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20 Years Later, Critics Now Know They Were Wrong About Man On Fire

20 Years Later, Critics Now Know They Were Wrong About Man On Fire


  • Critics may have missed the point of Man on Fire due to the focus on Creasy’s vigilantism over his redemption arc and heartwarming relationship with Pita.
  • The shaky cam action sequences may be polarizing, but they add intensity and thrill to the film, making the audience feel like they’re part of the action.
  • The film’s success and enduring popularity with audiences, despite critical reception, highlights the importance of Creasy’s redemption and heartwarming relationship with Pita.

It has been 20 years since the release of Tony Scott’s Man on Fire and given the generally favorable audience reaction to the film over the years, you would think that it was more critically lauded when it opened on April 23, 2004. You have Denzel Washington in the lead role, one of the best young actresses working at the time, with Dakota Fanning present and accounted for, and a stellar supporting act including Christopher Walken, Mickey Rourke, and Giancarlo Giannini, among others, also pulling their weight. It’s a visceral action experience full of kinetic energy that also plays on one’s desire to see bad guys get their comeuppance in the worst possible way.

Maybe that’s why moviegoers tapped into this more than critics. It’s a revenge tale and with Washington in the lead, it’s easy to root for his victory over several nefarious characters. It’s possible that critics approached Man on Fire from a more moralistic perspective instead of taking in the film for what it was. That being said, Man on Fire is more than a simple lesson in retribution. At its heart, it’s really about a bodyguard, a little girl, and how that relationship heals his wounded heart.

The Relationship Between Creasy and Pita Is the Heart of Man on Fire

Creasy (Denzel Washington) is struggling intensely with alcoholism and burnout, living a truly despondent life as he reflects on a very sordid past. Things get so bad that he even tries to commit suicide but the gun misfires, and it’s at this moment that he remembers what his friend Paul Rayburn once told him: “A bullet always tells the truth.” Believing he wasn’t meant to die, he’s revitalized and a part of the revitalization is being fully committed to safeguarding Pita (Dakota Fanning). He cuts down on his drinking and even finds some solace in reading his Bible, but what seems to really melt his heart is his growing connection with Pita, whom he begins coaching to become a more confident swimmer.

Fanning, at that age, could play precocious kids without coming off as annoying or as if she was faking it. There is confidence in her “wise beyond her years” personality and yet there is still the heart of a child there. This is why her scenes with Washington are as strong as they are. She connects with him on an adult level while still maintaining a childlike innocence that he needs to protect. She breaks down his walls, and it’s easy to see why. Pita gives Creasy a sense of purpose and if that relationship doesn’t work, the ensuing trail of revenge in her honor doesn’t work either.

Now that Creasy has given his life to protecting Pita, his newfound purpose is upended when Pita is abducted. It’s no quick abduction by any means, as Creasy recognizes something is amiss, even killing four of the attackers, including officers before he’s critically wounded himself. Despite his best efforts, Pita is taken and Creasy is labeled a suspect in her abduction. Eventually, he’s taken to a veterinary clinic by AFI agent Miguel Manzano (Giancarlo Giannini) to recover and hide him from corrupt police and once the kidnappers make their demands known, Creasy vows to Pita’s mother Lisa (Radha Mitchell) that he will kill everyone involved in the kidnapping. Thanks to Washington’s profound convictions as an actor, you know it’s a promise that Creasy will keep.

This is the point of the film that a lot of critics seemed to have an issue with. Payback was all the rage at the box office during this time since, the week before, both Kill Bill: Vol. 2 and The Punisher entered the picture. When speaking on the critical reception of Man on Fire at the time of its release, some critics suggested that others in their profession were less than kind to the film because they did not like Creasy’s brand of vigilantism.


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Let’s be clear: Creasy’s brand of vengeance is not for the faint of heart. For instance, when he tracks down one person involved in the kidnapping, he tapes him to the steering wheel of his car and begins questioning him about the kidnapping ring. When he refuses to answer, Creasy begins cutting off the man’s fingers and uses a cigarette lighter to cauterize them. For the grand finale, he then cuts off his ear, shoots him in the head, and pushes the car off a cliff, which causes it to explode. Creasy is not one to be messed with, but critics seem to look at his actions as if he were the bad guy taking joy in what he was doing. If they believed that, they missed the point.

As played by Washington, Creasy never takes sadistic joy in anything that he’s doing. He’s not relishing in any of their misery, he’s merely trying to track down a young girl he swore to protect while also maintaining that very same promise to her mother. Creasy doesn’t harm anyone innocent, and the bad guys are tortured in the ways that they are to obtain information. If Creasy wasted time enjoying inflicting pain on any of these people, it would take precious moments away from his true mission of finding Pita. That is what he cares about most and that’s something some critics seem to gloss over when they put their focus on his brand of violence.

