Making the best of a bad situation; why Man On Fire leaves me so conflicted yet I love it

Man On Fire, directed by the late Tony Scott and released in 2004, is probably my all time favorite movie. The performances are incredible, the story is compellingly told and brought together using some interesting techniques by Scott. It is just a masterpiece for me, yet oddly one that often leaves me feeling conflicted (I’m going to be using that word alot). It’s not the brutality of some of the scenes, I don’t have problems with violence in movies depending on the context, it’s the main character of John Creasy is played by Denzel Washington (who knocks it out the park with his performance and is the only man who can beat Liam Neeson in the bad ass action hero stakes) his friend Rayburn (played by Chris Walken) and the movie as a whole.

OK,  quite a detailed movie overview coming up between now and the end and yes there will be spoilers so if you haven’t seen it, stop reading and go watch it (no seriously, go watch it). Former military with extensive counter terrorism experience, Creasy at the beginning of the movie spends most of his time drinking and is a very conflicted man. During a dinner scene he asks his friend and former colleague Rayburn whether God will forgive them to which Rayburn replies no. At the behest of Rayburn though, he then takes a body guard job protecting a young girl called Pita (played by Dakota Fanning). Living in Mexico, there is a high risk of being kidnapped, especially children of wealthy families. The relationship is frosty to begin with as the 2 don’t get on, with Creasy bluntly stating that he’s not there to be her friend and suggesting to her mum Lisa, that they’d be better off with another bodyguard. He’s lost his ability to feel but as the movie goes on, the relationship thaws.

In a couple of scenes, it shows that Creasy was a religious person at one time or possibly still is:

Sister Anna: No offense, but I regret that your profession needs to exist.
Creasy: [Chuckles] So do I, Madre. So do I.
Sister Anna: Do you ever see the Hand of God in what you do?
Creasy: No, not for a long time.
Sister Anna: The Bible says, “Do not be over come with evil, but overcome…?
Creasy: But overcome evil with good.
Creasy: [in spanish] That’s Romans Chapter 12 Verse 21.
Creasy: I am the sheep that got lost, Madre.

There’s a steady stream of Bible references throughout the movie and a interesting little prayer said by Pita:

Dear God, I do not ask for health or wealth. People ask you so often that you can’t have any left. Give me, God, what else you have. Give me what no-one else asks for. Amen.

I could dedicate an entire blog to looking at that prayer and Creasy’s religious background comes back later, but back to my points and my gushing over this movie. At this point in the movie, it’s almost a lovely heart warming story about a unique relationship that’s allowing a man to become human again with the help of a little girl he’s hired to protect. He’s there when her father isn’t, and she’s showing him it’s ok be vulnerable and to heal past wounds. Tony Scott in the behind the scenes and the commentary talks about it being a love story and I can certainly see that, just not in the romantic sense of the word.

About half way through though, the whole tone of the movie changes; Pita is kidnapped and Creasy is shot and severely wounded in the process. The movie shifts again as while Creasy is lying in a hospital bed (which is actually a veterinary surgery as he had to be moved as he killed 2 of the kidnappers which turned out to be corrupt off duty policemen), the ransom drop off goes bad, the kidnappers nephew is killed so Pita is killed as punishment. As Creasy leaves the vets he goes back to Pita’s house,  he gets into a conversation with Lisa (Pita’s mum) about his Bible.

Creasy: Couldn’t find my Bible. I thought it might be in here.
Lisa: I borrowed it.
Creasy: Okay.
Lisa: It’s crazy, huh? One week we’re figuring out which nightclub to go to… and the next thing I’m reading the Bible.
Creasy: It’s a good thing. You hold on to it.

Which was almost a continuation of an earlier conversation between the 2 about the Bible:

Lisa: So you, uh, read the Bible?
Creasy: Yeah, sometimes.
Lisa: Does it help?
Creasy: Yeah, sometimes.

