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Fox Home Entertainment presents
Man on Fire (2004)

"Revenge is a meal best served cold."
- John Creasy (Denzel Washington)

Review By: David Krauss  
Published: September 14, 2004

Stars: Denzel Washington, Dakota Fanning, Christopher Walken
Other Stars: Giancarlo Giannini, Radha Mitchell, Marc Anthony, Rachel Ticotin, Mickey Rourke
Director: Tony Scott

Manufacturer: DVCC
MPAA Rating: R for language and strong violence
Run Time: 02h:25m:58s
Release Date: September 14, 2004
UPC: 024543139652
Genre: action


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A- B+AA- B-

DVD Review

Like its tortured protagonist, Man on Fire snaps at its midway point, radically shifting gears from a poignant, heartwarming tale of redemption and renewal to a viciously violent revenge yarn. The jarring 180-degree flip makes us feel as if we're watching two different films, with Tony Scott's steroid-infused direction and a passionate performance by Denzel Washington the only constants holding this schizophrenic epic together. Yet despite the unsettling dichotomy, the subtle positives of Man on Fire still manage to outweigh the blatant and gratuitous negativesóbut only just.

Scott, of course, is famous for jet-propelled, eye-candy blockbusters like Top Gun and Days of Thunder, films which rely on megadoses of style and testosterone to mask their inanity. With Man on Fire, the director takes this blueprint to the nth degree, and in the process allows his creative impulses to run amok. The film often looks like a nasty drug trip, pummeling viewers with psychedelic touches, such as freeze frames, jagged edits, double exposure, slow motion, blurry images, funky subtitling, and extreme close-ups. The technique is both riveting and ridiculous, simultaneously sucking us into the action and distracting us from it. Sure, the visual carnage often succeeds in heightening tension and creating an eerie, alien atmosphere, but at the same time Scott's hey-look-at-me direction almost sabotages the film's tender human elements.

I said almost. There's a lot more to Man on Fire than meets the eye, but the eye is kept so busy absorbing images, the brain must hustle to reflect on the layers underneath. Luckily, the screenplay by Brian Helgeland (Mystic River, L.A. Confidential) devotes a good deal of time to character and relationship development. To his credit, Scott indulges this aspect of the story, spending almost an hour nurturing the bond between John Creasy (Washington), a disillusioned, alcoholic ex-Marine, and little Pita Ramos (Dakota Fanning), an adorable blonde 8-year-old he's been paid to protect. Right off the bat, the film tells us kidnappers, on average, abduct one person every hour in Latin America, and the Ramos family lawyer (Mickey Rourke) advises Pita's parents (Marc Anthony and Radha Mitchell) to hire a bodyguard to ensure their daughter's safety.

Creasy takes his job seriously, chauffeuring Pita around Mexico City and resisting the child's friendly overtures. Her persistence and charm, however, soon crumble his defenses, and Creasy becomes Pita's pal, confidante, and surrogate father. He coaches her in swimming, and she helps him recapture a lost appreciation for life and human contact. Yet all the while, a threatening cloud hangs over their relationship; we know Pita soon will be kidnapped, and the agonizing consequences will push Creasy back over the edge. With unshakable resolve, Creasy vows to hunt down every participant in Pita's abduction and sentence them accordingly. "Creasy's art is death," his friend Rayburn (Christopher Walken) notes. "He's about to paint his masterpiece."

Scott beautifully handles the film's first half, juxtaposing a tense, foreboding atmosphere with the developing friendship of Creasy and Pita. We might expect Scott to skirt such subtleties to get more quickly to the action and violence, but he wisely allows Washington and Fanning the necessary time to create palpable chemistry. Watching this fragile-looking child with huge eyes, porcelain skin, and an infectious squeal melt the bruised and detached ex-Marine grabs our emotions and keeps us involved in Man on Fire even when the Death Wish overtones later steer it off course.

Yes, the film manipulates us, but Washington and Fanning connect so realistically, we don't care. At 146 minutes, Man on Fire is way too long, the revenge far too protracted (and harrowing), and some of Creasy's antics defy credulity, yet we stick with the movie because of the groundwork Scott and Helgeland lay. Pita's bright eyes, warmth, and innocence remain omnipresent, and her image drives the film.

Fanning's natural acting also makes her instantly believable. Far from a typical juvenile scene-stealer, she files a mature, nuanced portrayal without resorting to childish tricks. It's tough for a tot to match up against the esteemed Washington, but Fanning holds her own. Washington, of course, is that rare breed of actor whose talent and magnetism can actually improve mediocre material, and his marvelous work helps fan the flames of Man on Fire. Without his performance, the film could never bridge the gap between its divergent first and second halves, and Washington's strength, conviction, and bleeding heart help temper the eventual over-the-top brutality. The supporting cast universally impresses, with Walken (in a rare good guy role), Anthony, Rourke, and Mitchell (whose appearance and inflections resemble a young Jessica Lange) adding texture and emotion to the story.

