Sunday, May 09, 2004

Notes on Man on Fire 

How far does style get you? Well it turns out, it can get you pretty far, at least with me.

The movie started, and the opening credits sequence made it unmistakably clear that this movie was going to be stylish. "Seven? That's nothing. Look how hardcore this is, we're shaking the camera harder than you've ever seen, we're cutting way more than 24 times per second, and we've invented a new type of film that's 40% grainer than the previous most grainy film," it screamed.

"I don't know man," I said. "This might actually be too stylish for me." The movie is not actually that hardcore the whole time, which is a relief. It's got some more style tricks in store to prop itself up, though. One thing I thought was pretty innovative was the way the movie handles the subtitles. As an American film set in Mexico, it faces the choice between either having everyone mysteriously know how to speak English with a Spanish accent, or putting large chunks of the movie in subtitles. The movie (rightly) goes the latter route, but instead of apologetically stowing the subtitles down at the bottom, the movie places them all over, making them part of the composition of the shots. The subtitles shake, or get large when someone is yelling, and disappear in various ways, fading out, getting covered up by objects in the scene as the camera moves, or "dripping" off the screen. I think this is likely to be copied in the future, it's so effective (I've never seen it before, but if Man on Fire is ripping it off from somewhere else, please let me know).

I'm reminded of the language transition in The Hunt for Red October, which starts out with the Russians speaking Russian. Then John McTiernan used an interesting transition to switch the Russian characters to speaking English, where in the middle of a conversation, the camera zooms in on a character's mouth while he talks in Russian, and after a pause, the next thing he says is in perfect English. This wasn't the most effective move, but even as a non-Russian speaker, it's painfully obvious that Sean Connery speaks in terribly accented Russian, so it was probably necessary. The only other time I've seen anything similar was actually in another John McTiernan film, The 13th Warrior. Antonio Banderas's character learns Viking in a montage sequence where he listens to all the Vikings talk at the campfire every night during a journey. The mishmash of their voices eventually starts to have English words as he maps out the language, until they're finally speaking English. I remember thinking this little gimmick was too good for such a crappy, throw-away movie.

Anyways, the other notable thing is how violent this movie is. In the opening credit sequence, you already get treated to a severed ear. You pretty much go into the movie knowing that it is basically a platform from which to launch a lot of vengeful action sequences. The surprisingly intelligent, articulate little girl is kidnapped, and this guy is gonna get revenge. You're probably with that, but the extent to which I actually cared about the characters surprised me. The relationship between Creasy (Denzel Washington's character) and the little girl works. They take their time developing that in the beginning, longer than you would expect for a movie like this, and it helps make what follows work better.

[spoilers follow]

Unfortunately, by the end, the movie has spent all the capital it had built up in that first part. The second half is the part you came to see, and it's pretty suspenseful and all, if you can take the gross violence. But it is basically just a repetition of "who do you work for?", followed by some gruesome torture, followed by a vague clue for Creasy to follow up on and start the sequence again. Like I said, the stylishness, plus the investment you have in the relationship between Creasy and the girl, makes this successfully carry the movie for a while. But by the time Creasy has shoved a bomb up a guy's ass, the movie starts to feel a little wacky. I'm serious. The audience laughed.

I was glad the ending didn't go on endlessly celebrating the girl's return, with a little montage with the mother, or something. No one is in the mood for that by then, we're just glad she's back. Similarly, I was glad they didn't show the death of Creasy and drag it out. But it left me a bit dissatisfied. There's nothing wrong with the hero dying in a movie, but the way he submits to death at the hands of the mastermind doesn't feel heroic at all. I kept expecting him to unexpectedly deal out an asskicking, or get shot from the distance (the bad guys weren't gonna let him get that close, were they?) He died on my birthday.

Before the ending credits, a card pops up thanking Mexico City, "a very special place." The audience laughed at this. I don't know if it was the more than two and a half hours of gritty footage depicting Mexico City as a wretched hive of scum and villainry, and quite scenic, with its sooty, crumbling buildings, and humid, smoggy air. Oh, and the locals! Toothless grins, senior citizen prostitutes, kidnappers, corrupt cops, organized crime, lawyers, and guys from New Jersey. But ignore all that. Mexico City rocks.
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