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Man on Fire

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.

Man on FireSo 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.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, October 13th, 2004 at 8:39 am and is filed under Action, Crime, Drama, Reviews, Thriller. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

41 Responses to “Man on Fire”

  1. Watched this for the first time in a very long time. I saw it in theatrical release and was kind of overwhelmed by it. I do not mean this as a slight at all, but I was perhaps young and dumb enough to be blown away by the filmatism displayed. Last night, less so but I was still drawn to it as a whole, bad supporting performances (I think the girl’s parents could have been cast way better, it would have made some of their dialogue easier to swallow) aside. Denzel is more interesting in this than I am guessing what he did in the EQUALIZER movies, Walken is Walken, and Dakota Fanning doesn’t play up as cute or maudlin as others might have. I still like it, and it doesn’t surprise me that it influenced some of what would come after in terms of middle-aged respectable actors taking on bad-ass action roles.

  2. Is the original 1987 version of this any good? Just noticed that Jonathan Pryce is in it (not, unfortunately, as the hero).

  3. I like it. It’s very European in style, like something Bronson could have done in the early 70s. But it’s also a bit artsy, with what I suspect is improvised dialog. Good action, but not at all as frenetic as Tony Scott’s.

  4. “not at all as frenetic as Tony Scott’s.”

    Well that’s fair, but what could be? In fact the 1987 version suffers from pauses and longeurs, but yes, I like it too. It’s preferable to the Scott version. Scott Glenn is the hero – pretty much the last time he was – and it’s interesting to see Joe Pesci before he got stuck in his GOODFELLAS schtick.

    Neither film really does A. J. Quinnells’s source novel justice.

  5. Is the book good? I’ve had it on my shelf for years but never got around to pulling the trigger on it.

  6. I’ll be honest. I read it in my teens when it came out and bloody loved it. But I’ve never revisited. Over the years, I’ve come to trust my uneducated teenage tastes as more reliable than some of my later, more educated enthusiasms. If it helps, I read David Morrell’s Testament around the same time and liked that a lot too.

  7. Sounds good to me. I’m a Morell fan and I particularly like that one. His thicker ones tend to scare me off. They seem a little too much like airport reads for dads who usually only read Tom Clancy, but his lean and mean survival stories are great.

  8. According to imdb Tony Scott was slated to direct the ’87 version as well. It guess it would have looked like REVENGE.

  9. That too would’ve been preferable to the 2004 version. Funny, as otherwise I’d say the films with Denzel are among Scott’s best. Although THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123 is unnecessary and inferior to the original in every way, obviously.

  10. Always bothered me that Tony Scott was regarded as the “lesser Scott brother” in terms of film-making talent when he had a better hit-to-miss ratio than Ridley and there’s some real underrated gems in his filmography (Am I the only one to think RAMBO LAST BLOOD is essentially an updated REVENGE?)

    But it must be said: Starting with SPY GAME, increasing with MAN ON FIRE and hitting it’s absolute nadir in DOMINO (the only Tony Scott movie I refuse to ever watch again), Scott (Tony) disappeared up the anus of flashy, hyper edited, sped up, blurred out shots which neutered all his action scenes. Thankfully he got over it by time he did DEJA VU

  11. I read that Sergio Leone was almost going to direct the 87 version. He’d just done ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA with Arnon Milchan so it doesn’t seem too far-fetched that he was a possibility.

  12. Ridley is the directors looking to do different things. With Tony, it’s easy to have a decent ratio of hits when your entire output is pretty much commercial pop stuff. Sometimes very good commercial pop stuff and a few times more than that. But his sights were never much higher.

    But Ridley hit it right out of the gate with The Duellists, Alien and Blade Runner. Then if you want to compare HIS commerical stuff with Tony you have stuff like Thelma and Louise, Black Rain, Gladiator, G.I. Jane, American Gangster.

    Huge difference in quality.

  13. Let’s not forget THE MARTIAN and BLACK HAWK DOWN, the latter pretty much defining the look of contemporary battle movies.

    Irrespective of Tony’s hit rate, the closest he gets to a run of great movies is THE LAST BOY SCOUT – TRUE ROMANCE – CRIMSON TIDE, and, as noted above, the lows are really very low.

  14. Just the other day I was talking to a friend about the brother’s Scott, and I also came to the conclusion that Tony’s consistency is a virtue that’s not often discussed. I put it this way: if you had two spinning wheels, one that listed all of Tony’s movies and another that listed all of Ridley’s movies, and you had to choose one, take a spin and watch whatever came up, which wheel would you spin? In all honesty, I would go with Tony Scott.

  15. Luckily, both Scotts have added a bunch of great films to our lives. I’d spin both wheels and probably be happy with whatever came up.

  16. I am much more of a Tony than a Ridley fan overall, because at least Tony’s bad movies aren’t boring, but trying to make me choose between ALIEN and THE LAST BOY SCOUT is just cruel. That’s some Sophie’s Choice shit right there.

