This Is Why "Man On Fire" Is A Goddamn Masterpiece
On the third anniversary of Tony Scott's death, a look at his most personal film.
There are two film versions of Man on Fire. Two Mans on Fire. The first, released in 1987, bellyflopped. It didn’t start off in good shape and hasn’t aged well, but the cinematography is pretty and Scott Glenn is solid in the lead. The discerning googler can find the whole thing on YouTube. The second version of Man on Fire, released in 2004, was directed by Tony Scott.
Plot twist. Scott was actually supposed to direct the first version. In 1983 he’d lobbied hard to make the film, only for the producers to shrug and (probably) ask, “Who the fuck is Tony Scott?” Scott made Top Gun instead. It was the highest-grossing film of 1986. That’s who the fuck Tony Scott was. Twenty years later, he got his shot at Man on Fire. He took it. Not only is Tony Scott’s version the better film, it’s also his masterpiece.
We can’t discuss “Tony Scott’s masterpiece” without the True Romance argument. It’s a fair argument. True Romance is a great film. But my counter is this: True Romance isn’t a Tony Scott film. True Romance is a Tarantino film. It lives almost entirely in its dialogue. Not to take anything away from Scott. The shots, the set-ups and the style are strong, and he keeps things fast and visceral. He reworked Tarantino’s narrative and took out the downer ending. Scott did great work with True Romance. But mostly people remember True Romance for the quotes. Same for The Last Boy Scout, and any of his Simpson/Bruckheimer films. They weren’t pure Tony Scott films. Not the way Man on Fire is a Tony Scott film.
Man on Fire is an intensely personal film. I don’t want to speculate on the nature of his demons, but no doubt Tony Scott had his share. Perhaps it’s better that this film arrived at his door when it did. When he was older, more experienced. When he could make the film he wanted, without compromise. Tony Scott battled his demons in Man on Fire. You can feel it in every frame. He put everything he had into this film.
Based on the bestselling 1980 thriller of the same name by British author A.J. Quinnell, Man on Fire follows Creasey, a military operative turned alcoholic burnout turned bodyguard who goes after the men responsible for kidnapping his young charge. In Scott's Man on Fire, Denzel Washington plays Creasy. Christopher Walken plays his best friend slash arms dealer, Rayburn. Dakota Fanning plays his charge, Lupita “Pita” Ramos. Mickey Rourke, Radha Mitchell, Marc Anthony, and Giancarlo Giannini also feature.
The performances tower. Everyone is on fire here. Actors always turned up for Tony Scott. He was the one who began Mickey Rourke’s career encore years before Darren Aronofsky and The Wrestler. Walken, Cruise, Hopper, Pitt, Redford. Everyone liked working with him and they liked watching him work. It was a joy to see their director hang from a helicopter to get the perfect shot. His enthusiasm bred great performances.
The script isn’t perfect, but then no script is. This is Hollywood. Scripts, even the best ones, get rewritten. Maybe Denzel’s people requested changes. Maybe a line wasn’t sounding out right and they tried something else instead. The dialogue snags and sticks in places; every now and then it jabs. Try watching Denzel deliver lines like “revenge is a meal best served cold” without flinching. It’s not just the dialogue. If you look closely, between the explosions, the second half is practically perforated. It doesn’t always make sense. But hey, life doesn’t always make sense. Tony Scott knew that. Life is chaos. He took that chaos and painted with it.
Tony Scott was an artist. Like his big brother, Ridley, Anthony Scott studied at the Royal College of Art in London. He had his art credentials. He had receipts. But unlike Ridley, who tends to get stuck in his head, Scott the Younger was unencumbered by expectation. Ridley had already made Alien and Blade Runner when Tony came to town, tempted away from his art by Ridley’s promise of riches. He shortened his name to Tony, and bought a Ferrari. Perhaps the stakes were lower for Tony. Ridley thinks. Tony just did. When Ridley’s good he’s great. Multiple-Oscar great. But he’s not always good. His films are inconsistent. Perfection is a crushing weight to carry. Tony didn’t care about perfection. He had a different mission. He was an entertainer. His art wasn’t entirely visual. It wasn’t entirely in storytelling. His art was in entertaining. He did it consistently. You have to make sacrifices. Tony knew this. The Man on Fire he delivered is flawed, but damn if it doesn’t entertain.
Sometime in 1989, Brian Helgeland walked into Video Archive, his local video rental store in Manhattan Beach, California. Helgeland was coming off a pretty big year: His first two screenplays, A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master, one of the better Freddy sequels, and 976-EVIL, about a telephone number that gives the caller a direct line to Satan, had been produced in 1988. That gave him extra currency with the clerks at Video Archive, many of whom were aspiring screenwriters and directors. Helgeland, himself a film buff, considered himself at home in Video Archive. The clerks were his people. He could always count on a good recommendation. He walked up to the clerk on duty that night and asked him what was good. The clerk, an enthusiastic, fast-talking guy who’d seen everything, recommended Man on Fire. Helgeland took it home.
