Tony Scott’s Man On Fire is one of those films I can watch time and time again and never get tired of, a magnificently melancholy tale of south of the border justice, criminal intrigue and a tequila shot of pulpy, blood soaked style that gets me every time. It’s loosely based on a 1987 film of the same name starring Scott Glenn, Jonathan Pryce, Danny Aiello and Joe Pesci (there’s a random lineup) but Scott intrepidly branches off into new territory, and thank the gods for his vision. This was the first film where he really explored that sketchy smokehouse of an aesthetic that he would later take to angelic heights with Domino. Colors blur and saturate, editing rockets by with the force of a bullet in a storm, subtitles appear arbitrarily and seemingly of their own volition. It’s a jarring tool set that he employs, and many abhor it. I’m as in love with it as he was though, and whether to throw us right into the protagonist’s psyche or simply because he felt the need to paint his pictures this way, the rest of the films in his remaining career carried the DNA, in varying doses. Fire is the key word for this film, in many of it’s forms. There’s a smoldering ember in Denzel Washington’s John Creasy that is fed by the winds of corruption as the film progresses, erupting into a blazing inferno of violence and fury. Creasy is a broken man, haunted by the questionable, never fully revealed actions of his military past. “Do you think God will ever forgive us for what we’ve done” he grimly asks his old war buddy Rayburn (a scene stealing Christopher Walken). “No” Rayburn ushers back curtly. It’s at this heavy nadir we join Creasy, lost in a sea of alcohol and guilt, an unmooored ship with a shattered hull looking for both anchorage and repair. Rayburn hooks him up with a bodyguard gig in Mexico City, keeping the young daughter of a rich businessman (Marc Anthony, terrific) safe from the very real threat of kidnapping. Dakota Fanning is compassionate, precocious and endearing as young Pita, who spies the wounded animal in Creasy right off the bat and tries to make friends. Creasy draws back in reluctance, but eventually warms up. I love the pace of this film to bits. It spends nearly half of its hefty running time simply getting to know these two characters, forging a bond between them before the inciting incident even looms on the horizon. And when the kidnapping occurs, as it must, the stakes are high as can be and our investment level in the situation is paramount. Setting up character is so key, and Scott nails it with scene after scene of quiet and careful interaction. Then he yanks the lid off the pot, as Pita is snatched in broad daylight, Creasy is shot and the kidnappers vanish into thin air. Pita’s mother (a soulful Radha Mitchell) works with the dodgy Mexican authorities and her husband’s lawyer Jordan (a sleazy Mickey Rourke). Creasy has other plans. Once healed, he embarks on a mission of fury and vengeance, knocking down doors, removing limbs, inflicting gratuitous bodily harm and using every technique in his training (believe me, there are some interesting ones) to track down those responsible and get Pita back. Washington does all this with a calm and cool exterior, letting the heat emanate from every calculated syllable and intense glare. The descent into Mexico City’s criminal underworld is a grisly affair, and all sorts of ugliness is exposed, shredded through the caffeinated prism of Scott’s lens. Two cops do what they can to help Creasy, idealistic Guerrero (Rachel Ticotin) and battle hardened Manzano (the always awesome Giancarlo Gianninni). It’s Creasy’s show though, and he blasts through it like a righteous hurricane of blood and bullets. Scott’s films have a knack for ending in over the top, Mexican standoff style shootouts, but the man subverts that here, going for something far more sorrowful and atmospheric, ending an intense tale on notes of sadness and resolute calm, gilded by the aching tones of songstress Lisa Gerrard and composer Harry Gregson Williams. Walken provides both comfort and catharsis, the only beacon of hope for Creasy other than Pita. Unlike John, Rayburn has moved on from the horrors of their past, but one still sees the trauma in his soul when he looks John in the eye and gets hit with what is reflected back. Tough stuff to get right, but hey, it’s Walken we’re looking at here, and he’s brilliant. Rourke has little more than an extended cameo, but his flavor is always appreciated, and he’s great too. I had no idea Anthony had the chops he exhibits here, but I loved his arc as well and he holds his own in a blistering confrontation with Creasy. Washington is an elemental beast, shadowing what’s left of his humanity under a cloak of booze and brooding contemplation, until he’s coaxed out by the life saver Pita is. Then he’s a lion, riding guns out into a ferocious swan song of a sunset that may just hold rays of redemption for him. This is Scott at his best, his unique brand of storytelling at its height, his creative juices a canister of lighter fluid set aflame with genius and innovation. A masterpiece.