I gotta question I was wondering about. If you had to choose one Scott brother that was better (or not as bad), which would it be, Ridley or Tony? On one hand, Tony has never made a truly great movie like ALIEN or, you know, BLADE RUNNER is a good one too in my opinion. Both by Ridley. Tony’s got nothing on that level. But on the other hand, Tony has a couple okay movies: TRUE ROMANCE and CRIMSON TIDE are both pretty okay. I’m looking on IMDB here and– okay wait a minute, Tony Scott did TOP GUN? I forgot about that one. Never mind. I guess I choose Ridley. Congratulations on this great achievement, Ridley. I remember you seemed pretty pissed off that you didn’t get the best director Oscar for that corny gladiator movie you made. Maybe this great honor will cheer you up. Way to go, champ.
So I guess that makes Tony the underdog here, and he had one this year called MAN ON FIRE that seemed to show some promise as a film of Badass Cinema. Academy Award Winner Denzel Washington (“You shot me in the ass!”) plays an alcoholic ex-CIA killer guy who’s hard up for work so he becomes a bodyguard for a little girl in South America. People get kidnapped there more often than they don’t get kidnapped, so next thing you know she gets stolen and this motherfucker stops at nothing to get her back and/or torture, maim and murder the people responsible. And I don’t know if you ever saw the poster for this one but it was real good. No collage or nothing, just one giant picture of Denzel wearing a suit and sunglasses, looking real tough. Behind him you see nothing but fire and smoke, and he’s standing half way in front of this little girl, holding out one hand in front of her, and she’s wearing a private school uniform and hugging a teddy bear. (You know, for emphasis.) It’s like Chow Yun Fat with the baby on the HARD BOILED poster, only 9 years later.
So far so good, right? Well I haven’t even got to the good part, which is screenplay by Brian Helgeland. Not to rub it in Ridley’s face, but Brian is an actual Academy Award Winner for LA CONFIDENTIAL (he was also nominated for MYSTIC RIVER, but like Ridley Scott, he went home that night with the empty hand of shame). I thought LA CONFIDENTIAL was pretty good but it didn’t give me the same boner it gave everybody else, so that doesn’t mean a whole lot to me. The important thing to me is that he’s the writer/director for Outlaw Award Winner PAYBACK, and he wrote BLOOD WORK which is more my speed of Clint Eastwood movie than MYSTIC RIVER was. Helgeland’s thing is gritty adaptations of gritty novels, which is what this one is too.
Denzel is exactly as good as you would expect in this role, making the guy intense and scary even though there’s a tangent where he becomes the girl’s swim coach in order to show the humanity, etc. Before that he’s kind of mean to the girl and tells her not to talk to him and he doesn’t even like birds but I mean it goes without saying that he has a special bodyguard bond with his peppy little rich girl charge and this is why he will later go around shooting cars with a rocket launcher, chopping off fingers and literally putting C-4 up a guy’s ass. Which is kind of pervy, in my opinion, but as we know from Abu Ghraib, these intelligence people are into the butt stuff, I guess. I don’t want to be judgmental about CIA traditions so I won’t say anything.
Mickey Rourke and Christopher Walken (playing a good guy!) have small roles and there is a good little moment early on where Denzel asks Walken out of the blue, “Do you think God will forgive us for what we’ve done?” They agree that He won’t and then continue with their small talk. My other favorite part of the movie is another conversation Denzel has with the girl’s dad before he’s hired, when he candidly admits that his drinking affects him and that the level of protection will be “on par with the pay.” That was a real good scene.
Also the cinematography is real nice.
What I have done here though is I have listed the good things. It’s like Thomas Jefferson or Thumper or somebody once said, if you can’t say something nice, forget it. Unfortunately I do not think this movie achieves on the same level that Ridley has achieved in his competition with Tony. It is real slow, taking more than an hour to even get to the kidnapping. I guess it works to make you feel like you know the girl before she gets kidnapped, but I’m not sure it’s worth the wait. And I know they were trying to make a dark movie here but still I gotta say it, this movie is just too gloomy and humorless to be enjoyed. I don’t mind that there are no jokes or oneliners but jesus man, give me something other than brooding, random flashes and the occasional sadism.
