In this feature our writers defend films they feel have not received their due.

When an artist passes away, it’s tempting for critics and audiences to delve back into their body of work and begin revaluating, as if their passing may reveal something meaningful, or that the work is now a more relevant cultural artifact. It’s a slippery slope between rosy revisionist history and meaningful reconsideration. Recently, such is the case with the work of Tony Scott, the director who took his own life earlier this year. While a handful of his films were praised upon their release, many were derided; Scott’s idiosyncratic style was a particularly potent punching bag for many critics. But with the success of his 2011 film Unstoppable and his sudden death, Scott’s work is primed for revaluation.

While Unstoppable was successful both critically and commercially, much of Scott’s late-period films are seen as frenetic popcorn films, all style and no substance. The “popcorn film” label was particularly applied to his mid-aughts run of films, including Man on Fire, Déjà Vu and The Taking of Pelham 123. While the latter two films have enjoyed some revisionist success, 2004’s Man on Fire remains mostly untouched by critical revaluation; which is a shame, because the film is an integral part of the director’s aughts output. Together with Déjà Vu and Pelham 123, it’s a film that continues Scott’s analysis of the failings of bureaucracy and the oppressive nature of power structures.

Scott immediately sets up Man on Fire as a story about the way power structures perpetuate privilege while laying the consequences at the foot of the working class. Creasy (Denzel Washington), is a former military serviceman – and current alcoholic – who’s hired by a wealthy couple in Mexico City to be a bodyguard for their daughter Lupita (Dakota Fanning). Samuel (Marc Anthony) is the wealthy heir to an auto manufacturing company, his wife Lisa (Radha Mitchell) his American trophy wife. The couple lives in a decadent home, adorned with ancient art and architecture, the upkeep of which is left to the lower class citizens of Mexico. Scott consciously focuses on laborers throughout the first 60 minutes of his film, including shots of landscapers, street performers, housekeepers and constructions workers. Occasionally these shots are isolated, but more often than not, the workers are part of the background; Scott recognizes that these unnoticed workers are integral not only to Mexico City and communities in general, but also to his mise-en-scene. Like the entirety of Unstoppable, the first hour of Man on Fire is an exploration of labor issues, particularly the outsourcing of jobs, the shortcomings of government policy and the privatization of business. Creasy’s longtime friend and business partner Rayburn (Christopher Walken), underscores this viewpoint; he’s an American who gets to “live like a king” in Mexico, surrounded by women and, as he states, “cheap labor.”

Man on Fire is also a film that suggests violence, whether gang related or otherwise, has a direct correlation to the failings of bureaucracy, dire economic conditions and the previously mentioned division of labor and wealth. While the final 90 minutes of the film is indulgently, cruelly violent, there is a sense that the violence is a consequence of the bureaucratic issues explored in the film’s first act. Scott is occasionally heavy-handed with his character revelations, but the emotional connection between Creasy and Lupita is structured through dependence and understanding, a necessary, and quite wonderfully executed bit of exposition that doesn’t necessarily justify the violence, but does allow the themes of political, social and class disillusion room to breathe. Class and economics don’t play into the relationship between Creasy and Lupita; there’s something pure and rewarding about their connection that Scott handles deftly. This underscores the disproportionate wealth distribution that propels the violence and corruption – within the banks, the police, and the government – evident throughout the rest of the film. Lupita is kidnapped for financial reasons, and a late-film twist reveals that to be more palpable than originally thought. All the characters in Man on Fire, from the Federal agents and privatized bodyguards, to the journalists and general laborers, are operating under the stress of financial inequality, which Scott directly relates to corrupt bureaucrats and neo-liberal economic policies.

While the violence and indulgence of the film’s third and final act is hard to justify, one could argue that the extreme aggression displayed by Creasy is necessary to his character arc, moving from troubled alcoholic to enlightened humanitarian and then morally questionable anti-hero. Scott doesn’t ask his audience to identify with Creasy or lust for the escalation of violence. Instead, the first act of the film begs us to question Creasy’s propensity for bloodshed. Creasy isn’t a cold, calculated badass ready to be anointed to the pop culture hall of fame a la Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield; rather, he’s a working class pawn caught up in a power structure that perpetuates class division, begets corruption in the civic process and enables – even thrives on -violence.

In this way, Man on Fire is integral to a thematic pseudo-trilogy with Déjà Vu and Pelham 123. Man on Fire is certainly an indulgent, flawed mess at times, but it’s also a rewarding and ambitious look at top-down power structures and the lack of meaningful discourse at the bureaucratic level.

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One Comment

  1. J. Burke

    February 18, 2017 at 5:55 am

    Well said. I might add an additional pov that was perhaps overlooked. Creasy was not just ” a working class pawn caught up in a power structure that perpetuates class division.” He was a former black ops warrior and gun for hire, trained in the art of killing by Uncle Sam. He was a creation of the covert violence justified and legalized for the US to meet its end goals. The film, in the form of Creasy, also leads us to see who we are left with, and how these men are left to deal with civilian life, after returning from that life of sanctioned violence.

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