In his somewhat uneven record of achievement in cinema, the English director Tony Scott exhibits a certain faith in the tried and the true, especially if he is the one who did the trying.
His earliest big success, Top Gun (1986), for example, starred Tom Cruise as a hot dog jet pilot who grows into maturity and manhood. He repeated the formula less successfully a few years later in Days of Thunder (1990), with Tom Cruise once again, only this time as a hot dog racecar driver who grows into maturity and manhood, and wins the affections of Nicole Kidman as well.
In between those movies, he made Beverly Hills Cop II, another repetition, an inferior effort at copying the commercial success of a slick, dumb, exaggerated original. It's not always a good idea to be the second one to jump on a bandwagon.
On the other hand, like his older, more accomplished brother Ridley, he also demonstrates an ability to entertain an audience within the requirements of the Hollywood style. His work includes a number of well made genre pictures, like Crimson Tide, The Fan, and Enemy of the State, which generally display the visual polish and narrative momentum usually associated with the best traditions of American popular film.
He has also worked successfully with some outstanding and confident contemporary actors, including Robert De Niro, Gene Hackman, and Denzel Washington, which indicates an aptitude for performers accompanying his apparent sense of the camera.
In his latest film, essentially a formulaic revenge thriller, Scott again directs Denzel Washington. He revisits some of the subjects and themes that dominate Revenge, one of his least known pictures.
In Man on Fire Washington plays John Creasy, a burned-out former government counter-insurgency agent --- which translates as professional assassin --- who apparently bears a heavy burden of guilt for unspecified murders all over the world. Instead of killing people, he now wonders if God will forgive him for what he has done and seeks the answer in many hours of devotion to bourbon and the Bible.
An old colleague in Mexico, played by Christopher Walken, persuades Creasy to apply for the job of bodyguard to the daughter of a wealthy Mexican businessman married to an American. Despite his background and his drinking, the couple hires him to protect their ten-year-old, Lupita (Dakota Fanning), from the ubiquitous threat of kidnapping.
In the familiar Hollywood tradition, the daily companionship of the little girl begins to soften Creasy's granite stoicism. He helps her with her homework, coaches her in swimming, and becomes a kind of surrogate father.
When some corrupt Mexican cops (something of a redundancy) in league with their version of the Mafia, kidnap Pita and seriously wound Creasy, the bodyguard, aware that he failed to protect the child he had learned to love, vows vengeance.
He embarks on a manhunt, gathering information through torture and leaving a bloody trail of corpses in his wake. As Walken points out, Creasy is an artist of death and he is painting his masterpiece.
Creasy's relentless progress through the Mexican underworld, the shootings and bombings, the several twists and turns of the plot, all follow a most predictable pattern. To impart some originality to a familiar narrative replete with the usual violence, Scott employs virtually every visual trick in the thick book of the cinema.
From beginning to end of a long movie, the screen image seldom remains static from one sequence to another. The frame freezes or jumps and shifts and even alters in size. The camera rapidly racks focus. The tempo constantly changes, running through a dizzying variety of speeds, from pixilation through super-fast motion.
The filters frequently transform the values, from black and white to variations on color schemes. The numerous flashbacks and flash forwards provide momentary back story and even a kind of foreshadowing. All the gimmicks turn a relatively routine revenge story into a nervous, edgy exercise in visual violence.
Aside from the showy camera work, the picture features a cast full of fine actors, especially the incomparable Christopher Walken, who lends his hollow voice and carefully arrhythmic diction to a slightly less eccentric role than usual, and the pleasantly world-weary Giancarlo Giannini as the head of the Mexican version of the FBI.
The movie otherwise depends on the compelling presence of Denzel Washington, who has proved his worth in a number of challenging performances. His quiet voice, his deliberate speaking style, his offhand manner, combined with a powerful screen presence, establish him as one of the best film actors of his generation.
His air of calm authority and his palpable strength of personality enable his character to perpetrate some terrific violence but somehow attain some measure of righteousness, appropriately seeming a man on fire.
Man on Fire, starring Denzel Washington, Dakota Fanning, Christopher Walken, Giancarlo Giannini; based on the novel by A.J. Quinnel; screenplay by Brian Helgeland; directed by Tony Scott. Cinemark Tinseltown; Hoyts Greece Ridge; Loews Webster; Pittsford Plaza Cinema; Regal Culver Ridge; Regal Eastview; Regal Henrietta.