If you think about it, The Man On Fire is very similar to the Parker character Mel Gibson played in PAYBACK. Both of them are mostly emotionless, cold-blooded killers who are wronged and spend the movie violently and single-mindedly righting that wrong. I mean really, just righting the shit out of it. But the difference is, Parker (actually they call him Porter in the movie) is fun to watch. He’s not joking around, he’s very serious, but there’s joy in the clever ways he accomplishes his goals and humor in the way his scumbag adversaries respond to his success. The “oh shit” looks they get on their faces when he shows up at their place of business.
By the way, did I imagine it or did Denzel really say, “Revenge is a meal best served cold!” as he knocked a car off a cliff? I’m pretty sure this really happened in the movie. I wonder if that was Denzel’s plan all along to start doing glorified Brian Bosworth movies as soon as he got another Oscar. This is not gonna make me sound real smart, but I honestly think THE PUNISHER is a better ex-government badass turned alcoholic sadistic revenge killer movie. True, the Punisher had that corny narration about “not revenge – punishment,” but at least he made that up himself. The Man On Fire just repeats a cliche, and gets the wording wrong! Come on man, if that’s all you got, be a stoic killer. You don’t gotta say shit. You’re ruining it.
Another major problem in this movie though is the way it’s edited and shot. This is one of those movies where it’s EXTREME CLOSE UP, cut to shaky blurry handheld footage of traffic, cut to EXTREME CLOSEUP THROUGH WINDOW WITH REFLECTIONS IN WINDOW, freeze frame, speed up, slo mo, cut to nonsensical flashback of swimming lessons, EXTREME CLOSEUP, cut to OTHER EXTREME CLOSEUP, freeze frame again, cut to short clip of KOOYANISQATSI, etc. It’s also what I call a whooshy movie, where edits and camera movements seem to create sound. The camera moves and you hear a WHOOSH or the sound of traffic zooming by or a metal garage door slamming shut. And a man can only take so much of that nonsense. This movie is groundbreaking because it’s the first as far as I know to go one step beyond and let this annoying sugar high filmatic technique leak into the medium of subtitles.
Obviously, taking place in South America, there is some Spanish dialogue in this movie. And when you got Spanish dialogue in an English movie, usually you gotta translate it for us uneducated Americans, so you write the translation in the lower center area of the screen in easy to read letters, preferably yellow or white with black outlines in case of a scene taking place at a ski resort (I’m looking at you, VHS edition of Roger Vadim’s DANGEROUS LIASIONS).
But no! That’s not what Tony Scott wants! Tony Scott doesn’t play that shit! Tony Scott still probaly gets christmas cards from Jerry Bruckheimer, I’m sure he has the occasional social drinking with Michael Bay, they may or may not snort lines of cocaine off the hood of a gold plated humvee halfway submerged in a champagne jacuzzi surrounded by giant american flags and stacks of Playboy and Maxim magazines taller than most NBA players. I mean I’m just speculating here, I don’t have any inside info on this. So what Tony Scott does, he has subtitles that are supposed to just LOOK COOL instead of actually be readable. They roll out and spin around and slide across the screen. They show up on the top or on the side or sometimes the characters walk in front of them and they disappear. WHOOSH!
This type of horseplay might conceivably work in a movie like CHARLIE’S ANGELS but it does not work in a serious movie with no sense of humor. At first I thought maybe some young film students raised on MTV, Sugar Smacks and Visa commercials had taken over the movie in postproduction, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this assault on cinematic language was built into the shots, it had to have been premeditated. Admittedly, it is done slightly more artistically than in the Michael Bay movies, and there are a few scenes where it is used to intentionally disorient the audience and put them in the mind frame of the character. But not usually. For most of the movie, it’s the equivalent of Tony Scott wearing an earring and baggy pants. No, I’m not that old. What do you mean, old? I’m young and edgy. Look at my blond streaks. I’m one of these new young wunderkinds they got, I’m reinventing the filmatic language for my generation. Look out old people, little Tony Scott is coming and his movie is WHOOSHY! It’s gonna whooshy the starch right out of your collar!
Which reminds me there’s a part where Denzel goes to a “rave” and to fit in he wears a bandana on his head. That shit was hilarious.
Otherwise, this movie is a disappointment.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.