Cut to 2004: Helgeland – by now an Oscar-winner for his 1997 L.A. Confidential screenplay – had just been nominated again, this time for his work on Clint Eastwood’s 2003 film Mystic River. He didn’t win the Oscar, but he won a new fan: Tony Scott. Scott loved Mystic River, an adaptation of the Dennis Lehane thriller. At that time, Scott was putting together his version of Man on Fire, and needed a writer to adapt the book. He gave Helgeland a call. Thanks to the recommendation of that Video Archive clerk in 1989, Helgeland had long been a fan of the original Man on Fire, the one that Tony Scott never got a chance to direct. He took the job. Later, while doing press for the film, he made a point to thank the Video Archive clerk for his recommendation. The clerk’s name? Quentin Tarantino.
The visual style of Man on Fire was a departure for Scott. He’d always cut fast, but here he’s using it to build character: the dizzy, disorienting edits and double exposures putting us inside Creasy’s head. The colours are washed out. Muted. Tony Scott was 60 years old in 2004, but he wasn’t done learning. Experimenting. He’d reuse and refine this style in subsequent films, Domino and Deja Vu, but it’s best deployed here. Roger Ebert said Scott patched up the plot holes with “an excess of style”. Sure, the style is laid on thick, but it’s masterfully done. The effect is a sensory overload, the visual equivalent of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound, and just as effective. Like Creasy, we’re fired up, firing on all cylinders. It’s a necessary, calculated excess.
Denzel is weathered here. He’s worn. This isn’t the loud, cocky Denzel of Training Day, all swagger and menace. This is a broken Denzel. Before making this film, Denzel said he was bored of acting. Scott lets him use it. He understands this frustration. The hurt is in every scene. It’s there in the bottles of Jack Daniel's he hides around his room; it’s in his wardrobe (the terrible olive-green suit and yellowing shirt are not the clothes of a together man). It’s there in the lyrics to Linda Ronstadt’s “Blue Bayou” – "I feel so bad I got a worried mind / I’m so lonesome all the time". Denzel-as-Creasy tries to take his own life, but the bullet fails. Tony Scott was not subtle. But he delivered.
He always delivered.
Some eight years after Man on Fire, Denzel would earn an Oscar nomination for his alcoholic character in Robert Zemeckis’s Flight. In that film it was the main event, but here it’s a sideshow. This isn’t a film about an alcoholic. Broken Denzel is here to set things up for ruthless Denzel. That’s who we’re here to see. And we know bad things are going to have to happen first.
While we’re waiting, Scott raises the stakes: He makes us fall in love with Creasy and Pita. Creasy plays father to a little girl desperate for her father’s love. Pita becomes a lifeline for a man who has nothing to live for. Denzel and Dakota have an easy chemistry. Denzel could probably charm a toaster. You expect it from him. But Dakota is a revelation. At 9 years old, she already a veteran of more than a dozen films and TV shows. She’s incredible. In a standout scene at the dinner table, she and Denzel play a game trying to make the other smile. They ad-libbed much of it. Two old pros going toe to toe. It’s reminiscent of the dinner table scene in Jaws between Chief Brody and his son. It’s magic, and it’s not in the script. You can’t script magic. Tony Scott knows this. He keeps the camera rolling.
All of a sudden Creasy is dressing better. He’s smiling. He looks well. Fatherhood suits him. Life suits him. He trains Pita for a big swim meet. She wins. The chief nun at her school tells Creasy, “You’re her father today.” Creasy puts down his Jack Daniel's, picks up his Bible. He doesn’t need drink, he has her. He’s happy.
But this isn’t that movie. Every smile is weighted. We know what’s coming. The next day at piano practice, Creasy takes five bullets trying to stop Pita being taken. He fails. He kills four of the kidnappers, but it’s not enough. She’s gone. Creasy barely survives. Then the money drop goes wrong. The kidnappers kill Pita.
Pace shift. It’s a different film now. Ruthless Denzel is here.
Much of the criticism levelled at Man on Fire is aimed at the second half. It’s too violent, they say. It’s gratuitous, they say. Nonsense, I say. Nonsense, said Tony Scott:
The violence [isn’t] gratuitous… I’m always thinking if anybody touched my kids, what would I do?
The first Saw movie was also released in 2004. You wanna know what gratuitous violence looks like? See Saw. They call it torture porn for a reason. I mean, I like Saw, but there’s a difference. Creasy is a violent man. He’s damn good at violence. But it’s violence to a point. In Saw, the violence is the point.
Here comes Denzel, full of bullets and anger. Dressed more like Training Day. More swagger. More menace. He gives a shopping list to Walken. You’re talking about war, Walken says. Denzel nods: That’s exactly what I’m talking about.
