*½/**** Image A+ Sound A+
starring Denzel Washington, Dakota Fanning, Marc Anthony, Radha Mitchell
screenplay by Brian Helgeland, based on the novel by A.J. Quinnell
directed by Tony Scott
by Walter Chaw SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. What used to be the province of the Times Square grindhouse and drive-in movie theatres is now star-vehicle blockbuster fodder, making the revenge sub-genre's subversive qualities and carefully-cultivated atmosphere of frustrated rage suddenly a reflection of the demons plaguing mainstream culture. Though certainly more substantive than the hit-and-run remake of Walking Tall, Tony Scott's Man on Fire falls far below the redemptive qualities of Kill Bill, Vol. 2, offering the world the logical end result of a nation operating under the twin godheads of fear and Old Testament vengeance: a slickefied, iconographic, racist, sexist, huckster version of the grimy, low rent, pleasantly exploitative The Punisher.
The problem with Man on Fire isn't that it's sick and epileptic, but rather that it gradually reveals itself as invested in the worst instincts of cultural empiricism, casting women alternately as victims and fonts of sexual healing while locating a lone virile black man as hired help at the behest of a rich white woman for the protection of her lily-white daughter. "Being black, does it work for you or against you?" he's asked, and it's a good question. Man on Fire is Mandingo re-imagined for our post-9/11 wonderland, packed with a disturbing race and class dialogue and an equally disturbing level of violence presented in as populist a way as possible for easy digestion and facile rabble-rousing. If it weren't ultimately so cowardly (of the three rumoured endings, I'm wagering the one that survived is the middle porridge), it'd be a counter-cultural camp classic.
Denzel Washington is tremendous as the abovementioned black guy, Creasy, who warns his new employer Samuel (Marc Anthony)--in one of the film's many moments of mordant levity--that because his reflexes have been dulled by drink, should professionals come for Samuel's daughter, Pita (Dakota Fanning), he can only guarantee the bargain basement protection for which bankrupt spoiler Samuel has paid. In no time, Man on Fire has established its world as one in which Marc Anthony can have a daughter who looks like Dakota Fanning, in which Denzel Washington is a drunkard who comes cheap (soon to be a psychotically vengeful drunkard--see also: The Punisher), and in which if you're of colour, you're either a meat bag, irredeemably corrupt (the two positive Mexican characters are corrupt on the side of "good" killin'), or the catalyst through your death of a "proper" family unit. Consider that by the close, there's a nuclear family restored consisting of a wealthy older white man (Christopher Walken), a beautiful, rich, young white woman (Radha Mitchell), and said lily-white little girl. Every Mexican has been summarily executed (save the "good" Mexicans, who just return to their jobs facilitating criminal sociopaths and performing illegal Patriot Act invasions of privacy), and the black guy bought at a bargain has given his life for the good of the comfortably entrenched foreign bourgeoisie.
So the inevitably unthinkable happens a little later than expected (there's time in Man on Fire's bloated 145-minute duration for an underdog sports intrigue), and Pita is captured and presumed dead (actually dead in one unused ending, I'm guessing), sending Creasy on a sadistic murder spree that includes cutting off a guy's fingers and shoving a pound of plastic explosive up another unfortunate's rectum. Uncompromising, for sure, and I have no problem with films that have big brass ones, but what troubles me is the extent to which the film tries to mediate its violence with scenes of Creasy absolving himself in ritualistic baptismal immersions, of the baddies all being swarthy Mexican caricatures (and Mickey Rourke), and of that lingering, disquieting realization that what the film boils down to is a white ultra-conservative Christian's medieval wet dream of world order and fiery justice. It's the racist flag-waving rah-rah of The Alamo mixed with the sanctified cruelty of The Passion of the Christ--the spoilers-as-victim complex that infects certain infantile worldviews in such a way as to corrupt every relationship that the United States has in the world community.
Think about the palatial homes inhabited by the industrialist heroes of Man on Fire (Walken and Anthony, and a few anonymous Japanese). Now compare them to the laundry-decorated hovels that are the demesne of its murderous peasant class. Consider the single child responsibility of the beautiful rich white woman and the numerous offspring (with one on the way, the trend of menacing pregnant women in film continues) shepherded by the evil Mexican woman, among the multifarious ways in which the picture marginalizes and stereotypes poverty and every citizen south of El Paso. Suggesting that every institution in Mexico is hopelessly corrupt may be a case of pots calling kettles black, and a closing title card thanking Mexico City as a "very special place" reeks of either insincerity, cynicism, or hopeless Pollyannaism. After the mayhem depicted in Man on Fire, I'm guessing that not many are scrambling to book their family vacations there. I'd offer that there probably won't be another film more revealing of the seething core of terror, wrath, and provincialism in our America as Man on Fire, except that every week finds more proof that the watchtowers are burning, and that no one suspects watchmen. Originally published: April 23, 2004.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers The Blu-ray edition of Man on Fire comes closer, perhaps, than any BD in my collection to approximating the theatrical experience, just in terms of how crisp the 2.40:1, 1080p presentation looks without ever taking on a digital character. The film of course employs a range of exposures and printing techniques, so there are fluctuations in grain, contrast, saturation, you name it, but constants abound, too, such as rich blacks, fine shadow detail, and flawless compression. Too, whenever the frame settles on an object long enough for it to register, the image boasts an astonishing three-dimensionality. (It helps that Tony Scott shot most of his close-ups using long lenses.) Loud with a capital L, the accompanying DTS HD 5.1 Master Lossless Audio features the kind of bass that sends shockwaves up your spine, and there's an astounding transparency to the discrete soundstage. As a glorified demo disc, then, Man on Fire certainly delivers: Curiously, Fox has dropped all of the supplementary material they prepared for Man on Fire's SD DVD releases--the only extras are HD trailers for Man on Fire, The Sentinel, Mr. & Mrs. Smith, and Entrapment. Originally published: January 11, 2008.