Denzel Washington’s best movie proves critics can be wrong

Denzel Washington’s best movie proves critics can be wrong

Twenty years ago today, critics rallied against the greatest movie of Denzel Washington’s career; forgiveness is between them and God, it’s my job to tell them why they were wrong. 

In an earlier interview, the late Tony Scott confessed he’d never get an Oscar. “I’m not even on the radar… I think I’ve tarnished my slate,” he laughed, citing his sensual, beautiful vampire horror The Hunger, a debut that established a decades-long temperamental rift between critics and his singular train of filmmaking. 

Nearly 12 years on from his death, the far-and-wide affectionate re-appraisal of his work has given it a well-deserved sheen of prestige. He was a master of rousing, violent, oppressively lurid mass entertainment, whether it was Top Gun, True Romance, The Last Boy Scott, Beverly Hills Cop II, or even Domino. These films were once dismissed as enjoyable but disposable and are now culturally indispensable, the good-old-days legacy of a man whose untamable, gloriously excessive, and technically unmatched style is sorely missed in an era of sludgy homogeny. 

Pauline Kael once said, “Movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we have very little reason to be interested in them.” But Scott’s art wasn’t trash — it was cinema, and two decades ago, he painted his masterpiece with Man on Fire. 

Man on Fire has one of Denzel Washington’s lowest Rotten Tomatoes scores

Denzel Washington’s best movie proves critics can be wrong

Man on Fire stars Denzel Washington as Creasy, a former CIA officer hired by a wealthy family in Mexico to protect their daughter, Pita (Dakota Fanning), amid a spate of brutal kidnappings.

While briefly overcoming his own demons, she’s taken — putting Creasy on a bloody collision course with the gang responsible. ‘I’m gonna kill ’em; anyone who was involved, anybody who profited from it, anybody who opens their eyes at me.’

It was widely panned in 2004. It has a 39% score on Rotten Tomatoes, making it his sixth-worst film (if you only looked at those ratings), just ahead of Virtuosity (32%), For Queen and Country (29%), The Bone Collector (29%), John Q (26%), and Heart Condition (10%). 

To put it into further context, when Dakota Fanning and Washington reunited for The Equalizer 3 (an entertaining, underwhelming capper to a trilogy that wouldn’t have happened without Man on Fire), it somehow earned a 76% score. It’s also the lowest-rated movie of Washington and Scott’s collaborations, ranking below Crimson Tide (89%… fine, but not high enough) and Déjà Vu (56%… also embarrassingly wrong). 

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But here’s the thing: if you look at the movie’s audience rating (89%), it’s among the highest scores for the director and its star, and its newfound, revised reception would have people believe it’s always been beloved. So, after 20 years, I raise a question with extreme prejudice: what the hell were critics thinking back then? 

Man on Fire came out at an unfortunate time 

Denzel Washington’s best movie proves critics can be wrong

Roger Ebert once noted that it’s “important to know why you hold an opinion, understand how it emerged from the universe of all your opinions, and help others to form their own opinions… there is no correct answer. There is simply the correct process.”

Reading through the original reviews for Man on Fire, a theme emerges: critics’ fatigue with revenge stories, on account of writer Brian Helgeland’s pedigree with Mystic River just one year prior, as well as L.A. Confidential and Mel Gibson’s Payback, as well as the likes of The Punisher and Kill Bill hitting cinemas the same year. 

AV Club called it a “simplistic celebration of vigilante justice”, The Independent rejected its “trigger-happy mayhem”, and Screen Rant even wrote: “Very quickly, it becomes obvious that Creasy isn’t stopping until he kills Bill. Oh, wait, wrong movie.”

The conflation of its contemporaries is fair… until it isn’t. Kill Bill and Man on Fire are similar in broad details: two cold-blooded killers are wronged, so they set out to make it right. But emotionally (and even stylistically, despite wilfully snarky comparisons between Scott and Quentin Tarantino predicated on their collaboration in True Romance), they’re apples and oranges; one is a pursuit of vengeance so she can live, the other is a bloody parable for peace in the Blue Bayou; the lost sheep finding his way back to the flock.

The weak-tummied reactions to the film’s “mean-spirited”, glorious ultraviolence (the bad guys kidnap children and terrorize Mexico City every day, they deserved all of it — especially the bomb up that cop’s ass) are amusing; the BBC took issue with its “moral hypocrisy” seeking our approval of his “gruesome tactics” (again, who wouldn’t enjoy seeing somebody get blown up from the inside of their butt?), while EW slammed its “wanton sadism” as if its gory, fantastical retribution isn’t the catharsis the movie deserves after the heartbreak of the first hour. Also, if all movies adhered to the everyday moral code by which critics abide, they’d be really boring. 

Man on Fire is Tony Scott’s masterpiece

Denzel Washington’s best movie proves critics can be wrong

Other criticisms warrant instant rebuttals. Some have said Washington’s performance is one-note: wrong. Creasy’s life is agony, tortured by the ghosts of his past, unable to reconcile his trauma and depression with a will to live. “You think God will forgive us for what we’ve done?” he asks Christopher Walken’s Rayburn, surrounded by women in skimpy bikinis and alcohol. “No,” he replies. 

That po-faced torment gives out as his relationship with Pita (Fanning also delivering the best child performance in all of cinema) flourishes, and their touching dynamic is irresistible (or so I thought). By the time he’s doling out incredible one-liners (“Revenge is a meal best served cold.”) and exacting pain on “anyone that was involved, anyone who profited from it, anyone who opens their eyes at” him, we’ve got the full complement: serious, struggling, charming, funny, intimidating, and terrifying. 

Some have said it’s overlong: wrong again. Compare it to Taken, which is nearly an hour shorter. Yes, it’s lean, but it has an advantage: it’s his daughter who’s taken, not a young girl he met a few days ago. Man on Fire takes the time to rebuild a broken man and convey the gravity of someone losing their reason to exist just as they found it; he keeps the bullet from his failed suicide attempt in her journal — it may not have reached his head, but she got to his heart. 

Its visual cacophony of hand-cranked and restless cinematography, double exposure, and berserk editing is the film’s most understandably divisive aspect — but the fact Scott hones all of these contrasting, volatile techniques is its own feat, never mind how constantly dazzling and intoxicating it is in execution. 

There’s method in its eye-rattling madness, too: the director goes full-tilt when Pita is taken, evoking panic and sensory overload behind the tears in her eyes. Creasy eventually stalks the streets like a wraith of wrath; just watch the scene after he blasts an RPG out of a window, approaching the wreckage like a gun-toting, faceless reaper. It should be disorientating, but some couldn’t handle the chaos.

But that’s just the thing: nobody made movies like Tony Scott, then, now, or likely ever again. He went to the next life; Man on Fire is a reminder that we should be glad he was around in ours. 

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