Man on Fire may O.D. on style and, like Creasy himself, careen out of control, but underneath all the numbing effects, this strangely involving film still has a soul. And that's what makes it worth watching.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: B+

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio2.40:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicyes


Image Transfer Review: A film as visually active as Man on Fire demands a top-notch transfer, and Fox delivers with a superb effort. Scott shot his movie with a variety of cameras at differing speeds, but this incredibly vibrant anamorphic treatment meets every challenge, presenting razor sharp images that in some instances possess almost a 3-D feel. Colors are lush and wonderfully saturated, especially in the opulent Ramos villa, while exteriors vividly depict Mexico City's beauty and grime. At times, Scott adopts a gritty documentary look, but clarity and shadow detail remain exceptional in every circumstance. Fleshtones are natural and stable throughout, and the crisp, smooth lines show no evidence of edge enhancement. Best of all, the squeaky clean print sports not a single nick or blemish. This is an A-1 rendering of a very difficult film and a treat for video enthusiasts.

Image Transfer Grade: A

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Spanish, Frenchyes
Dolby Digital
5.1
Englishyes
DTSEnglishyes


Audio Transfer Review: The disc includes both DD 5.1 and DTS audio, and both supply pulsating, nuanced sound. Choosing between the two is a no-brainer for me (I'm a DTS guy all the way), but either selection will please. Although the DTS track doesn't fully maximize the rear speakers, it still provides rich, enveloping audio and heightens scores of subtle details. Bass frequencies rumble but don't shake the room, and the music in a pivotal club scene adds you-are-there atmosphere without overpowering the on-screen action. Dialogue is always clear and comprehendible, despite some thick Spanish accents, and gunfire and explosions possess plenty of sonic pop. Given the film's in-your-face visuals, I expected more in-your-ears audio, but what's here is crisp and bold.

Fidelity noticeably decreases on the DD 5.1 track, with details blending into the audio's basic fabric. As a result, the track loses some clarity, although raising the volume rectifies this issue somewhat. On its own, the DD track surely suffices, but in a direct comparison, DTS is the winner hands down.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-

 

Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish with remote access
1 Other Trailer(s) featuring Taxi
1 TV Spots/Teasers
1 Featurette(s)
2 Feature/Episode commentaries by director Tony Scott; and actress Dakota Fanning, producer Lucas Foster, and screenwriter Brian Helgeland
Packaging: generic plastic keepcase
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual
Layers Switch: 01h:17m:14s

Extras Review: Two commentaries comprise the bulk of the disc's supplements. The first is a highly interesting solo track with director Tony Scott, in which he candidly discusses his artistic choices and defends the film's split identity. Just as life can change in a nanosecond, Scott reasons, so can a movie, and he offers in-depth, unapologetic analyses of the change in tone and controversial violence. He also praises his cast, especially Washington and Fanning, and brags that Fanning learned to swim professionally, speak Spanish, and play Chopin in a mere six weeks. Scott also reveals that Washington and Fanning improvised their most touching moments, explains his prevalent use of subtitles, and discusses both his multi-camera technique and how he employed different editors for different sequences to create the film's unique look. Scott delivers his comments in an engaging, introspective manner that keeps listeners involved from beginning to end.

The second track features producer Lucas Foster, Dakota Fanning, and screenwriter Brian Helgeland yakking it up and goofing around. Less substantive, the commentary meanders aimlessly, with cogent remarks often framed by long stretches of idle chitchat. As the track progresses, however, the trio becomes more reflective and begins to analyze the story and character motivations. While Fanning initially provides a breath of fresh air (and is remarkably mature for a 10-year-old), she prevents the track from moving beyond a superficial level. Patronizing questions from Foster and Helgeland, although well-meaning, don't help. If you only have time for one commentary, definitely listen to Scott.

A promotional Fox featurette called Inside Look rounds out the extras. The brief film (which has nothing to do with Man on Fire) includes a teaser for the upcoming Robert DeNiro-Dakota Fanning thriller Hide and Seek and a behind-the-scenes look at Taxi, a Jimmy Fallon-Queen Latifah comedy opening later this fall.

Extras Grade: B-

 

Final Comments

Some films work better on DVD than in theaters, and Man on Fire may be one of them. Tony Scott's hyperactive direction translates well to the digital medium, and solid DTS audio helps put viewers in the thick of the action. An involving and emotional story, a few surprising twists, and another knockout performance by Denzel Washington make this disc well worth a rental. Recommended.

 


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