WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
Man On Fire is a powerful piece of revenge cinema that succeeds despite the often-annoying hyperactive visual tendencies of its director, Tony Scott. Here's a movie that has a striking, elemental story—a man seeking redemption finds it in the love of a little girl and in a savage quest for revenge when the girl is kidnapped. It's a tale that definitely leaves its mark on you, due in large part to its willingness to focus on character and tonal buildup before letting all hell break loose. But as much as I admire most of Scott's efforts on this compelling revenge flick, damned if he almost does himself in with a go-for-broke visual style that, at its worst, has you flinching from the screen for all the wrong reasons.
Man On Fire is a prime example of how ADD-style whip-pans and flash-edits and other whiplash camera tricks can become a film's Achilles Heel. Don't get me wrong: When it works, as in this summer's brilliant The Bourne Supremacy, it captures the edgy mood of the film and breathes confidence in its audience, offering just the right amount of visual information for attentive moviegoers to follow the flow of the narrative. When it goes too far, as in Man On Fire, it induces headaches and actually becomes a detriment to the film. As you find yourself becoming increasingly involved in this film's very human story and age-old themes, you end up wishing the film had sufficient self-confidence to just calmly tell its story and dispense with the fireworks.
The story is excellent, and the aforementioned buildup is key to its success. For the first 50 minutes of Man On Fire, we witness the gradual development of an unlikely friendship between an ex-Special Forces operative named Creasy (Denzel Washington) and a precocious little girl named Pita (Dakota Fanning). He's a miserable alcoholic with a violent past, and he's on the verge of desperation. He's a man seeking redemption. With the help of his old friend Rayburn (Christopher Walken), Creasy lands a cushy job in Mexico City as a bodyguard for the daughter of Mexican businessman Samuel (Marc Anthony) and his wife Lisa (Radha Mitchell). You see, Mexico City is the kidnapping capitol of the world, with an ungodly number of them happening every day. It's a business. And poor Pita is right in the crosshairs.
The friendship and even love that grows almost reluctantly between Creasy and Pita is hard-earned and utterly believable, making everything that comes next all the more powerful. The kidnapping of Pita is inevitable, and the awesome sight of Creasy exacting his brutal revenge is captivating, and you really begin rooting for him, understanding his personal need for redemption in the wake of a salvation that came to him through the innocent Pita. Just as their relationship evolves with a slow, tender realism, Creasy's vengeful journey in the latter half of the film is studied and focused and deliberate. In Creasy's clenched-jawed poise, we behold a tragic resolve that will find its peace only in the most brutal, animal justice, and all we can do is hang on for the ride.
Based on a novel by A. J. Quinnell, Man on Fire was filmed once before, set in Italy. Helgeland has updated the screen treatment to provide a more character-focused tragedy, and he has done so quite elegantly. His efforts are bolstered by a bevy of impressive performances—in particular, Washington and Fanning, who infuse their characters with rich believability and are the key to the success of the story. It's unfortunate that such terrific, fundamental filmmaking is obscured by trickery.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Fox presents Man On Fire in a wonderful anamorphic-widescreen transfer of the film's 2.35:1 theatrical presentation. Love 'em or hate 'em, Scott's visual techniques are translated with perfection in this effort. Most of all, you'll notice some heightened contrast, but if my memory serves, that's an accurate representation of the theatrical experience. Colors are a bit oversaturated—also intended. This is an almost harsh image, so it's difficult to judge in comparison with other DVD efforts. But worry not—this is how Scott wants you to view his film, as a chaos of color and brashness and flicker-cuts. Detail is superlative, reaching into backgrounds. Best of all, I noticed no digital artifacting and no evidence of edge haloing.
If you're familiar with the film, you know about its unique use of subtitles. In theaters, I found these to be creative but at times overdone—as with the film's general style—but I'm glad to see they're burned in here.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The disc's soundtrack is presented in both Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1. Both are extremely effective, offering booming lows and effective highs with no distortion. Dialog is clear and accurate. The front soundstage is generous and open, and the surrounds get a subtle workout, mostly with ambience. Special attention should be given to the track's low end, which is really quite powerful, in both effects and score. I found little difference between the Dolby and DTS tracks—you already know which you prefer. Close listeners will discover a marginal improvement in bass clarity on the DTS track, but the Dolby track is absolutely no slouch.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
The only meaningful extras on the Man On Fire DVD are two audio commentaries. That's it. I was hoping for some kind of behind-the-scenes featurette, but that's okay—these commentaries are quite informative.
First up is a Commentary by Director Tony Scott, and this one reminded me immediately of the style and tone of—predictably, perhaps—those of his brother Ridley. They have about the same number of quiet spots, and the same type of sly, soft-spoken humor. Tony spends a great deal of time talking about the film's origins (originally planned 22 years earlier as one of his first films) and its casting (he stumbled on Denzel at a doctor's office and liked the idea of a hulking black man contrasted with a little white waif) and its shooting. He does talk at length about how he mixed different film styles and stocks to achieve the film's frenetic effect. He also talks a lot about actual historical kidnappings in Mexico City, and how they formed the basis for the film's story. I enjoyed his discussion about how he assisted Helgeland with the shaping of and research for the screenplay. He also has a particularly wild behind-the-scenes anecdote to share. And his elaborate explanation of the central relationship as a love story is quite interesting. He talks a lot about the large influence of City of God.
Next is a Commentary by Producer Lucas Foster, Screenwriter Brian Helgeland, and Actress Dakota Fanning, and this one has the obvious benefit of being a group effort. It's a moderately fun laughfest, if you don't mind the often spastic, youthful contributions of Fanning. I mean, I like her a lot as an actress, but her age shows here, and I found myself wishing, sometimes, that the discussion was focused more on Helgeland, perhaps moderated by Foster. Instead, the two men are prone to asking Fanning, "Was that fun?" One of the more humorous revelations is that Mickey Rourke is in love with his little pug dog. The track often devolves into dumb jokes, but there's some fun information here, too. Foster proves to have the most to say, but Helgeland also offers some unique story-focused insight.
Outside Man On Fire's Special Features section, you get a feature called Inside Look, which gives you a minute-long peek at Hide and Seek and a 3-minute behind-the-scenes look at Taxi (as well as a 2.35:1 anamorphic-widescreen trailer).
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
Man On Fire is very much worth your time—a revenge epic that takes its time to establish character and mood. My only complaint is that the headache-inducing trickery actually gets in the way of the elemental storytelling. Still, it's a powerful flick. The DVD offers supremely fine image and sound presentations, as well as a couple of good commentaries. Man On Fire remains one of the finest films of the year, deserving a high recommendation.