What I'm Watching: Man on Fire | Live Culture

What I'm Watching: Man on Fire


  • 20th Century Fox Pictures
I was saddened when I learned that director Tony Scott had committed suicide almost exactly two years ago, as I consider the films he made over the last decade to be some of the most artistically fascinating mainstream movies during that period. In the 1950s, François Truffaut and other critics of the French New Wave made a convincing case that it's not easy for directors to develop a "signature style" while working in Hollywood; and that, when a director does so, we should pay special attention.

It seems to me that Tony Scott, especially in his final decade, did establish a signature style, and it's one I find appealing.

Something happened to Scott's directorial style between the late '90s and early 2000s. Though he'd been directing flashy, stylish films since the early '80s (The Hunger holds up quite nicely), his work became a little generic in the '90s. I'd never say a bad word about such films as Crimson Tide or True Romance, but I don't find them particularly distinguished, style-wise. Even less impressive are Scott's mid-'90s, run-of-the-mill thrillers such as The Fan and Enemy of the State

Scott made six films with producer Jerry Bruckheimer: Top Gun (1986), Beverly Hills Cop II (1987), Days of Thunder (1990), Crimson Tide (1995), Enemy of the State (1998) and Déjà Vu (2006). Bruckheimer has a bad rep for privileging flash over substance, but I think his films and aesthetic are somewhat misunderstood. I don't blame him for these generally so-so films. It's just that, for whatever reason, Scott seems to have really come into his own shortly after his first five films with that influential producer.

(Déjà Vu is the outlier here: a Bruckheimer-produced film in the visually striking style of later Scott films.)

  • 20th Century Fox Pictures
I rewatched 2001's Spy Game recently, and it was fine. Made with an almost entirely blue-gray palette, the film is a little tedious visually, though its story is engaging enough. But Man on Fire, which Scott made in 2004, was a revelation. I watched it again recently for perhaps the fifth time, and it still astonished me.

on Fire is a strange, incredibly flashy, violent film with supersaturated colors. Its overall aesthetic is one of visual overload: more shots; more camera moves; a greater number of just slightly different camera angles to present a single, unmoving object or person. Its style is jittery, hyperbolic and crammed with visual information. I find it totally engrossing.

Even in a simple scene like the one below (in which the Denzel Washington character gives swimming advice to Dakota Fanning's), Scott's emphasis seems to be not on the story information but on its visual presentation. Take a look.

In this 72-second clip (thanks, Movieweb!), Scott uses an incredible 34 shots, for an average shot duration of about two seconds. That editing fragments the space tremendously, a task further accomplished by the widely variable positions in which Scott puts his camera.

Especially in the latter half of the scene (at the pool), he routinely "breaks the line" — that is, crosses over the imaginary line that preserves spatial directionality. The physical spaces in the scene are simple — a car and a small pool — and are easy to grasp immediately. Yet Scott does everything he can to render them fragmented and less clear.

Another device he uses to accomplish this goal: In the first half of the scene (in the car), note the way the reflections on the windows visually overwhelm the actors' faces. Purely incidental visual information — the reflections of trees and sky in a car's windows — assume a graphical weight equal to or even greater than that of the actors.

Check out the scene below for other devices Scott uses for overload.

One of my favorite things about Man on Fire is the way it uses subtitles, which normally are simply functional requirements. But Scott turns them into graphically valuable elements, as in this scene. It's a minor thing, but simply sliding that subtitle over to the right to "identify" the old man shows that Scott granted everything in his frame a kind of visual worth. A device might be functional, but that doesn't mean it can't have aesthetic and/or narrative value.

Note also that, once the grenade hits the car, we see the explosion from four camera angles. Scott thus uses editing to artificially extend the time depicted in the story by essentially showing a single event (shot with multiple cameras) several times. He may have borrowed this technique from Hong Kong action films, in which it's fairly common.

Scott's choices result in an intensely dynamic visual style. It challenges the viewer by requiring him or her to pay close attention to every little thing: Any visual element may carry narrative weight. Even if it doesn't, Scott seems to be saying that its graphical value is worth the price of admission.

I watch movies for their visual style, so this kind of gesture is highly appealing to me.

  • 20th Century Fox Pictures
Scott seemed to know that he had found an unusual and engaging style, as he continued to use it in most of his subsequent films. Domino, made right after Man on Fire, actually intensifies the visual overload: an even more wildly moving camera than its predecessor, more saturated colors, more jittery edits. The film's overall aesthetic looks like it was powered by those nasty-ass energy drinks the kids love these days. It's one of the most restless films I've ever seen, and I admire its energy.

Scott's last few films — Déjà Vu, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (2009), and Unstoppable (2010) — all evince this same style, though by lesser and lesser degrees.

I don't know what caused the director to adopt this overloaded style — perhaps he just wanted to try something new. Regardless, it was highly influential. While Scott was still alive, many filmmakers turned to similarly over-the-top styles. The filmmaking duo Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, whose two Crank movies I adore, seem to have taken Scott's late-period style as a springboard from which they jumped into even nuttier visual territory.

Though Scott's influence lives on, his death represents a major loss for Hollywood style. To me, Man on Fire is the high-water mark of his late-career renaissance.

  • 20th Century Fox Pictures