Monday Movie: Man on Fire
In the last few years, a new action subgenre has emerged. Movies within this genre often feature an older man with a violent past being pulled into a story of intrigue and treachery. Much of the excitement of these films comes from the villains’ not knowing just how lethal our protagonist is, and the catharsis of watching a respectable actor cut loose and mow down thugs and henchmen by the dozens. I’m not sure why this has become so popular, but when you’ve got a two-time Oscar-winning actor like Sean Penn getting in on the action, it’s more clear than ever that this particular subgenre isn’t going away any time soon.
And while most people will rightly point to the Taken series as the cornerstone of these types of movies (taking up the mantle from the Death Wish series), it’s worth noting that before Liam Neeson or Sean Penn or Pierce Brosnan, there was Denzel Washington, who made a very unusual career for himself acting in darkly entertaining action films (often directed by Tony Scott) in between prestige pictures. The most notable of these was Man on Fire.
While still retaining the manic visual aesthetic of other Tony Scott films, Man on Fire delves a bit deeper, uncovering uncomfortable truths about the broken protagonists of these films. The main character in this film is tired and sad and bitter. He lacks direction, only really coming to life when committing horrifying acts of violence. He is like a photo negative of a normal person. Where most of us thrive on happiness and human relationships, he finds his purpose in killing and maiming.
Somebody who kills with such ease could be said to be a psychopath, or at least a sociopath. Whatever the psychiatric diagnosis, there is a definite misanthropic outlook underneath it all; a belief that human life really isn’t very precious. This extends to his view of himself, as well. No matter how happy and self-sacrificing a person may seem, there’s always some secret that, if discovered, would reveal this person to be a monster just as worthy of punishment as any murderer or rapist.
That this seems to be the worldview of our protagonist is very unsettling, and Tony Scott frames him as an avenging angel, meting out judgment. Washington plays him as a man so resigned to his craven view of humanity that we feel at any moment that he could take the gun he just used to kill several people and turn it on himself.
As these action thrillers are released every year, it never hurts to examine the psychology underneath them, even if they won’t examine it themselves. Not unlike Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, Man on Fire is a film unafraid to contemplate the implications of these men, whose violence we often view as somehow redemptive, but whose motivations are rooted firmly in condemnation.