This doesn’t make Creasy a more interesting character but it does add an element of why does he read the Bible? What about the “love your enemy” command in it? Something that will very much be in conflict with later events. As I’ve stated often already, Creasy is a man who seems to have refound his human side, refound himself in many ways so what does he do when the one person who helped him with all that, the one person he found a relationship with, is taken from him? In his words:

Creasy: What I do best. I’m gonna kill ’em. Anyone who was involved, anybody who profited from it, anybody who opens their eyes at me.
Lisa: [Whispering] You kill ’em all

What makes this movie so powerful and so conflicting in part is that I completely understand Lisa’s reaction. She’s grieving, her little girl was taken from her and she feels helpless. Stood next to her is a man who has the ability and connections to do something. In her mind, Creasy can provide the justice and closure she’s so desperately trying to find. Another part is when you’re so down and lost, you fall back on what you know, fall back on your past experiences. Is Creasy doing that? He chooses to do what he does next and the line above is not delivered in anger and rage, but in such a calm matter of factly manner that it’s actually very chilling; but he’s falling back on what he knows, he is confronted with an enemy and he needs to defeat them.

I mentioned Liam Neeson earlier. He was in a movie called Taken (another excellent movie) that has a similar premise to Man On Fire. Ex-military guy who has to use his skills to rescue someone close to him and will use any means necessary. Not a new premise by any stretch. The big difference though is in Taken, it’s clear that his daughter is still alive and he has 96 hours to find her. His is essentially a rescue mission even though he employs similar tactics to Creasy. In Man On Fire, we are very much given the impression that Pita is dead, so what comes next has got nothing to do with saving the day. 

The rest of the movie is effectively Creasy cutting (literally in some cases) his way through the kidnapping gang, working his way up through the hierarchy, finding who was ultimately responsible. From cutting off a mans fingers to blowing up a man by putting explosive in a plastic tube and putting it up his ass, there is seemingly nothing he can’t or won’t do. He seems to have his own sense of morality (not sure if that’s the right word) though. He doesn’t kill any of the women involved in the kidnapping (though he does bind and blindfold one), he rescues a victim of kidnapping, he evacuates a club that was used a house to hold victims before blowing it up.

For all his Bible knowledge, Creasy is not about turning the other cheek and loving your enemy, he is intent on finding those responsible and killing them. Seek and destroy, pure and simple. He doesn’t seem to see it as justice or judgement though:

Elderly Man: In the church, they say to forgive.
Creasy: Forgiveness is between them and God. It’s my job to arrange the meeting.

Creasy then proceeds to fire a rocket launcher at a convoy of cars carrying one of the people involved in Pita’s kidnapping. It’s not a case of Creasy doing Gods work nor do I think Creasy believes that either, it does show an under current of Creasy’s religious beliefs.  I actually like the fact the movie doesn’t try to give Creasy any kind of biblical justification because all too often the Bible has been used to justify hate and violence. His is a much more personal reason, a reason that most people can understand and empathize with which is what makes him such a interesting character, and at the same time conflicting.

I appreciate that I’ve just gone through the first 2 acts of the movie. That’s mostly because I love the movie so much but also because it sets up what’s coming next where people know what Creasy can do, is doing but choose not to stop him. Quite the opposite in fact. We know in the setting the perpetrators would get away with it because they are connected in the right places, we see it as injustice. So since they won’t ever see the inside of a courtroom due to the corruption, Creasy ensures that the last person they’re going to see is him. Even the authorities who don’t take the bribes, who do try to do what is right, seem consigned to this and start seeing Creasy’s actions as a way of getting what they want:

Manzano: This is my jurisdiction. I want this man as much as Creasy does.
Rayburn: He’ll deliver more justice in a weekend than 10 years of your courts and tribunals. Just stay out of his way.
Manzano: I plan to. I will even help him, if I can. But, uh, I would like to understand him. Give me that
Rayburn: Pita Ramos…that’s a number to you. You know, one more dead, but a number.
Manzano: What was she to Creasy then?
Rayburn: She showed him it was all right to live again.
Manzano: And the kidnappers took that away, huh?
Rayburn: And they’re gonna wish they never touched a hair on her head. A man can be an artist… in anything, food, whatever. It depends on how good he is at it. Creasy’s art is death. He’s about to paint his masterpiece.