Critics Didn’t Enjoy the Shaky Cam Action Sequences

Outside of the violence, some critics took issue with Scott’s use of shaky cam during most of the film’s action sequences. This is a method that usually deserves a bit of criticism because it can make it hard to see what’s going on while inducing a bit of nausea, but Man on Fire utilizes it in a way that makes the audience truly feel like they are a part of the action. The audience gets to feel the intensity of the situation, and it makes every escalating action sequence that much more thrilling.

All of Scott’s stylistic choices may not be the preference of some, but his use of flashing and speeding up, quick cuts, shaky closeups, and double exposure was a bit of his signature. It may not be ideal all the time, but it certainly worked, building a considerable amount of visceral tension in Man on Fire. All of this is capped off by the impressive editing of Christian Wagner, known for working with Scott on Revenge and True Romance while also putting in solid work on another action masterpiece, Face/Off.

The look of the film also deserves a considerable amount of credit. Cinematographer Paul Cameron has worked on films such as Gone In 60 Seconds, Swordfish, and Collateral, and Man on Fire feels like a wonderful hybrid of all three. There’s a bit of Jerry Bruckheimer commercialism mixed in with a dash of class that manages to make the film look suitably grimy but also stylish at the same time. Man on Fire looks like it’s taking place in Mexico City and not just made to look like it’s taking place there, and that’s a sign of some of the great work by Cameron to effectively capture the film’s look.

Creasy’s Redemption Arc Is Stronger Than the Violence

A big change from the book to the film is that the character of Pita is killed after they don’t get the ransom. If critics took issue with most of what they saw in this film, they would’ve likely burned the screen down if that happened in the movie. There is a bit of a fake-out with that notion in the film since everyone begins to operate under that assumption, but it would’ve been far too dark for it to end that way. The movie has been building to Creasy saving Pita, but it’s also been building towards him sacrificing himself in the process to complete his redemption arc.

The audience eventually learns that the kidnapping plot leads to Pita’s father, Samuel. This twist of sorts only amplifies how important the Creasy and Pita relationship is. Her father would put his daughter in danger to claim an insurance payout while a man who isn’t her blood would move heaven and Earth to protect her. In a truly poetic moment, Lisa, who wasn’t in on the plot, tells Creasy to kill her husband, or she will. This is when Creasy leaves Samuel with the very gun he once tried to kill himself with, yet the gun misfired. Remember that “a bullet always tells the truth,” which is why Creasy doesn’t have to even pull the trigger. A guilt-ridden Samuel takes himself out, with the universe issuing its own brand of justice.


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Samuel, however, isn’t the ringleader behind the plot and the audience eventually learns that The Voice, as he’s called, is Daniel Sanchez (Roberto Sosa). After taking the Voice’s wife and his brother Aurelio (Gere Camilo) prisoner, Creasy is shot in the chest, but not before he learns the true identity of the Voice and can issue one more attempt of vengeance. Creasy calls Daniel and threatens his family, but Daniel reveals that Pita is indeed alive, and they broker a trade involving Creasy and his brother, in exchange for Pita. Creasy knows that he isn’t going to get out of this alive but his life is worth Pita’s freedom.

The audience is treated to one last scene between Pita and Creasy, him ensuring her that he will be okay before she runs off to be with her mother. In a truly beautiful but heartbreaking moment, Pita skips away to her mom, displaying the childlike innocence that Creasy vowed to protect, having no clue she’ll never see him again. She does, however, catch a glimpse of them dragging Creasy away at gunpoint as her mom pulls her into the car. This moment can be read in different ways. Maybe her youth will shield her from the true nature of this memory, or she’ll hold onto it, perhaps wanting her own retribution for Creasy later in life.

The audience seemed to see what critics didn’t. While Man on Fire carries an unjust 39% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the audience score is more robust at 89%. Another sign that its word of mouth has endured with moviegoers is its 7.7/10 user rating on IMDB. The movie also proved to be financially successful, grossing $130.3 million worldwide on a $70 million budget.

Man on Fire wouldn’t work as a complete experience if it was just wall-to-wall violence with no real purpose or meaning. It all comes down to Creasy’s relationship with Pita, how it changes him, and how it leaves him with a sense of peace once he knows his life’s mission is complete. Revenge is a dish best served cold, but Man on Fire proves that it can also be served with a little bit of heart.

You can stream Man on Fire on Max.

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