Man on Fire (2004)

Without Dakota, I honestly don’t know what we would have done.
— Lucas Foster, commentary track, Man on Fire

“I thought [of] the combination of Denzel Washington, this big black guy, and this tiny little porcelain white nine-year-old, which I thought was a fantastic, really odd love story.” When, director Tony Scott describes his concept for casting Man on Fire, the film’s narrative, aesthetic, and political focus becomes strangely clear. The “porcelain white” girl, Dakota Fanning, plays kidnap victim Pita, providing Washington’s damaged bodyguard, Creasy, with his aptly horrendous route to redemption.

“There is one kidnapping every 60 minutes in Latin America. 70% of the victims do not survive.” These unnerving numbers, appearing at the start of Tony Scott’s melodramatic thriller, set up just such an event: a young man is taken from his wedding celebration. Conveyed by jarring swoop-pans, smash-cuts, handheld framing, and digital jitters, the sequence unfolds quickly. Phone calls are made (“Family means everything, no?” threatens the shadowy speaker), money is dropped, and the young man is deposited on a busy roadway, missing an ear and emotionally destroyed by his ordeal. “The idea was to give you a taste of the world you’re about to enter,” says Tony Scott. “This opening sequence is beautiful, it’s dangerous, it’s sexual, it’s dark, it’s everything… so you get a sense that this kidnapping is going on, but you don’t really cross the T’s and dot the I’s.”

Such commotion is at the heart of Man on Fire, a film that means to distress — this much is indicated by both commentary tracks, Scott’s, and a second by Fanning, producer Lucas Foster, and screenwriter Brian Helgeland. Punctuated by mobile subtitles and assaultive editing, the movie underlines the daily threat of living in places where kidnapping is a sort of business, organized and ongoing even as it is also a sign of utter chaos and imminent breakdown. The location is Mexico City, or rather, a grimly reimagined “Mexico City,” filtered through the sort of yellow cast and grainy imagery that made Traffic‘s “Mexico” look similarly alien and dangerous. Scott notes that the film was originally set in Italy, years ago (it was supposed to be his second (instead, he made Top Gun). He enthuses, “I had such a brilliant smorgasbord of really odd, strange personalities and different looks. And that’s what I love, because I thought this movie was a movie about extremes, about touching extreme edges, emotional edges more than anything. I always described this movie as a huge emotional rollercoaster.” The film essentially defines this ruckus by its opposite, two designated innocents, blondish Lisa (Radha Mitchell, whose Southern U.S. accent comes and goes) and her perfectly pale daughter, Pita.

Married to a Mexican industrialist, Samuel Ramos (Marc Anthony), Lisa apparently endures their stressful existence because she likes to party and have her hair done; though you see none of this during the film’s 142 minutes, she expresses remorse about her choices, later, after disaster befalls them. The nature of this disaster isn’t hard to guess: Pita’s last bodyguard has quit, and so the family is seeking a replacement; otherwise, they can’t allow her to attend school. (As he observes the family in their expensive home, Scott says, “The whole movie is very decadent and very luxurious, in terms of its richness of color and textures of people and places.”)

First clue that something is wrong: Samuel’s lawyer, Jordan, is played by Mickey Rourke. Second clue: he advises his client to pick someone “cheap.” The resulting hire is former CIA assassin John Creasy, now drinking heavily (and not very discreetly, as his flask is repeatedly visible) and prone to wonder out loud whether God will forgive him and his buddy Rayburn (Christopher Walken) for “what we’ve done.” Grumpy, mournful, and suicidal (revealed in a few too many nighttime-despair montages, with props including Jack Daniels, the bible, and a large gun), Creasy initially resists the little girl’s overtures, but eventually succumbs to her tenacious cuteness. (This happens primarily in their conversations, which, Scott notes, he likes to shoot with at least two cameras; in the case of Washington and Fanning, this allowed for their improvisations.)

Within weeks, he’s picking Pita up from school (when one of the nuns there asks whether he ever sees “the hand of God” in what he does, he admits, “I’m the sheep that got lost”), coaching her at swimming (“There’s no such thing as tough, there’s trained and untrained”), helping her with homework, and looking after her new dog, a present from dad, who’s feeling guilty about the frequent, unspecified trips he takes with mom. But if her own parents aren’t watchful enough, Creasy devotes himself wholly to Pita — they do share a love story, as she encourages him to be more trusting, more open to her.

