Is it crazy to think Tony Scott may be one of the most underrated Hollywood directors of the past 20 years? His brother Ridley Scott (“Gladiator”) gets all the acclaim, but Artsweek prefers Tony, who undeniably has the goods when it comes to action films. Listen to this list: “Top Gun,” “True Romance,” “Crimson Tide,” “Enemy of the State,” “Spy Games” and … “Days of Thunder”! Well, not all of these are great films, but the man sure knows how to edit together fascinating combat scenes and thrilling car chases. The bottom line is that Tony Scott directs exciting motion pictures.
Scott’s latest endeavor, “Man on Fire,” while born from the same lineage as his earlier projects, moves back and forth between moments of sadistic brutality and something new for Scott: uncomfortable melodrama. Starring Denzel Washington, Dakota Fanning and Christopher Walken, “Man on Fire” is a revenge/redemption story set in present day Mexico City where kidnappings of high profile Anglos has become a cash cow business. Washington plays Creasy, a shady anti-terrorist expert visiting a fellow comrade in arms (Walken) looking desperately for something to believe in besides Jack Daniel’s. Creasy gets himself hired as a bodyguard for a rich Mexican businessman and his white wife guarding their 10-year-old daughter Pita (Fanning). During his time with her, Creasy develops a friendship with Pita, discovering a window into a paternal side he never thought existed.
As seen in “Man on Fire” previews, it is apparent that Pita does indeed get kidnapped and Creasy, while seriously wounded, battles back against slimy thugs and corrupt cops to take revenge against the perpetrators and anyone who profited from the crime. Washington becomes fanatical to the extreme, guided towards regaining the small slice of happiness he once experienced. He shoots, maims, kills, jabs and slices his way through Mexico City’s underworld in order to retain some feeling of redemption, almost becoming superhuman in this devilish process.
When the bullets start to fly and the bodies pile up, “Man on Fire” turns into a schizophrenic study in fast paced editing and fragmented cinematography. Each time Creasy makes a violent move, Scott’s image seems to vibrate with rage, as if the ensuing violence is too much for even the person behind the camera to contain. Scott is known for this type of formal presentation, layering his jagged images with slashing sound effects to show searing displays of chaos and the fragility of the medium itself. In most of his work it feels necessary to the story, but here it feels out of place due to the contrasting themes at work. Washington and Fanning have such fine chemistry together that formal techniques act like a blatant interrupter attempting to please hardcore action fans. On the other hand, Scott purists might lash out during the sincere moments of devotion. After over two hours of this genre tug of war, the film feels jarring and unbalanced.
Ultimately “Man on Fire” comes across as two films going in separate directions. The drama and action are both interesting on the surface, but the two do not mix well. Scott has succeeded in juxtaposing these themes in the past with “Crimson Tide” and even “Top Gun,” but “Man on Fire” suffers from a lack of cohesion. Washington and the young Fanning share some great acting moments, but the weak script awkwardly mixed with the director’s patented visual blitzkrieg becomes tiresome. Too bad, because Scott is capable of burning up the screen with authority.