Film Notes

Film Notes #10: Man on Fire (2004)

Tony Scott’s 2004 revenge drama starring Denzel Washington is Number 10 in my 30 day Film Notes series.

For newcomers, this month-long series of posts involves me watching a film every day for 30 days.

The following rules apply:

  • It must be a film I have already seen.
  • I must make notes whilst I’m watching it.
  • Pauses are allowed but the viewing must all be one session.
  • It can’t be a cinema release.

The point is to capture my instant thoughts about a movie and my overall film diet for 30 days, as well as post interesting links to the film in question.

Here are my notes on Man on Fire (2004) which I watched on BBC1 HD via PVR on Saturday 24th March.

  • There is a weird Harry Potter connection to this film: JK Rowling’s agent Christopher Little also represents the A.J. Quinnell – author of the book on which it is based.
  • It has been filmed once before in 1987, with Scott Glenn in the Creasy role.
  • In that film the action was in Italy but here it has been relocated to Mexico.
  • Chanting music over opening titles, interchanging film stocks and the AVIDs are working overtime!
  • Walken and Washington have an instinctive rapport – we immediately get the vibe that these guys know each other
  • Dialogue establishes that they have been involved in some heavy stuff (ex-special ops)
  • Harry Gregson’s score has been used in a lot of news documentaries
  • Note the sound on the lighting of Mickey Rourke’s match – Scott loves a visceral audio mix.
  • The fleet of cars driving across the landscape recalls REVENGE (1990) another revenge themed film Scott shot in Mexico.
  • Some stylistic similarities between the two films, even though Scott has utilised the advances in digital editing and post-production
  • Neat trick making Dakota Fanning a precocious child – she’s essentially playing a version of herself.
  • Radha Mitchell was coming of the success of PITCH BLACK (2000) – she looks beautiful but her role is rather underwritten
  • First time I’ve seen this in HD and the clarity of image and golden hues are stunning (like his brother Ridley, Tony Scott is a master of light).
  • Nice tension created about a possible kidnapping in the traffic through cutting and camera.
  • Mitchell and Washington’s conversation is unusually constructed – use of zooms into the mirror used as well as conventional edits.
  • The ‘Creasy getting drunk’ scene is a little overcooked.
  • Like the fact that Walken has several phones – well researched detail.
  • Pita at the pool sequence is a good example of Scott’s attention to sound.
  • Pita: “Creasy, what’s a concubine?”
  • Nice chemistry between Fanning and Washington
  • Build up to the kidnapping is nice – interesting blend of camera moves, edits and sounds
  • Note the calm of the classical piano
  • Scott is using digital editing systems almost as a paintbox
  • Old school editors must be turning in their grave at a film like this
  • Like the fact that Spanish is spoken and the way the subtitles are done – slinking along the screen in sync with the words
  • Bursts of Lisa Gerrard’s vocals are used in this film to indicate emotion – her extraordinary voice was first used in THE INSIDER (1999) and then GLADIATOR (2000)
  • The visuals used to denote the kidnappers are insane
  • Ransom demand scene is not quickly edited (although it feels like it) but the flashing and speeded up effects give that vibe.
  • Like the way “La Hermandad” pops up in sync with dialogue.
  • Reverse chopper shot of Mexico skyline used from earlier?
  • Walken’s performance has a nice easy vibe that provides some welcome relief from the heavy drama.
  • Rachel Ticotin previously filmed TOTAL RECALL (1990) in Mexico.
  • Creasy quickly becomes a vengeful badass but that’s logical given his line of work.
  • Finger cutting scene is intense but it’s the kind of sequence that would infuriate the late Pauline Kael and her many acolytes.
  • Car falling off cliff recalls similar scene in THE LAST BOY SCOUT (1991).
  • Creasy looks a bit out of place at the rave with that head scarf.
  • I think Tony Scott should do a whole film set at a rave – really go to town.
  • Split screen, bleach bypass, hand cranked cameras – this is visual overload!
  • One way Scott and his DP Paul Calderon relieve the furious style is to cut to a relatively pristine image.
  • The dancers cheering Creasy’s shotgun blasts is an effective touch – shows the atmosphere of mayhem.
  • Great night time photography in the conversation between Washington and Ticotin
  • Walken line about Creasy’s art is priceless – still not sure if it’s delivered with a metaphorical wink to the audience
  • Would it really be practical to fire a rocket launcher into a busy Mexican high street?!
  • Impressive explosion and flames however, plus this scene gave us the poster image.
  • Great location for the ass bomb scene. Really notice the lighting in HD.
  • It would have been really cool if the on screen stopwatch had synced in real time.
  • Washington’s delivery of his lines in this scene is excellent.
  • I bet someone somewhere has actually used the line “I wish. You had. More time!” just to be a badass.
  • Tony Scott was clearly born to shoot in Mexico.
  • Interior lighting of characters is tremendous.
  • Radha Mitchell doesn’t seem that distressed her husband has just blown his head off in their home.
  • It would be fair to say that this film is not a study of the social conditions that produce violence and kidnapping.
  • Creasy refusing money and blowing the hand off the Voice’s brother shows he really doesn’t care about what drives the ransom business (i.e. money)
  • Nice reverse offer from The Voice (“I will give you her life for your life”).
  • Interesting choice of time and location for the climax (often films end
  • Great shooting and use of music for the end.
  • Film has a slightly different resonance after the Fritzl case and all the subsequent kidnap films which almost became a Euro subgenre.
  • Like the way a mainstream film doesn’t wimp out at the end.
  • Nice symbolic touch of him dropping the St Jude medallion at the end and the credit that gives the date of the final day (Dec 16th 2003)
  • Alternate ending has Creasy going to the house of the Voice and blowing it all up.