Creasy’s dedication will cost him dearly, as he’s shot to pieces during an unsuccessful effort to prevent her kidnapping. This occurs outside the piano lesson Samuel has insisted she take (though she has declared her preference for swimming, in effect, present bodyguard over absent dad), which underlines Creasy’s dad function, and also, as Scott notes, shows the character’s thinking, by way of a stunning visual composition: “It feels like part documentary, part grabbed real footage, and part opera. The opera comes from being inside Denzel’s head.” Harrowing show motion shots underline Creasy’s devastation as the “swarthy” villains drag Pita screaming into their car.

Based on the same novel that led to Elie Chouraqui’s Man on Fire (1987, starring Scott Glenn as the burnout agent), Brian Helgeland’s script takes a distinctly gringo-ish view of this foreign land, where the fragile but courageous white girl is victimized by scary locals who range from the odious kidnappers (organized by someone known only as “The Voice” [Gustavo Sánchez Parra], aided by his weasely brother Aurelio [Gero Camilo]) to the corrupt cops, primarily, the visibly seamy Fuentes (Jesús Ochoa). Man on Fire remains fixed on this idea that the Mexicans, including the women (some pregnant) who collude with their men, are desperate and cruel, drunk on power and devoid of empathy.

The film, yet another in the season’s onslaught of vengeance sagas, can’t pause to address the desperate political and economic climate that produces (though surely doesn’t excuse) such awful violence. Instead, it can only make the simplistic gesture, setting (relative) good against bad, that is, the black American in need of redemption against a passel of wicked Mexicans. It’s helpful that Lisa, lip trembling as she realizes the cops were involved, instructs him to “Kill them all,” as this sanctions his own need for retribution, even if the order does come from a woman driven nearly insane by her sense of culpability and outrage.

More troubling than this predictable (if startling) plot point per se is Creasy’s blackness (as opposed to the 1987 incarnation’s whiteness) in relation to it. A few decades removed from the trauma embodied by Operation Phoenix sniper/victim Martin Riggs (Mel Gibson), Creasy’s past evil has been conducted in service of secret U.S. missions in Thailand and Angola, activities so appalling that he can’t even speak about them. His erstwhile CIA partner Rayburn, himself a transplant to Mexico following his marriage to a lovely and supportively silent local (Georgina González), notes that Creasy is an “artist of death” inspired to “paint his masterpiece.” That he finds his motivation in the exploitation of American white girls by dark-skinned enemies is a complication this movie can’t begin to outline.

The brush that’s painting this moral morass looks slightly less broad with the addition of Creasy’s helper, local journalist Mariana (Rachel Ticotin). She introduces herself to Creasy as committed to taking down The Brotherhood, an organization of cops, politicians, and crooks whose interconnections run so deep that they always get away with everything (of course, this is only possible in the great otherness of Mexico). She has her own ways of getting info, in part by sleeping with the only decent-minded detective in sight, the displaced Italian Manzano (Giancarlo Giannini, slaughtered in Scott’s Hannibal). Because they actually seem to “like” one another, they stand out in this wholly dismal environment.

For all her dedication to the good fight, however, Mariana is only along for Creasy’s ride, tracking down addresses so he can descend on the criminals with increasing righteous furiosity. His punishments are suitably, majestically splendidly, vicious — chopping off fingers, blowing up cars and nightclubs, even detonating a bomb he’s inserted inside one villain’s “behind” (Creasy’s euphemism for it). The murders betray astounding skill and creativity, but they are murders, vigilante rampaging that is merciless and ghastly.

Creasy, however well he hands down earthly consequences, believes devoutly in divine justice. This means that his own journey can’t end with his violence unto others, and moreover, that his serial sacrifices for the white child so abused by every adult in sight — save for him — make him less admirable than frightening, a specter of payback that extends far beyond his own experience or representative capacity. Creasy, wounded and guilt-ridden, must believe in his own redemption. You, however, have no such need.