A slick, stylized violence permeates Tony Scott’s Man on Fire, which is as much a story about rebirth as it is about revenge. The critics balked at the vigilantism of Denzel Washington’s John Creasy as he tears through a Mexican kidnapping cartel responsible for the death of a young girl, but this film is much more about a man’s abortive redemption than pleasure-seeking violence. Far from glorifying Creasy’s rampage, Scott imbues the narrative with a decidedly blunt and tragic trajectory. Man on Fire is less about retribution, and more about a damaged man falling apart one last time in service of his highest value.
Adapted from A. J. Quinnell’s 1980 novel of the same name, Man on Fire dramatizes the arc of former CIA operative John Creasy. Tortured by the sins of his past, he has fallen into depression, alcoholism, and suicidal thoughts. The film opens as Creasy reunites with his old friend Paul Rayburn (Christopher Walken) in Mexico City and agrees to take a personal bodyguard job. His ward is Lupita “Pita” Martin Ramos (Dakota Fanning), and he endeavors to distance himself from her family and keep the relationship strictly professional, though struggles inwardly. He attempts suicide, but the bullet misfires. Despite his efforts, he eventually warms to Pita and re-discovers his love of life through their burgeoning friendship. One day, after a piano recital, Pita is kidnapped and Creasy is wounded in the resulting firefight. The ransom goes South and Pita is killed, and Creasy swears to her mother Lisa (Radha Mitchell) that those responsible for her death will be killed.
Creasy meets many allies and enemies along the path towards Pita’s abductors and killers, and it is seldom that his isn’t the smartest, most ruthless man in the room. His skills were often intimated in the first act of the film, but once he is set loose on the streets of Mexico city we get to see them applied. As he crawls his way up the ladder of corruption, he tortures and kills everyone he deems partly responsible for Pita after extracting the necessary information from them. In this way, he reveals additional details about Pita’s abduction, and inches ever-closer to the man at the top, “La Voz” (The Voice – Roberto Sosa). The revelation that Pita’s own father was involved is staggering, and Creasy leaves his 9mm and the one misfired round from earlier; this time the bullet works perfectly. Creasy kidnaps the brother of La Voz, and is astounded to learn that Pita has been kept alive this whole time. La Voz arranges a trade: “I will give you her life, for your life”. Creasy acquiesces to this offer, and says a final goodbye to Pita as he is captured and succumbs to his wounds.
The police of Mexico City are ineffective at best and corrupt at worst, so it is easy to view Creasy’s actions as the standard vigilante narrative. But, there is no joy in Creasy’s crusade, and no real sense of justice in anything he does. The torture scenes are presented matter-of-factly by Washington’s performance, and the cinematography is almost sick with blue and green hues. Further enhancing the blunt, joylessness of these sequences is the manner in which translations and timers are presented on-screen. By flashing subtitles (or bomb timers) with odd pacing and atypical placement, we immediately respond by tempering our emotional responses, as these techniques force us to acknowledge that we are watching a scene in a movie. Scott and Washington collaborate to stifle any revenge fantasies that we are experiencing vicariously through Creasy – the action on screen is presented as fact, merely the result of Creasy’s swan song.
This interpretation is furthered in the third act as Creasy discovers the involvement of Pita’s father and stages his final assault on La Voz’s family. True, the bullet fulfils its purpose here, as if to say that Creasy did not deserve to die before but Pita’s father does. But, it is critical to realize that this apparent serving of justice is the lone example of Creasy not fulfilling his promise to Lisa. Here, Creasy leaves the bullet, and Pita’s father, to enact true justice – for his actions cannot have a hand in such high aspirations. Finally, one must approach his capture of La Voz’s brother as a pyrrhic victory – Creasy is badly wounded during this raid but feels as though the damage he has inflicted is well worth it. He is willing to trade his life in service of harming Pita’s captors as much as possible. Once he learns that his life can be traded for a greater asset, Pita herself, Creasy’s self-destruction takes on a redemptive quality: finally, his life (and death) can mean something good.
It is crucial to realize that Creasy was never a good man, and that his actions are not those of a vigilante with visions of effecting justice. He is a flawed, broken man who discovered his absolution in the love of a young girl – only to have her stripped away. The result is simply what he does best – as his friend Paul so aptly states in his “Masterpiece” monologue. We are privy to Creasy’s self-destruction as he rages at those who poisoned the best thing in his life. But when he learns that his life can be in service of its highest value, he finally realizes his chance at redemption.