Man on Fire: Ten Years Later

Director Tony Scott wasn’t a screenwriter. He was a director for hire. He made some high-octane films that perfectly fit within each decade that he filmed – the pop soundtrack-cued blockbuster 1980s (Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop II), the cynical, distrustful 90s (True Romance, The Last Boy Scout, Crimson Tide). But by his tenth film, 1998’s Enemy of the State, Tony Scott created an identifiable visual schism that he’d use for his most distinct, nameplate-stamped TONY SCOTT run-of-films from 1998 to 2010.

I can’t find a name for this schism so I’m just gonna label it Tony Scott: Earth Vertigo. (Coming soon from Google Glass.)

For Enemy of the State – a 70s government paranoia throwback, with late 20th century technological tracking advances – Scott relegated his characters to horrific status: to unseen governing powers, we are not people, but coordinate radar blips on a big map that can always be tracked. Scott would start with a satellite image, quick cut to aerial street view, and quickly flash to an up-close; it’s fast cut, photo-shutter monitoring. This vertigo effect is no longer just a stomach-dropping fear of heights, but also fear of what’s above, recording.

Most of Scott’s films post Enemy of the State have involved tracking how and where spies and stolen goods are moving to, and how to outsmart such tracking devices, so this GoogleEarth lensing serves a story purpose as well.

However, in his 12-year-run there are two films – Man on Fire and Déjà Vu – that use the same shutter, vertigo-inducing editing technique to emphasize the internal of his characters. But, since this is the ten-year anniversary of only one of those films, we’re only going to look at Man on Fire.

Scott committed suicide in August 2012, by jumping from a bridge. While we don’t want to draw conclusions by looking into his work, we’d be remiss to not acknowledge that, indeed, suicide leaves people looking for distress signals.

We won’t say that Man on Fire has any such clues, but it is very interesting that his specific quick cut, photo-lens-informed editing sections are mostly when his main character is contemplating suicide or falling back hard on hard alcohol.

Above, I called this Vertigo Earth. Vertigo for the dizziness, and Earth for the obvious topographical reasons. However using this style for rattling the internal it becomes an attempt to shake off the world – with a gun or drink in hand – before steadying again. The majority of Man on Fire has a steadiness – it is a cat and mouse tale after all – except the sections where Creasy (Denzel Washington) is wrestling with his demons. He mentions that his drinking has made him unsteady, but we only see his unsteadiness when he drinks.

What are this man’s demons? Well, like most people who are suicidal, he doesn’t explicitly say. We know that he was involved in anti-terrorism. He doesn’t think any God could forgive him.

A former military friend, Rayburn (Christopher Walken, whom Scott wanted to play the eventual villain, but – tired of playing the villain – Walken asked for this role and it’s a reminder that the man has soul, warmth and an infectious wink) is residing in Mexico City and sets Creasy up with a bodyguard gig.

Creasy is upfront with Ramos (Marc Anthony), his eventual employer: the reason he’s affordable is because of his drinking. Ramos asks him to hide that from his American wife (Radha Mitchell) and their daughter, Pita (Dakota Fanning).

Because Pita is Fanning, she is an angel.

She softens Creasy and gives him steadiness. When she is kidnapped it is because of their kinship. Creasy has laid himself out as a sacrificial target in a shootout with the corrupt police officers that are in on the kidnapping attempt. Pita is snatched when she runs back to Creasy after he’d been shot and left for dead.

It’s interesting to watch this film after Denzel Washington’s Oscar nominated performance in Robert Zemeckis’ alcoholic opus Flight (2012). In Man on Fire, Scott and screenwriter Brian Helgeland, introduce an outsider, who is a decorated military-man and a heavy drinker, in post-industrial Mexico but they have no intention of using the obvious parallels to Malcolm Lowry’s drunken stream of consciousness novel Under the Volcano – even though it even ends at a volcano!

Watching in 2014, Flight kinda fills in the drunken blanks in Man on Fire: there’s an epic chronicle of the hero-worship, disgrace, and histrionics of a chronic abuser.

Man on Fire is more interested in rocket launchers, exploding assholes and ravers who cheer at gunshots.

In 2004, Washington appeared in two films, Man on Fire and The Manchurian Candidate. Both films were updated and relocated from previous film versions (1987’s Man on Fire starring Scott Glenn, and 1962’s Manchurian Candidate starring Frank Sinatra).

Jonathan Demme’s Candidate updated the brainwashed assassin classic to Gulf War victims of PTSD. In 2004, the second Bush was deep in his own remake, a second war in Iraq. But the separate war on terrorism was an entirely different beast because it wages war on individuals within marked lines, without needing an act of war because it isn’t an act of war against a country. Here, Washington plays a weary former soldier of an undisclosed war because the war on terrorism is a war on individuals.

I’m not saying that Man of Fire is political. Moreso, that Scott’s camera placement segues – being watched and stricken from above – is increasingly becoming a fear that we internalize. Warfare, and even kidnapping has become increasingly impersonal because it involves an entire network.

That mega-network is where, plot-wise, Man on Fire is missing a lot of logic. The sort of things that Scott and Heldgeland don’t address in a two and half hour film (where does Creasy get all these weapons? is he homeless? is the entire Mexican criminal underworld in on Pita’s kidnapping?) at the expense of additional torture – you snatch a blonde girl, you get a bomb in your ass! You done fucked with the wrong Americans, Mexicans! – were unforgiveable to me when I saw Man on Fire a decade ago.

Ten years later, like many things in life, I can forgive more. Even though Scott goes over the top, ultimately, it’s both Creasy and Scott who are trying to achieve clemency by applying their known tools of violence toward rescuing an innocent.

In that way, okay, so maybe Creasy was indeed under the volcano. He certainly erupts.

Brian Formo is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel. You can follow him on Twitter at @BrianEmilFormo.