Posted by Aaron West, 4/23/04
Man on Fire
Directed by Tony Scott
Starring Denzel Washington, Dakota Fanning, Christopher Walken, Marc Anthony, Mickey Rourke, Radha Mitchell
Running Time: 146 minutes
Recently I heard Tony Scott's name dropped in a conversation about great contemporary directors. Needless to say, I was surprised at the mention. Not that I think Scott is a poor director. In truth, when it comes to talent and technique, he is among the best working today. He has a distinct visual style and his work is often engaging and always entertaining. In a word, Tony Scott is fun, but falls short of even being considered for greatness. Scott has carved together a nice career himself. He makes decent flicks in genres that aren't very reputed for their decency. Titles like Top Gun, Crimson Tide, Enemy of the State, and The Last Boy Scout are part of many video collections, but don't really rake it in come awards season. What sets Scott apart from other greats of today, is that his films tend to borrow from others and never break any new ground.
At least Scott is consistent. Generally we know what we're in for when we fork over our $8. It will be a mindless, escapist piece of work. It will usually have an enormously famous star (or two) carrying the film, with a nice set of ensemble supporting actors. It will always look good, have a certain amount of intensity and generally be a fun ride. Man of Fire, at first glance, seems to be more of the same.
Creasy (Denzel Washington) is a former military man, freedom fighter, just pick anything from the "badass" resume and that's him. Now he's a drunken fool, down on life and a Linda Ronstadt song away from making his exit. His buddy Rayburn (Christopher Walken) helps him get a bodyguard job in Mexico City for a rich couple who worry that their cute daughter Pita (Dakota Fanning) will fall victim to the latest kidnapping ring. He and Pita click, she essentially saves him from his misery and in return he becomes more than just a bodyguard, but a close friend and mentor as well. All is well and nothing can happen? Let me again remind you again, this is a Tony Scott film.
Scott brings a unique visual style, complete with quick cuts, freeze frames, grainy shots, and just an overall stylistic assault on your senses. He makes the canvas more surreal, and uses this throughout the film, usually at moments of high intensity. At times these effects work well. I particularly enjoyed the subtitles that appear on the screen a word at a time, edited to the spoken dialog. The problem with these visuals is that, as the action intensifies the visuals increase and make the film physically hard to watch. At times it feels like you're in a 3-D movie without your glasses. The film gains momentum with every minute, so we are gradually seeing more and more of these visuals, so the film becomes harder and harder to watch.
Denzel Washington has a lot in common with Tony Scott. He is a suberb actor, definitely among the best working today, and he always gives a solid performance, regardless of the material he has to work with. His resume has been quite weak as of late, and that includes Training Day, where he won the Oscar. The fact that he can be good, regardless of the film's quality, is a testament to his skill as an actor, but also infuriating at the same time. The same is the case with Man on Fire. Denzel gives a great performance, perhaps his best in years (including Training Day), but the film suffers despite him.
I was very disappointed with the score. "The Mark Has Been Made", an instrumental by Nine Inch Nails, is used extensively throughout the film. The gritty sound works well with Scott's visual effects, but along with everything else, it is overused. Another song or two with a similar feel would have helped make the scenes a lot more interesting and less repetitive. Lisa Gerrard also contributes a couple of songs that are used during emotional moments of the film. Only they sound exactly as they did in Gladiator, and are used in the same type of scenes. Combined with Scott's stealing Tarantino's old Klingon proverb for Kill Bill, this makes the film look very unoriginal.
Another problem with Man on Fire is that it is essentially two films. It begins and is most effective as a character drama, but switches gears at about the halfway point and becomes a high intensity action flick. This is when the film really spirals out of control, leaving us with a bloated 2 1/2 hour running time that really should not have exceeded the two-hour barrier. If anything, the second half of the film should have been cut drastically. A shorter finale wouldn't have hurt the film thematically or narratively, and probably would have left us with one of the better action films in recent years.
Man of Fire had great potential, with a strong cast, a good script, and some nice camerawork. Unfortunately Scott virtually kills his film by overdirecting and underediting.