It’s on now.
Creasy cuts off fingers and cauterises the stumps with a cigarette lighter. He shoots a rocket launcher at a motorcade. He stalks around a nightclub with a shotgun. The patrons cheer. The crescendo in his symphony of pain is a buttplug. Creasy puts C4 in plastic capsule, the kind drug mules use to ferry product. He sticks it up the ass of a high-ranking police official. Tony Scott knows how to create an "oh shit" moment. This is that moment. You can practically hear the cinemas in New York erupt when Denzel walks away from the scene, buttbomb exploding in the background.
In case you hadn’t already guessed. Creasy discovers the whole thing was a set-up. The second you’ve got Mickey Rourke playing a lawyer you know strange things are afoot at the Circle fucking K. Somebody is gonna get fucked. He and Pita’s father, that rat bastard fuck, conspired to have her kidnapped so they could pocket the ransom. She was supposed to be gone two days. The reason they hired an alcoholic burnout like Creasy is because he was supposed to be easy to deal with. Creasy was supposed to die like a good fuck-up. But they didn’t know Creasy. He was already dead before the film started. He died long ago, in a war somewhere foreign. He made peace with it, buried himself at the bottom of a bottle. Then Pita gave him life. These fucks took that life away from him. Time to die.
Tony Scott was an artist. He started out making art films. When he turned his attentions to music videos and commercials, he made entertainment his art. He directed 16 feature films, and not a dud among them. Sure, Days of Thunder was no peach, but it was hardly a lemon. He helped invent the quintessential '80s aesthetic with Top Gun (my personal favourite Tony Scott film, because Top Gun). He delivered one of the best films of the '90s in True Romance. And he reinvented himself for the new millennium with Man on Fire.
He had his kinks. He liked machines. The bigger and faster the better. Jet fighters, stock cars, nuclear submarines, freight trains. He liked explosions too. But he also liked people. He liked characters. Unlike some of his contemporaries, he knew that the machines needed grounding in humanity. Tony Scott had heart. His films had heart. Think about David Bowie’s wrenching turn in The Hunger. Think about Goose in Top Gun. I defy you not to weep openly. Man on Fire combines the best of Tony Scott: character and chaos, firepower and heart.
There’s a quieter movie in here somewhere, in another director’s hands. Clint Eastwood’s Man on Fire would be a quieter movie, sure. It would be cleaner, shorter probably, but it wouldn’t be this raw. A quieter movie wouldn’t be a Tony Scott movie. That isn’t to say the film lacks quiet. It’s filled with quiet moments, with contemplation, with restraint. Before Scott took the job, Michael Bay almost directed this film. For all the maximalism on display, Man on Fire could have been much louder.
The ending of the film is perhaps the quietest moment. After Creasy has cut his way though half of Mexico City, he kidnaps the brother of the ringleader. This man, who Creasy only knows as a voice on the phone, is scared. He offers an exchange. He will swap Creasy’s life for Pita’s. Yes, Pita is alive. After all his pain, all the death, Pita is alive. Creasy agrees. His life for hers. He’s full of holes and bleeding out, and he picked up another bullet capturing the brother. Creasy is not long for this world.
He drives to the rendezvous. It’s a bridge. As he walks across it, staggering, tired, Pita races toward him from the other side. They embrace. They cry. We sob. Tony Scott is not subtle. But he has heart. She asks why he isn’t coming with her. He says he can’t. She says she loves him, asks if he loves her. I do, he says. Very much. They say goodbye. Creasy gets into a car with the kidnappers. He bleeds out as they drive away. Fin.
The ending was supposed to be much louder. As originally scripted, Creasy arrives at the kidnapper’s compound. He meets The Voice. He smiles. He explodes. Everyone dies. Buttbomb. Tony Scott didn’t want Creasy to go out like that. He got Pita back. The killing was done. He could rest, finally. Michael Bay might have gone with buttbomb. Tony Scott lets Creasy go out quietly, on his own terms.
Eight years later, Tony Scott would cross a bridge. He’d pause halfway across, as Creasy did. He’d never make it to the other side. Scott’s death has been the subject of much speculation, most of it baseless. Tasteless. That’s the thing with suicide. We don’t know. And we won’t know. He left a note for his family. And for the rest of us, he left his work. It speaks for him.
As Man on Fire begins its final act, Walken delivers a classic Walken monologue. In the mouth of another actor, it might have got lost, might have jabbed. In Walken’s metre – in Tony Scott’s film – it’s poetry:
A man can be an artist… in anything, food, whatever. It depends on how good he is at it. Creasy’s art is death. He’s about to paint his masterpiece.
It’s not a subtle line. Tony Scott was not subtle. But he was an artist. His art was entertainment. And with Man on Fire, he painted his masterpiece.