. He loses the fight, but the ferocity of his struggle gives his defeat meaning. It’s a measure of what he has at stake. He knows the cost and the immorality of killing. But he kills again—and that’s the tragedy.
Man on Fire, however, reserves all its relish for murder, not morality. The script dutifully acts out its pantomime morality, but it’s only ever a preamble to operatic blood and guts. It’s Sunday piety used to mitigate weekday sinfulness. After all, why dilly-dally with the issues when you’d much rather concentrate on beautifully choreographed carnage? Indeed, a barometer of just how blithely the film treats violence is the sequence in which Creasy catches up with one of the kidnappers and amputates three of his fingers. Director Scott says he tried everything he could to inject a sense of humour into the scene, to lighten it. It’s hard to know whether this statement is dumb or disingenuous. Playing the Spanish version of the mouseketeer song, Hey Mickey, while someone is having their fingers cut off isn’t humour, it’s sadism. But this is how thoughtlessly Man on Fire peddles its violence.
That’s not to deny the film’s frequent virtuosity. Multiplex master Tony Scott has style in spades, although it’s a style that some pontificators condemn for its “MTV” trappings. (And you can see why: Scott’s maximalism is much like later Oliver Stone, except even more “maximal”.) In Man on Fire, subtitles are super-big, sometimes positioned in the centre of the screen, and sometimes used for English as well as Spanish. Editing is frenetic. The opening sequence is black and white. There’s shaky camera and hand-crank camera, not to mention slow mo and split screen. In the brilliant abduction scene Scott even puts Washington on a kid’s carousel to depict him as a still point in a world that’s careering out of control. This frenetic mash of styles alternates with restrained, beautifully shot scenes, which slow the pace and give a classy counterpoint to all the blood and razzledazzle.
Scott’s always been an intuitive director: quick to marry colour, sound, and movement, and deft at wringing drama from extreme emotion. That’s how he so deftly captures Creasy’s attempted suicide and Pita’s anguish when Creasy is fighting off the kidnappers. But it’s in putting these emotions into an intellectual scaffolding that Scott falters; Man on Fire’s script and style don’t allow for a shaded presentation of issues or character.
It’s a tribute to Washington, then, that he manages to make Creasy as rounded as he is. In fact, the cast is uniformly fine. Fanning is an outstanding young actress—precocious, but not teeth-grindingly so. It’s just a pity she’s saddled with so many clunky lines—lines that simply aren’t credible for a 10-year-old, even a precocious one.
Man on Fire is a difficult film to get a handle on. It’s exciting, but exasperating; ardent, but artless; emotionally attuned, but politically and morally tone-deaf. Perhaps it’s appropriate, then, that a film that itself shows so little insight should be the source of so much insight to the viewer—because if nothing else, Man on Fire is unfailingly topical… An American in a foreign land dispensing justice in retaliation for a terrible crime. Torture excused. The rule of law flouted. Means justified by ends. A venture pursued with great gusto, but little wisdom.
It could be American foreign policy, really.
— Hans Fruck