The late Tony Scott had a reputation that was forever in the shadow of his brother Ridley. His older brother was thought of as the auteur and Tony was often seen as a slick hack. I always found that terribly reductive though. Sure, Ridley is renowned for the more high-toned fare. Classics like Alien, Blade Runner, and Thelma & Louise will always be held in higher esteem than probably any of the films on Tony’s ledger.
That being said, I’ve always found Tony to be undervalued. Revenge deserves a better reputation. Crimson Tide is fabulous popcorn entertainment. True Romance is on par with the best Tarantino films. Hell, I find Domino, Scott’s daft version of a Natural Born Killers type movie, to be an electric ride.
None of Tony Scott’s movies got the shaft worse than his 2004 revenge thriller, Man On Fire. While the April release opened well and put up solid box office ($77 million), it was largely dismissed by critics. To this day it sits at a paltry tomatometer score of 39%.
Some of the reviews were downright brutal.
“Suffice it to say nothing about this pumped-up, hyperthyroidal Tony Scott revenge flick makes sense, but it takes two hours to kill off as many people and demolish as many vehicles as Charles Bronson used to do in 30 minutes.” – Rex Reed, The Observer
“This movie isn’t just about a kidnapping; it is a kidnapping, and we’re the hostages.” – Stephanie Zacharek, Salon
“A predictable, gruesome piece of business that tries to ennoble one-man vigilante justice with the star power of Denzel Washington.” – Desson Thompson, Washington Post
And that’s just a sampling of the stab wounds.
For the most part, the objections fell along two lines. First, the flashy, kinetic style of Scott. Which can be a love it or leave it proposition. He bathed many a scene in golden light. Was big on flowing curtains being chased by a light breeze. More than anything, he often cut his films like he was on speed. Lots of edits. Close ups. The camera rarely settled. I’ll be the first to admit it didn’t always work. Look at the DeNiro/Wesley Snipes film, The Fan. Actually better yet, don’t. That’s one grim sit. He also has a fair amount of dismissible movies on his resume. Top Gun, Days of Thunder, and The Last Boy Scout come to mind. Well-made, watchable entertainments that do not stick to the ribs.
Man On Fire does not fall into that category.
Which brings me to the second objection by critics. The film’s violence. Which no one should mistake as being anything less than plentiful. In one scene, Washington blows a man up with a bomb he has planted in his ass. In another scene, he blows off a man’s fingers. Nothing in Man On Fire is for the fainthearted.
What has always frustrated me about the reaction to the film is how little time critics spent on everything else.
As great as Denzel has always been, he’s in tip-top of the food chain form here. As the haunted Creasy, a former assassin turned bodyguard for a wealthy family’s young daughter in Mexico City, Washington reels in the swagger early on. All but broken by his past, he treats his new gig as almost a nuisance standing in the way of drinking himself to death.
But as he gets to know the young girl he is charged with protecting (a never better Dakota Fanning), his harsh facade begins to slip. Slowly at first. And then all at once. One of the very best interior actors, Washington’s transformation is as subtle as the rest of the film is in your face. He and Fanning balance the film with true warmth and humanity. Man On Fire isn’t just a revenge thriller. That criticism is lazy. It’s a relationship drama between a lost man and a young girl that helps him find the lost, best part of himself. Something he has long left buried.
Which is why the back portion of the film works so well. Once Fanning is kidnapped and presumed dead, Washington’s Creasy returns to his killer being. He does so with brutal purpose. The critics who found fault in the film are not wrong about that. What they missed is how palpable Creasy’s reversion is. Where before he killed as a job, this time he uses his skill-set to kill because something has been taken from him. He ends lives out of love. A love he has lost.
It is genuinely emotional and powerful. More so than any other film Tony Scott ever made. Still, it would be unfair to suggest that the film is elevated to a higher level in spite of Scott. For one, he’s the director who gave Washington that room to let his performance breathe. It was Scott’s choice to take nearly the entire first half of the film and spend it on the tender, begrudging thawing of Creasy.
In doing so, the mayhem that follows in the second half of the film feels hard-won and well-earned. The ending is grim and heartbreaking with just a touch of hope thrown in. It is a true sticking of the landing. Man On Fire contains two truly great performances. Denzel Washington has rarely been better (a bold statement, I know), and Dakota Fanning has yet to match her work here.
Somebody did that. Somebody made that possible. That somebody is Tony Scott. I sure as hell wish he’d have gotten more credit for it.