La Ciudad de Mexico can offer the best of both worlds. It is warm all year round and offers vibrant culture with many fascinating sights and sounds, which makes it one of the most popular places for tourists to visit. Sadly the city is also infamous for its internal violence involving gang warfare as well as institutional corruption. Judging by the headlines that appear on the news, one may be forgiven for thinking that it is the criminals who control the city, either by force or through money, although it’s probably with a little bit of both. For his 2004 crime thriller Man on Fire, director Tony Scott made the bold decision to film the entirety of his picture in the famous Mexican capital and tell a story which relates to one of city’s more sinister problems: kidnappings.
At the start of the film, the viewer meets a former assassin named Creasy (Denzel Washington) as he visits an old friend and partner Rayburn (Christopher Walken) in Mexico City. Creasy, judging by his body language and terrible beard, has been experiencing some troubles in recent times. While still happy to have dropped by to renew their acquaintance, there is an inescapable air of sadness and frustration about Creasy emanating from his every pore. When he asks his buddy whether or not God will ever forgive them for their past actions, we know something is deeply troubling him. Rayburn encourages Creasy to get his mind on other things by finding a job, a different job, in Mexico City, something to which the veteran shows some reluctance, but eventually agrees to. He is soon hired as a bodyguard for Pita (Dakota Fanning), the young daughter of a wealthy Mexican-American couple. At first Creasy takes his job very literally as he was hired to protect the child, not become a friend despite the girl’s inquisitive and friendly nature. As could have been foreseen, it is only when Pita, through her childish warmth and innocence, has begun to break through Creasy’s hard armour that all things go to hell. She is brutally kidnapped one sunny afternoon, with her bodyguard and new buddy left bloodied and on the ground after a furious shootout in the streets. When the ransom negotiations go awry and Pita is believed to have been killed, things take an even darker turn. With the one ray of shining light in his life taken away, Creasy chooses to rekindle with his old habits...and hunt down all the fools who ever thought they were to get away with their plot.
Tony Scott, as a director, is someone I’ve often had a love-hate relationship with. There are periods in his career that I admire, such as Crimson Tide, Enemy of the State and, yes, even the first half of The Taking Pelham 1 2 3 , but other efforts like Top Gun (sorry), Beverly Hills Cop II and Domino left me either bored or simply frustrated. Man on Fire seems to combine what I like and dislike about Tony Scott, but thankfully with a bit more of the positives than the negatives. First and foremost is his propensity to tell stories involving interesting and compelling characters, most of which are conflicted and might be difficult for certain movie goers to empathize with. Such is the case with Denzel Washington’s Creasy, who starts off as someone living a version of purgatory, a period in his life during which he wishes to escape what has transpired before, but either fears that can never be or possibly fears his probable incapacity to find redemption in any shape or form. His is a brooding figure, a shadow of what a decent man should be and part of his problem is his inability to find the right direction out of his psychological and emotional storm. There is no map, no easy solution, but of course there are always quick fixes, like alcoholism, which do little but provide temporary soothing before the pains returns. Washington is one of the most versatile and trustworthy actor working in Hollywood today, and, were I to fall prey to the temptation of hyperbole for a brief instant, I regard as one of the best Hollywood actors of all time. His presence on screen in Man on Fire creates both creates both a sense of pity (or sadness) but also an underlying feeling of intimidation. I felt there was a force to be reckoned with behind the tired and sad eyes. When the fire returns to this Goliath, there will be hell to pay.
Coming from a director who tries to make his movies zip along as briskly and as frantically as possible, I was relieved to discover how much time was reserved for the development of the Creasy-Pita relationship. While avoiding any significant spoilers, I can say that the event of the kidnapping occurs a solid 50 minutes into the film. There is the introduction to the Creasy character, the not so subtle hints at his past for which he finds little pride, the initial encounter between the towering man and the cute blond girl, and the subsequent bond which germinates between the two. In fact I enjoyed the inevitability of the kidnapping. Granted, in many ways it must occur otherwise the film has nothing to propel the story into the more action intensive chapters, but Creasy’s navigation through the maze of Mexico’s gang infested underworld keep the story in sync with the malaise which has surrounded the character in his recent history. Even when trying to change the course of his life and the nature of connections he makes with new acquaintances, there is an inexorable pull which yanks him back to where fate seems to demand he stays: in the violent world of assassins where, as his friend Rayburn puts it, Creasy is an artist in death. When Denzel’s assassin character succumbs to his more violent inner callings, it is not because he relishes in the sport of blood, but because he has no idea how else to react. Do the kidnappers deserve the severe punishment Creasy unflinchingly inflicts upon them? That is for the viewers to decide, but for Creasy, it is arguably the only way he knows how to with the dramatic shift in events that have propelled his heart and mind back into a dark and damp pit.
While the setting, main characters and themes of the film lend it much credibility, there are the usual Tony Scott syndromes which continuously overtake many of the director’s efforts, most notably his material from the late 90s and onwards. His camera pans over cityscapes and even some smaller locations can get grating after a bit. Often saturated with overly artificial colour palettes and an editing style which suggests the filmmakers may have been on ecstasy, these moments which introduce the viewer to new scenes to the viewer quickly tried my patience and personal standards regarding a movie viewing experience. I can handle them in small doses, I honestly can, but Scott seems intent on injecting this artificial grittiness to the picture. The nature of the plot, the real world facts about what happen in Mexico and the dramatic weight of the Creasy character are more than sufficient in creating genuine grittiness, thus making Scott’s visual trickery useless and over-indulgent. The script also grows weaker as the plot evolves, with some of the latter scenes poorly revealing just who really was behind the kidnapping as well as an underwhelming (to say the least) final scene for an antagonist who is hyped up several times throughout the film. These issues, while not detracting in any considerable manner from my overall enjoyment of the film, were still little stains that I took notice of even though I liked most of what I saw.
It’s hard to go wrong with the ingredients at hand here: the exploration of an exotic location’s seedy underbelly, a great leading man capable of delivering a dramatic as well as completely bad ass performance, and some intensely vicious killings for which Creasy often toys psychologically with his victims. In the Tony Scott filmmography, I’m willing to place Man on Fire in the upper echelon.