Killing as an art and the authorities using Creasy to do what they can’t is pretty much the topic of conversation there. Kidnapping is a vile act, the fact people profit from that is offensive to us, profiting from others misery all round is. We know Manzano is in the minority when it comes to cops not being corrupt, we know he can’t take these rings down alone; he knows he can’t take these rings down alone because he can’t get close enough to find out who’s running them. Creasy has no such problem, but his methods effectively amount to murder. Manzano understands this, he also understands that at this point Creasy can go places he can’t but more than that, he knows that Creasy has lost pretty much the only thing that kept him rooted in this life and I include the Bible in that statement. Manzano may not see it as Creasy falling back on what he knows but he’s got enough to understand that to stand against Creasy now will not end well for anyone involved so he makes the best of the situation. Can we blame him? Not really, but it doesn’t make it right. I think this is a different angle to the death penalty discussion. These aren’t people who have been tried, convicted and sentenced to death, these are people who Creasy has jumped straight to the punishment stage with. He would be called a vigilante by some, but he’s after the gang that hurt him. Getting them off the streets appears to be nothing more than an added bonus.

Rayburns line at the end about Creasy’s art being death, may have been said just to help Manzano understand, but it gives a very frightening element to Creasy. This is a man who knows how to kill people, who knows how to get in and get out without fuss or detection and may well enjoy doing so. In fairness, the line is not delivered with any admiration. Rayburn though is another source of my conflict because whilst I understand his situation regarding wanting to help a friend, he knows full well what Creasy can do and helps him amass an arsenal large enough to occupy a small country:

Rayburn: You’ll be stateside by supper time.
Creasy: I’m gonna need some help first though, Ray.
Rayburn: If you don’t stop bleeding, you won’t last a day the shape you’re in.
Creasy: Is that a yes or is that a no?
Rayburn: Yeah, but I’m done killing. I told you that.
Creasy: Okay.
Rayburn: Anything else is yours.
[Creasy hands Rayburn a piece of paper. Rayburn looks at it whilst still driving and is visibly stunned]
Rayburn: You’re talking about war.
Creasy: Exactly what I’m talking about. Can you help me?
Rayburn: [Sighs] Yeah!.
Creasy: Good.

I wonder if Rayburn thinks his hands are clean since he didn’t actually kill anyone and Creasy is not being indiscriminate; or if he feels some level of responsibility. I suspect it’s the former but this is just me. Either way, it doesn’t excuse the fact that he aided Creasy in his campaign. This conflict isn’t helped because earlier in the movie, Rayburn gets angry with Creasy whilst he’s in the hospital as he seems to contemplate that Creasy may have had something to do with it, and later on is virtually in tears as he tells Creasy that Pita is dead.

When we get to the end of the movie though, Creasy has tracked down the kidnappers brother and ex-wife and eventually gets him on the phone and (surprise and huge spoiler) Pita is not dead! The kidnappers kept her alive and the head man is offering “a life for a life”; Pita’s in exchange for Creasy’s. After getting proof of life, setting up the exchange point and getting Pita’s mum to meet them there, Pita is indeed alive and after a brief re-union, Pita runs to her mother and Creasy heads to the kidnappers with a laser sight aimed at his chest. All sounds wonderful, except at this point Creasy is still suffering from the injuries sustained by the kidnapping, has suffered more in his rampage; he really hasn’t got anything to lose at this stage and he does indeed die in the back of the kidnappers car. It’s not the usual sacrifice play, it’s just the actions of man who knows he’s dying (may have known it when he started – may have been why he started) and has a chance to use that to get Pita back.

Everyone in this movie has a reason for supporting Creasy that the audience can relate to and understand; this is the only way the movie works. It’s a testament to everyone involved that the movie succeeds in getting us to root for him. Ultimately though, we are supporting a man going on a rampage and we go with it because he’s after the “bad guys” and we can imagine ourselves doing the same if we had his skills, or allowing him to do so to get the best of out the situation. Even without the bible references and allusions to Creasy having a religious faith, this movie throws up a lot of issues regarding our attitudes to violence and its use (something that seems to be coming up a lot lately) In one train of thought, the audience are made complicit in it; another train say the audience are the judge and jury on Creasy’s actions.

The whole movie seems to be about characters using bad situations to their advantage to try and get some good out of it. To borrow from another movie; they don’t get political points for being an idealist, they have to do the best they can with what they have. Even Lisa knew what Creasy could do what she wanted but couldn’t, and ended up getting her daughter back. I’m not sure this makes them heroes and martyrs, and the question of ends justifying means inevitably comes up, but it’s this ambiguity that makes the movie so powerful. But ultimately when applied to the real world, it does seem to break down somewhat. This is the beauty of movies though, they can explore things you can’t do in the real world.

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