Incredible Cruelty and Bittersweet Hope | Man on Fire at 20

“You breathe, you move, you make one sound and I’ll snatch the life right out of you.” So says John Creasy (Denzel Washington) an ex-soldier and CIA operator turned burnt-out bodyguard for Lupita ‘Pita’ Ramos (Dakota Fanning). What drives a man to this point? That’s not really a question Man On Fire, Tony Scott’s scuzzy, kinetic 2004 action film, is interested in answering. What it is interested in is how such a man can be drawn away from the act of killing, away from the proverbial edge and then how willingly he can return to such darkness. Man On Fire is a revenge movie certainly, but it’s also a film that wants to brutally interrogate the form. 

John Creasy is a man on the edge. Reduced to a husk by decades of clandestine operations with both the US special forces and the CIA he consumes vast amounts of whiskey and contemplates suicide almost daily. Creasy’s friend Paul Rayburn (Christopher Walken) sets him up with a bodyguard gig in Mexico City guarding Pita, daughter of not-so-wealthy Mexican industrialist Samuel (Marc Anthony) and his American wife Lisa (Radha Mitchell). Creasy and Pita grow close despite his best efforts at pushing everyone away. Kidnapping the wealthy is good business in Mexico however and when Pita is abducted and the ransom drop bungled Creasy goes on the warpath, slaughtering his way through a conspiracy that goes right to the top. 

Revenge thrillers are often a tight 90 minutes. They follow specific, necessary beats. Man On Fire follows plenty of these beats but it deviates from a few as well. Chief among these is in its first hour. Cinema is full of hard bitten anti-heroes driven to depression and melancholy due to the violence they have done. These same men and women are often saved by an innocent, someone who is wholly or in part ignorant of the terrible work they have done. In revenge movies this innocent – be it a dog, a daughter or a wife – is usually killed in the first act. That’s almost true of Man On Fire but where it bucks this trend is in how long and peaceful its first act is. 

One of Creasy’s first lines is “Do you think God will forgive us for what we’ve done?” to which his friend Paul answers “No.” The distinction between the two men is clear. Paul has made at least some peace with his dark, violent past using the money earned from it to escape to a life of leisure in Mexico. Creasy, however, seeks a different kind of solace: one he thinks can only be granted by death. It’s a misfired gun and Pita that convinces him that life is worth living. After a long dark night of the soul that sees Creasy’s pistol jam when he points it at his head and pulls the trigger he notices Pita training for an upcoming swimming competition. “Strong swimmer,” he notes in a clipped, terse voice. “I never win,” she responds in that precocious grumble so common to ten-year-olds everywhere. In that short exchange Creasy finds his purpose. 


A great example of Tony Scott’s visual style is the montage sequence leading up to the swim meet. The unobservant might regard it as scattershot or unfocussed but in reality it’s a hyper focused style that not only draws but captures your attention. Like the competent professionals Tony Scott so lovingly zeros in on Top Gun, Crimson Tide and Domino his style is a reflection of his characters. Always in motion, always pushing forwards and dedicated to one specific goal his camera keeps them in focus while it zips around on tracks, cranes and dollies. Scott’s secret weapon was editor Christian Wagner whom he worked with between 1993 and 2005. The focus comes away from Creasy onto Pita here. In this five minute sequence a ten year old blonde girl is Scott’s consummate professional. The bullet from the director’s gun right into the audience’s heart. 

If you grew up during the 2000s Dakota Fanning was unavoidable. That was a good thing both for her career and for the films she was in. She’s still working today, most recently opposite Andrew Scott on Netflix’s Ripley and in last year’s The Equalizer 3 opposite Denzel Washington again in a story that feels like a grown up echo of Creasy and Pita. Her cultural cache is almost unlimited, a plum role in a Stephen Spielberg adaptation of War of the Worlds will do that, but her talent is the undersung quality that has continued to get her these plum roles since she was seven years old. Pita’s cute precociousness bouncing off Creasy’s stoic, fragmenting facade is what makes the film’s redemption arc so believably bittersweet. 

It’s after Pita’s abduction that the film becomes the Scott and Washington Show. By 2004 Tony Scott had been working in the film and TV industry for nearly forty years. Denzel was two years off his long overdue Oscar win for Training Day and was beginning to carve himself into an action hero. It was a match made in heaven. Washington’s quiet stoicism that, lightning quick, could boil into volcanic rage was the perfect compliment to Scott’s kinetic, sunburn saturated aesthetic. Over five films the two made magic together.

Scott never really strayed into different genres the same way his brother Ridley did. His only real outlier is his first film, the David Bowie starring vampire romance The Hunger, but that too is fully immersed in the signature Scott Style even if it isn’t about Men On A Mission. With Top Gun and everything afterwards Scott created a frantic, focused style of action filmmaking I like to call Dad-Core. Mention any Tony Scott film to your dad and he’ll probably tell you what a great film it is. The movie might be flawed but that doesn’t mean it’s not a damn good time. 

What sets Man On Fire apart, however, is that it’s not a damn good time. Man On Fire is a brilliant film and that’s because it commits to the incredible cruelty of its second half. Creasy goes back to doing what he does best in order to find and punish the men who took Pita. He armours himself with the tactics and weapons he thought were in his past. He cuts off the getaway driver’s fingers. He blows up a motorcade with a rocket launcher. He detonates a bomb inside a man’s ass. He declares Holy War on an army of conspirators. As Paul Rayburn says “Creasy’s art is death. He’s about to paint his masterpiece.” 

Man On Fire doesn’t really have a fireworks heavy ending. What could be considered its climactic shootout ends in a hostage situation with Creasy holding all the cards. Man On Fire instead ends on a note of grace. It’s a note I won’t spoil, not too much anyway, but it’s enough to say that the film ends with Creasy throwing down his guns for the last time but tragically it’s also the last time he will embrace innocence. Creasy does not seek redemption or forgiveness in the long dark nights he spends looking for the kidnappers. He seeks revenge but stumbles on redemption anyway. He finds it in his stewardship of a child. Few other films could manage to end on such a bittersweet note of hope. 

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