“Do you think God will forgive us for what we’ve done?” is a question ex-CIA operative John W. Creasy (Denzel Washington) asks his only friend, Rayburn (Christopher Walken), in the first act of the film Man on Fire written by Brian Helgeland (The Taking of Pelham 123) and Directed by Tony Scott (True Romance). Because this question is being proposed in the beginning and not in the third act, the film has a more satisfying result, by blatantly presenting to the audience a profound story of a man’s seek for redemption and forgiveness from God for all of sins.
“Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good” – is an exchange that Creasy has with Sister Anna, reciting a verse from Romans 12:21 of the Holy Bible, further reminding us that Creasy is suffering from post-traumatic stress and depression, and has used the Holy Bible, arguably the greatest piece of literature in history, for salvation . “Do you ever see the hand of God in what you do?” Sister Anna asks him, to which he responds, “I am the sheep that got lost, Madre.” Even when Creasy unsuccessfully attempts to take his own life with a gun and the bullet doesn’t fire, his friend Rayburn reminds him that Creasy was destined to go out on God’s terms, “A bullet always tells the truth”, Rayburn tells him, as Creasy stands outside in pouring rain. Rayburn is suggesting that God is not finished with Creasy yet, and that there is still a chance in redemption and still a purpose to move forward in life.
There is something depressingly enjoyable about Tony Scott’s Man on Fire over a decade after its release, which is probably owed to the deep state of the human condition performed powerfully by none other than Denzel Washington. The kinetic editing by Christian Wagner (Spy Game) – though genius – is a matter of preference as it attracts attention and breaks the rules of cinema, which is never a bad thing, because, there are no rules. Tony Scott is a champion at bending the pseudo-rules of filmmaking by shooting with multiple cameras and overlapping dynamic sound design with different frame rates. Scott was known to constantly carry over techniques he learned from his previous film onto the next, elaborating and enhancing upon his experiments throughout the sixteen pictures he directed.
Tony Scott began this experimentation with Enemy of the State in 1998 starring Will Smith and Gene Hackman – which was way ahead of its time. That film serves as an example of hyperactive filmmaking supporting the objective and events of the story. Whereas Man on Fire is straight-forward in its tale, the rapid whip-pans and low frame rates by cinematographer Paul Cameron (Déjà vu), synced with looping sound effects and freeze-frame visual cues, only lead one to believe that these techniques serviced the shameful and guilt-ridden mind of Creasy, who uses bottles of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey to cope with his post-traumatic stress and depression. Tony Scott was a pioneer in pushing the boundaries of unique filmmaking and Man on Fire proved to be a successful exercise in experimental styles based upon audience popularity, box office success and critical reviews upon its release in 2004. The scattered and puzzled cuts are calculated, the visual colors are faded in order to represent the fatigued mind of Creasy.
The character arc is like a perfectly shaped mountain. We start out with a depressed, guilt-ridden, bearded and whiskey drinking Creasy who has given up on life in the first half of the film who gradually transitions into a clean shaven, suit wearing bodyguard, then father figure toward the summit and peak of the arc. At this point he replaces his bottle of liquor with the Holy Bible and falls in love with Lupita like the father she never had in Samuel Ramos (Marc Anthony) and ultimately becomes a revenge seeking madman who won’t stop at nothing to protect the girl that became like a daughter to him. The pain, sorrow and guilt that exists in Creasy’s mind is ever-present in his choice of music as well as his over-sized and odd colored clothing. The idea behind his baggy clothes is to represent the wardrobe of a man who is disheveled. Someone with post-traumatic stress does not take the time to wear tailored and color coordinated clothing. Every single aspect of this film is directed with precision. Creasy’s arc finally ends when he arrives at his redemption, in rescuing Lupita from her kidnappers and seeking God’s redemption. When he enters the car in sacrificing himself to the kidnappers, he already knows he is going to die, but, by who’s will? The hands of the kidnappers, or the hand of God? Creasy’ finally redeems himself as he passes away in the backseat, dropping the pendant Lupita gifted him of St. Jude, patron saint of lost causes. Creasy obediently hangs this necklace around his neck and carries it with him throughout the climax, representing a signal that he hasn’t gone astray and maintains his faith.
With three completely different phases in the three decades of his feature directing career, it’s incredibly difficult to say which film was Tony Scott’s masterpiece. Even though many critics would argue that he was a popcorn-blockbuster filmmaker who over-directed scenes because of his use of over one dozen cameras for just a single shot, Scott added brilliant pieces of cinema in his own right and Man on Fire is clearly one of them. Film history would not be the same without Scott’s contribution. You can feel the mastery of Tony Scott’s work in literally every single frame of this film. The film is meticulously detailed in it’s execution as if it’s a painting within a film. Which isn’t a surprise because before he became a filmmaker, Tony Scott was an artist who had graduated from the Royal College of Art in London. One may go far as to suggest that there is a subliminal message being given by Rayburn that refers to Tony Scott, when he recited the line of dialogue, “Creasy’s art is death, and he’s about to paint his masterpiece.” This line can be rephrased as, “Scott’s art is entertainment, and he’s about to paint his masterpiece.”
Lupita (Dakota Fanning) has a magical bond with Creasy. She opens his heart, and our heart, by giving Creasy a reason to live again. It is well-known that casting plays an integral part of the directing process prior to principal photography and Tony Scott deserves a round of applause in this regard for his choice. Who wouldn’t fall in love with the young Dakota Fanning? Her angelic nature sells us on Creasy’s vow for revenge, forcing him to accept the offer he receives from her kidnapper, “I will give you her life, for your life”, which sets up Creasy’s depressingly predictable personal sacrifice in redemption and forgiveness from God. With a phenomenal score by Harry Gregson-Williams that strokes your heart and immerses you in the blue mind of Creasy, layered atop a magnificent backdrop of the both beautiful and grimy landscape of Mexico City, Man on Fire has stood the test of time and it is arguably one of, if not the best, revenge films ever made.