  17. It comes back to my point made in another thread about journeyman directors and why I have a soft spot for them. Tony Scott was a stylish journeyman film-maker. He efficiently cranked out for the most part consistently entertaining action movies. Ridley aimed higher and more diverse thematically, and it’s sure resulted in some pretty great movies, leaving aside the 2 CLASSICS which has gotten 5 lifetimes worth of mentions in virtually every Ridley Scott article ever written, I have enjoyed some of his earlier works like THE DUELLISTS and SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME and BLACK RAIN was a classic example of Ridley’s stylish visuals elevating what would have otherwise been a stock Culture Clash/Buddy Cop actioner. And while everyone and their second cousin has seen GLADIATOR, I frequently plug his underrated KINGDOM OF HEAVEN (Director’s Cut), BLACK HAWK DOWN is outright terrific as is the underrated MATCHSTICK MEN.

    This idea that a Ridley Scott failure is flawed while a Tony Scott one is cinematic dreck is something I have issues with.

    When Big Brother thuds, he thuds hard and while a bad Tony Scott movie suffers from bad writing and his own over-stylised flashy edits, a bad Ridley Scott movie commits the larger sin. They’s boring as fuck. Have always had a slight problem with Ridley’s pacing, and it’s just exacerbated in his bad ones

    Tangerine Dream score aside, I had trouble staying awake for much of LEGEND, and still don’t get the love for this movie in some quarters. And yeah…it’s boring.

    1492 and

    Am just saying Ridley gets cut some extra slack for his failures because of you know..ALIEN & BLADE RUNNER. Ridley’s duds get gently knocked while Tony’s flops are savagely skewered because he DIDN’T make, you know…ALIEN & BLADE RUNNER. Most critics, while critiquing a a lesser Ridley effort rarely fail to mention it’s otherwise “Stylish Visuals” but a bad Tony Scott movie’s just a piece of shit overall.

    In the words of Anton Ego: PERSPECTIVE, gentlemen! That’s all I’m asking for. A little perspective.

  18. When Big Brother thuds, he thuds hard and while a bad Tony Scott movie suffers from bad writing and his own over-stylised flashy edits, a bad Ridley Scott movie commits the larger sin. They’s boring as fuck. Have always had a slight problem with Ridley’s pacing, and it’s just exacerbated in his bad ones

    Tangerine Dream score aside, I had trouble staying awake for much of LEGEND, and still don’t get the love for this movie in some quarters. And yeah…it’s boring.

    1492 and WHITE SQUALL were dull for long stretches.

    Post-GLADIATOR, the Scott/Crowe collaborations were extremely disappointing. Just couldn’t care less about A GOOD YEAR, A BODY OF LIES’ sole achievement was demonstrating that Crowe could get as fat as the rest of us mortals..and subsequently have trouble shedding the extra pounds like the rest of us mortals. AMERICAN GANGSTER made me question why a movie with Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington made me want to switch it off and re-watch VIRTUOSITY instead. ROBIN HOOD was dour, tedious and glum.

    PROMETHEUS & ALIEN COVENANT…from the director of, you know….ALIEN & BLADE RUNNER. ‘Nuff said!


    THE COUNSELOR….Borg9 I challenge you to name a Tony Scott movie that was so pretentiously dull you needed to crowbar your eyelids open.

  19. Apologies for the overlapping double post above. An itchy trigger finger.

    “because at least Tony’s bad movies aren’t boring”

    Maj, you succinctly summarized in one sentence what it took me several paragraphs to articulate.

  20. I liked it when Shane Black decided to start directing his own shit so he could show people what Last Boy Scout could actually have been.

    Sometimes I’d rather be bored by a bad movie than actively annoyed by it. Like, Transformers aren’t boring I guess, but they are just incredibly irritating which is much much worse.

  21. It really wasn’t my intention to set up a Sophie’s choice of Scott brothers here. I’m always happy to speak up for careful journeymen, and I think most people here see the style over substance argument as a bogus one.

    But I stand by my original point that MAN ON FIRE is a mess that wastes a good story and cast and that the 1987 version, for all its flaws, is preferable. I’ve admitted that Tony made movies I like – see above – but SPY GAME and MAN ON FIRE (I’ve still not seen DOMINO) are not among them.

    I can’t name a pretentiously dull Tony Scott movie, but I feel like BEVERLY HILLS COP II was dull and deeply unmemorable. I saw it in the cinema and all I have is that Brigitte Nielsen wore a skirt and sun glasses, and Eddie Murphy said something funny. Probably. Apparently Jürgen Prochnow was in it too.

    I saw Ridley in a Q&A while he was preparing LEGEND, and the clips he showed, although gorgeous, did nothing to make me want to see the movie. Yeah, it is boring, but I’d argue that Tom Cruise was a poor fit for Ridley and Tony.


  23. Like the man said, it’s differences of opinion that makes horse racing interesting. Although, frankly, I think it would take a lot more than that.

    No thoughts on TOP GUN and DAYS OF THUNDER?

  24. Upon further reflections on the Tony Scott oeuvre, I will concede that the Younger Scott has directed one film that comes close to matching the sheer bum-numbing boredom and artsy pretentiousness of Big Brother’s THE COUNSELOR.