Cinema Reviews Thoughts


Tony Scott’s latest film is stimulating mainstream fare that may strike an unexpected chord with American audiences.

After last year’s remake of The Taking of Pelham 123, Scott has returned with another film involving a train starring Denzel Washington.

The setting this time is rural Pennsylvania and, inspired by true events, it deals with two railway engineers (Denzel Washington and Chris Pine) who must stop a runaway train which is loaded with toxic chemicals.

The supporting characters include a plucky yardmaster co-ordinating the rescue (Rosario Dawson); a weasly corporate boss (Kevin Dunn); a visiting safety inspector (Kevin Corrigan); and a persistent railroad welder (Lew Temple).

Like much of Scott’s work, this is a nakedly commercial project executed with considerable technical skill, utilising his stylistic palette: multiple cameras, desaturated images, whip-pans, crash zooms and frenzied editing.

Whilst not as visually hyperactive as recent films like Man on Fire (2004) or Déjà vu (2006), it still retains the director’s trademark energy.

Perhaps the most welcome aspect is how quickly we are plunged into the drama, as the train is let loose before the opening credits have even finished.

What follows is essentially an extended chase, filled with the hallmarks of a traditional action film: set pieces, explanatory dialogue, characters gradually learning to respect one another and a grand finale which involves frequent cutaways to crowd cheering crowd in a bar.

In the wrong hands this could be deeply average and clichéd, but under Scott’s direction there is an invigorating professionalism to the whole film that elevates it above most studio fare.

The likeable lead and supporting performances help, whilst the script does a taut and efficient job of making them seem believable people coping with extraordinary events.

But it’s in the action sequences that the film really earns its money, as Ben Seresin’s camerawork and some dramatic sound design all expertly crank up the tension.

One thing Hollywood often gets wrong is the depiction of news TV coverage, but here the graphics and presentation are highly believable and form another perspective to the action as relatives and viewers tune in via television.

The setting of the film might well have been influenced by the tax incentives afforded by shooting in Pennsylvania, but it captures the wintry vibe of rural, working class America very well for what is ostensibly an action drama.

Given the current state of the U.S. economy and the devastation wrought on rust-belt states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, the film might have an unexpected resonance with mainstream audiences affected by the recession.

Throughout the film, the heroics and stoicism of Washington and Pine are contrasted with corporate types that care more about their company’s profits than their employees.

Clocking in at an agreeably lean 98 minutes, Fox might have a bigger hit on their hands than they initially thought.

The central concept easily sells itself and in an age of CGI fantasies and films pandering to nerds, Unstoppable might hit a nerve amongst audiences looking for traditional, expertly crafted drama involving real people.

Unstoppable opens in the US on Friday 12th November and in the UK on Friday 26th November

> Official site
> CNN on the 2001 incident that inspired the film
> Reviews of Unstoppable at Metacritic


Denzel Washington impression by Dean Edwards

Comedian Dean Edwards does a very good impression of Denzel Washington.

Here he imagines how a teenage Denzel would ask a girl out to the prom.


Quentin Tarantino on Jonthan Ross

Quentin Tarantino was on Friday Night with Jonathan Ross last night talking about his new film Inglorious Basterds.

Here it is in two parts:

Inglorious Basterds opens in the UK on Friday 21st August

Inglorious Basterds at the IMDb
> Reaction from the Cannes film festival