Aesthetically, Man on Fire is one of the most important things to happen to action movies in the 21st century. Hell, Tony Scott in general is one of the most important things to happen to action movies period. But still this film warrants repeat viewings and analysis because it combines proper pulpy, lurid subject matter (a guy gets a bomb shoved up his ass) and A-List execution (a guy gets a bomb shoved up his ass…by Denzel Washington!) with a fiercely original stylistic approach.
It’s 146 minutes long, a running time I would usually bemoan for this kind of thing but is totally earned here by using the length wisely. Scott spends the better part of the first hour solely on building up the relationship between Creasy and Pita so when she is ultimately abducted and becomes absent from the film until its final minutes, the threat on her life is genuine. It’s a storytelling decision I adore because it removes the standard ticking clock subplot that fill a lot of these movies with hope and a predictability. Because we don’t have shots of Pita crying in captivity, Man on Fire feels rightfully fatalistic. For all we know, Pita is dead and Creasy’s vendetta is merely an act of bloodthirsty vengeance that will likely leave him dead. As a haunted, demon-ridden alcoholic, he embraces this relapse as his ultimate destiny. With this in mind, the reveal that Pita is alive at the end doesn’t feel like a cop-out but a welcome beacon of triumph in an otherwise doomy, furious viewing experience.
Naturally, because of its genre, the performances in Man on Fire didn’t get the attention they deserved. This is easily one of Denzel Washington’s best performances. So full of self-hatred and burning purpose, this is his Unforgiven and with Scott keeping a gauge on his soul-bearing and pulsating fury the results are especially visceral and moving. Fanning too, only 9 years old at the time of filming, is the perfect youthful foil for Washington’s damaged maturity. The scenes of them together – again, basically the crux of the first hour – are always engaging. The arc of their relationship is nothing we haven’t seen before but embodied by these two actors, in this milieu, transforms it into something fresh. Their infectious chemistry also means that, for a time, you’re watching an action movie and silently willing the action never to come because you know it means tearing these two apart. When does that ever happen?
The extra level of thrills comes, of-course, from Tony Scott burning the rulebook of visual language in mainstream cinema. The double exposures, hot flares, layers upon layers of imagery and industrial soundtrack – basically everything that amounts to that now-signature Tony Scott style – is all here and accounted for. By this point Scott had already established himself as premiere Hollywood stylist but he had the foresight to raise the bar. Action movies needed a jolt in 2004 and Scott delivered it with a vengeance. They didn’t need to be mere showcases of explosions and muzzle flashes, they could represent psyche and hellfire as much as a Ken Russell movie. This is essentially an avant-garde action movie with a 70 million dollar budget.
I’m glad this thing still holds up. It’s tough as hell (to quote Quentin Tarantino) and works both as an extremely satisfying studio product and a punishing, fiery meditation on vengeance as a way of life. Probably the most important non-sci-fi action movie to the development of cinematic form in action since Peckinpah.
Watched on blu-ray