    That would be THE HUNGER.

    Given that was his directorial debut on the big screen, I’ll cut him some slack.

  25. I hate DAYS OF THUNDER and TOP GUN with passion.

  26. Weird how everybody here ignores the existence of ENEMY OF THE STATE.

  27. Honestly, I tend to forget about it. I like it, but haven’t seen it since it came out.

  28. I mostly remember the part where Jason Lee gets splattered by the bus, but it’s also the movie where I formed my Gene Hackman Theory of Contextual Immutability. It occurred to me that Gene Hackman gives the exact same performance in every single movie. It is only the context in which the script and to a lesser extent the directorial choices place him that determine whether he is playing a good guy or a bad guy. He’s like the C-3PO’s face of actors. Smart directors use that quality for ambiguity, such as Clint, Wes Anderson, Coppola, or even Tony Scott, for whom he played lovable assholes whom the audience wasn’t quite sure they could trust. But he didn’t play them any different than he would the hero of a movie or the villain. Gene Hackman is a constant. Only the equation around him changes.

  29. I can be just as bored watching a frenetic movie than a slow paced one. Some of the most boring movies I’ve seen are the fast paced ones, where nothing means anything and all the character stuff has been cut and the story is generic.

  30. Yeah Mr. M I always thought that about Hackman…he gets a lot of talk about being a great actor and he is…and the ONE thing he always does, never any different, no matter than genre or character he’s playing.

  31. You guys think Harry Caul and Little Bill are the same performance??

  32. Does Hackman give the same performance or like all rock-solid, dependable character actors who got or are getting regular work in their middle to advanced years, ASKED to give the same performance?

    Replace him with Tommy Lee Jones, Morgan Freeman, Jerry Orbach, Michael Caine, Richard Harris, Martin Landau or Frank Langella and you could have the same conversation.

  33. “Weird how everybody here ignores the existence of ENEMY OF THE STATE”

    Nothing short of tragic how most have forgotten THE FAN

  34. Royal Tenenbaum and Lex Luthor?

    I’ve got to stand up for SPY GAME here. Yeah it’s got all those editing tics that haven’t aged well, but with this kind of story in the hands of Pitt and Redford and their blinding star wattage there’s nothing Tony could have done to screw it up short of dubbing it in a foreign language and running it backwards.

    As for big brother/little brother I think they both achieved excellence more often than each might be given credit for (Ridley post-BLADE RUNNER specifically). I do wonder what would have happened if they directed something together, or if they ever talked about it. Ridley was once asked what his favorite of Tony’s was and said TRUE ROMANCE, and Tony said in the big BLADE RUNNER doc from 2007 that it was his all-time favorite not just of his brother’s.

    I hope someone writes a book about Tony, I’ve heard some interesting stories about his working methods, and how daring he’d be outside of work too. He was friends with Hunter S. Thompson, which says a lot for an English director.

  35. Anyone like Tony Scott’s ep of “The Hire” series?

  36. I only remember THE FAN for its onboxious soundtrack. Like, DeNiro kills del Toro and some industrial song literally screams “I WANNA FUCK YOUUUUUUUUUUU!”

  37. Tony Scott’s “The Hire” was the one with James Brown, right? I remember nothing about it. The only one of those I really loved was the Wong Kar-Wai.

  38. De Niro didn’t play his obsessive fan as a full blown psycho and the object of his man-crush Wesley Snipes was a bit of a dick, arrogantly ensconced within the trappings of his celebrity.

    These minor shadings within it’s admittedly limited genre parameters is what elevates THE FAN in my eyes.

  39. Come to think of it, the only movies of Tony Scott’s that I will never revisit is DAYS OF THUNDER and TOP GUN. But that has more to do with the scripts than his direction.

  40. It feels slightly ironic that DAYS of THUNDER and TOP GUN are about gifted people who have to learn to work within the limits of the machines they’ve got, when that is essentially what Scott doesn’t manage to do with his frenetic editing and colour in movies like MAN ON FIRE.

    I doubt I’m the first to think of it, but for a time I imagined a world in which Tony and Tom saw out their careers remaking TOP GUN with progressively smaller and less powerful machines. This all ended up with MOWN DOWN, the story of a gifted young man who has the potential to be the greatest groundsman of all time, if only he can manage to work within the limits of his ride-on lawnmower. Of course, in the end he learns how through the love of an educated young woman and the guidance of a grizzled older mentor (ideally played by Richard Farnsworth). There’d be a great sunset, flags and mowing montage at the end of the second act all set to Kenny Loggins’s smash Highway to the Penalty Zone.

  41. I feel like Vern appreciates the Scotts now more than he did 20 years ago. I wonder how much more? For me the key to understanding the brothers Scott is their background in advertising. When they have something good to “sell” (a good script), they can sell the hell out of it. Ridley is a lot more tasteful than Tony, but that’s part of their respective charm.

    Full disclosure, my son’s name is Ridley Anthony….

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