(from the archives May 2004)
It's very difficult to talk about Denzel Washington's latest film without also talking about Abu Ghraib and bunch of other stuff. As much as I want to keep the subjects apart, I cannot manage it. I am at the point at which I am wanting to make the film a litmus test for sense and sensibility over the question of Iraq, but in a deeper way. However instead of stringing this character study together with what I've been talking about in 'Monsters on a Leash', let it stand as a metaphor for the man who does democracy's dirty work and sacrifice. Denzel Washington has given us a performance for the ages which resonates in many directions.
Here's what I'm getting at. I am trying to break through a kind of social phlegm which I believe to be a self-imposed exile. It is part and parcel of my antagonism to that which I describe as 'dainty'. If I were to call it 'liberal' then it would score me points with my conservative brethren but that's not my aim. Rather I am trying to reveal a kind of denial which will get us in deeper trouble. In the context of Man on Fire, it is the denial that there is a necessary good in the dealing with evil in the harshest ways. I am trying to break through the denial that says there are no noble ends worthy of extreme prejudice.
If the Geneva Conventioneers go to the movies, they would certainly have to give a huge failing grade to the Man on Fire. However I don't think they would convince many Americans that this is not an extraordinarily moving film. But let me qualify that one more step. A moving film in the genre of action is what I'm talking about, and I realize that many Americans don't go to the theater in order to see action films. I don't quite know what to make of such Americans because the great advantage of going to such events is the technology of emergence possible with the large screen and the booming system. Unless you are one of the types who are unimaginative enough to consider 'Sleepless in Seattle' a good reason to date... excuse me, my demographic is showing. 15 years ago, I'd go for a Tarkofsky at the Nuart, these days I go for a Scott at the Bridge. As for Amelie, she waits for pay per view. What I expect from an action film goes beyond the boom to the character in focus, the hero. What is his code?
From the very opening credits, I was stunned at the brilliance of director Tony Scott's sensibilities with light and film. I have been watching a great deal of digital entertainment recently: digital shorts, gaming and game cut scenes. Scott's ability with film expresses a much larger visual vocabulary, and his facility with it is often breathtaking. It is an accelerated communication I am witnessing, the visual equivalent of New Yawkese at a rapid clip. Not since Soderbergh's 'Traffic' has this kind of film been made, and yet where Traffic is an investigation into a series of characters and tragedies, 'Man on Fire' comes down to one. What does it take to unravel the kind of organization that sanctions terror and extortion? What happens when a man who can, does with trained lethality?
Washington brings a gravity to the action hero previously unknown. I even heistate to call him an action hero or this an action film. He is deliberate without being obsessed. He is damaged without self-pity. He has no attitude whatsoever. I regard him as the man who stands in disbelief at the fact that he remains alive despite the great damage done to him. He is mortally wounded, and yet he persists, seemingly in defiance of God. He is aligned to his condemnation, but ultimately accepts the opportunity for redemption offered by chance.
Washington's John W. Creasy is a frightening individual. For he makes life and death decisions on his own. He follows his own conscience, not a manual. He isn't following orders or procedures of the sort which in a democracy give the public the confidence that all is well enough. He is a protector, and he is not merely satisfied with punishing. Instead he demonstrates that it is possible to destroy all corruption - the full plant, leaves, stalk and roots. He is not a professional in the justice system, he is investigator, judge, jury and executioner. He is a scarred warrior past all ideology surviving on bible verses, whiskey and the deadly drills of the counter-terrorist trade. He knows he has gone too far.
This makes him frightening not because he a loose cannon. He paces in a cage of his own creation. He dulls his own blade. He could be sharp, deadly but he chooses to be disengaged. Such a man defies what is often expected of an assassin. We have become used to the idea that no man is capable of all that, and that given any such capability such a man should work as part of a team. We are led to believe that there is a button that can be pushed, a memorandum of understanding corroboratively agreed upon which sets in motion a series of professional actors who bring evildoers to justice. And this is satisfactory for the bourgie American citizen. Were we to find John W. Creasy somewhere in that bureaucracy, were we to know his sources and methods, we would be crying "Who let the dogs out?". We would resist his truth. We could forgive an ignorant brute, but Creasy is neither. He is an artist of death, an assassin. Echoes of 'The Professional'. But Creasy is completely self-possessed. He is a man without external sanction.
Think of the adage 'Women and children first.' When a ship is sinking, this is the rule. Why? While everyone knows that cowards will try to escape and women will die, there is more than mere chivalrous attitudes. There is an understanding that dirty work and sacrifice must be done in the interests of human survival. There is so much of our economy and culture that is available to the weaker sex, that perhaps we have forgotten about blood, guts and glory. We forget that there are monsters which arise and so we create thoughtcrime out of that which would arm us for the unthinkable. These are the thoughtcrimes which become armor in the conflict we dread. Those are the thoughtcrimes that are Creasy's training - it's what keeps him alive in the in-between times.
I think 'Man on Fire' is an excellent parable and a tragic drama. Technology has enabled the ordinary thug to commit crimes like none other in history. In the cracks of our society grow dangerous weeds. If Creasy makes us uneasy it is because he is today's man fighting tomorrows battles. One day we may come to understand him better. Until then our sensibilities may be challenged by his methods, but that is not the worst thing we face. We face our own unwillingness to fight.