For Criterion Consideration: Tony Scott’s Man On Fire

‘I’m the sheep that God lost, madre.’

Work weeks are tough to start in the first place, but if this week didn’t start off on one hell of a sad note. With a cavalcade of classic action films to his credit, the film world lost a giant on Monday, as director Tony Scott took his own life at the age of 68. ABC News later added that he had been diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer, making this story one of the most upsetting loses that the film world has felt in quite some time.

However, thankfully, we have a true handful of action masterpieces from the director, including the likes of Top Gun, Crimson Tide, The Last Boy Scout and True Romance, among many others. Teaming along with his brother Ridley to create the shingle Scott Free, Scott’s films were always some of the most brazenly entertaining and visually inventive films within the genre.

And sure, Criterion may not be the biggest proponents of true blue modern action films. Save for the pair of Michael Bay masterworks (and yes, I’ll vouch for both of those gems), the genre isn’t nearly as represented as it clearly should be, but in the wake of this horrific tragedy, what better time than to instead of mourn his passing, pay respects to one of action cinema’s greatest directors, by taking a look at what may very well be the auteur’s best work.

Man On Fire‘s premise is relatively simple. An experienced former CIA agent turned family bodyguard John Creasy is on the edge of ending it all, only to by hired by a Mexican businessman to guard his young daughter. When he begins to get close to the young child (played by a young but obviously gifted Dakota Fanning), the proverbial stuff hits the fan as the youngster is abducted, and he’s shot a handful of times. However, as this girl may very well be the sole entity keeping this man’s soul still wanting to continue, he sets out to find her and set everything right. One of Scott’s earliest efforts at what would become known as his very own auteur touch, this is one of the testing grounds for a director who was on the brink of gathering a second wind in his career. It is also his strongest work up to that point in time, and in retrospect, may be the director’s very best work, period.

One of many films that would find Scott and actor Denzel Washington teaming up, Man On Fire is the pinnacle of the pair’s collaboration. While Washington as an actor has been better (look at films like Malcolm X or Training Day), he has rarely been this melancholic. With one of the most emotive faces in the acting world, Washington is able to jump from his early sequences of booze-filled sadness to the happiness that he discovers in Pita, the young girl, with an uncanny ease. While one is never able to truly separate Washington from his persona, his ability to emotionally play the role of the everyman, or at least as close as he can get within the confines of a Scott film, make the entire second and third acts of this film more than a masterpiece of emotional and narrative heft.

However, it’s still a Tony Scott film, through and through. Scott began his work toying around with filters and shutter speeds in the early 2000s, starting off with his short for a compilation of films for BMW, but this is one of the earliest and most superb examples of the director’s late-career aesthetic. Truly a second leg of his career, this aesthetic would later be imitated through various filmmakers (even this year, with something like Safe House), but never duplicated. Far more subdued than the Looney Tunes cartoon of a live action thriller that is Domino (even though this writer absolutely adores that film), Man On Fire is a highly stylized, down to the bone revenge thriller that is as lively acting-wise as it is directorially. The experimental sequences are used to perfection here, instead of playing as the entire narrative as it would in some later Scott films, it is used to heighten emotional moments, be it the big shoot out that plays the capper of the first act, or the fun-loving swimming montage that would be the lead up to it. Simply put, it’s a damn masterpiece.

Now, in the wake of the late director’s death, it may also be Scott’s most melancholic and upsetting. Following a man who is just a faulty bullet away from ending his own life, the film finds a man looking for anything to believe in but not sure if it’s even worth looking for. Some of the lines within this film’s script, penned by Brian Helgeland, like the one that opens this review, are devastating. However, while he may have taken his own life, his films are here to stay, and this one deserves to be seen as a masterpiece of not only its director, but of an era and a genre.

Joshua Brunsting

Josh is a critic, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, a wrestling nerd, a hip-hop head, a father, a cinephile and a man looking to make his stamp on the world, one word at a time.