Simmering with tension between America’s past and present, Tony Scott’s Man On Fire harks back to the mythology of the great Western frontier as a response to the terror attacks on September 11th 2001. Scott described his film as coming from the ‘Death Wish/Charles Bronson genre’, a set of right-wing urban westerns from the early 1970s whose vigilante heroes reverted to ‘natural’ frontier-style justice in the face of the gang crime, ineffectual law enforcement agencies and corrupt justice system portrayed as blighting American society. Man On Fire transposes these social ills to modern day Mexico City, a place of extreme danger described as ‘the kidnap capital of the world’ (although by the time of the film’s release in 2004 that particular honour had gone to Baghdad).
The film’s hero is John Creasy (Denzel Washington), an ex-Special Forces operative who spent his working life attempting to uphold the peace by operating outside of national and international law. He represents a contemporary version of the retired gunslinger character, trying in vain to outrun his violent past and convinced that he’s spiritually damned. Unable to adjust to life outside of the army, Creasy drunkenly washes up as human flotsam in Mexico City to make contact with his only friend, Rayburn (Christopher Walken).
Encouraged by Rayburn to find work, Creasy enters the domestic realm, previously alien to him, to work as a bodyguard and driver for a wealthy family. He soon assumes the role of acting head and surrogate father to Pita (Dakota Fanning), the young American daughter who falls in love with him. After Pita is kidnapped and reported dead, Creasy believes that God has chosen him to act as a scourge against anyone connected to the kidnapping. He draws upon his years of experience in torture and urban warfare to earn his own spiritual redemption.
Creasy is cast against The Voice (Roberto Sosa), head of the kidnapping network that seize Pita. His operation is finely interwoven to the social fabric of Mexico City, his anonymity maintained by the police, the courts, and the local media. As a result, he perceives everyone in Mexico City (men, women and children) as a threat that must be met with force. He sets fire to a packed night club owned by the kidnapping operation, he launches a rocket attack on a convoy of corrupt police officers on a bustling street, and he mutilates, tortures and executes members of the criminal underworld, the police and legal system. All of these actions are emotionally validated as they’re portrayed as redemptive and conclusive as he goes about cleaning up Mexico City.
Just as the start of the revenge mission is marked by a metaphorical rebirth of Creasy, it concludes with his death. The Voice reveals that Pita is still alive and offers to release her in exchange for him. Exhausted and dying from his multiple gunshot wounds, Creasy agrees, and, moments before his death, we see him finally achieve the inner peace which eluded him for so long.
Man On Fire states that even at the start of the 21st Century, individuals may still be called upon to make immense sacrifices for the family unit, and society as a whole. We must all be prepared to step outside of societal norms and commit acts which
through such sacrifice, the film argues, redemption and martyrdom can be our rewards. In this sense, Man On Fire‘s revenge narrative can be read as a metaphor for war, or specifically, the War on Terror.
Evidence of this can be found on Scott’s DVD commentary track. He freely admits to basing the Mexican kidnapping operation on Al-Quaeda terrorist cells and set out to give the action scenes, in particular Creasy’s broad daylight rocket-launcher attack on a busy street, the impact and documentary feel of footage ‘from Beruit’. These are two examples of Mexico being used to represent the terrorist threat from Islam and the Middle East which faced America at the start of the new millennium.
Man On Fire‘s connection to the invasion of Iraq a year earlier in 2003 was picked up and explored by anti-war activist, Stan Goff, ‘In a sense Man on Fire was the cultural recoding of precisely the rationale deployed within the American culture as
mission, sanctioned by God to deliver his retributive justice, that rationalizes the suspension of ineffectual law in favour of raw masculine violence against the caricatures of Evil, and that might require that we commit torture and even murder to serve a higher call for justice and order’.
The relevance of Man On Fire‘s portrayal of revenge would not have been lost on American audiences, who, three years into the War on Terror, would be looking to vent frustrations at its slow progress. By the time of the film’s release in April 2004, American forces had become bogged down in Iraq and the nation’s perception of itself as ‘the good guys’ was being undermined by images of abuse and torture emerging from Abu Ghraib prison.
The years following the terrorist attacks on 11th September 2001 had seen the biggest peak in the production of revenge films since the urban westerns of the 1970s. The differing attitudes toward revenge portrayed in these films can be seen representing America’s cultural and political polarisation regarding the Bush administration’s militaristic response to 9/11. Whilst left-wing revenge narratives, such as The Three Burials Of Melquaides Estrada (2005) and Munich (2005) either discredited ‘an eye for an eye’ modes of revenge or presented progressive alternatives, Man On Fire proposes that all you need is a heavily-armed American brave and strong enough to kill the right people to cure social ills and resolve conflicts.