The Sheep That Got Found: ‘Man on Fire’


May 25, 2023

By Tim Pelan


The kidnapping I didn’t want to make feel like a normal shootout. Right now, it feels part-documentary, part-opera. The opera comes from being in Denzel’s point-of-view, seeing it and feeling it from Denzel’s point-of-view. I used a mixture of different camera techniques like we talked about earlier—the hand-cranked cameras, different stocks, and sped up. We’re shooting at 100fps on certain pieces, and 6fps on other pieces. It’s a gamble. What’s so great, I now have enough experience to have an understanding of film. When I’m doing things I can anticipate what I need. When I look through the camera, I know what stock we should be shooting on.Tony Scott

Man on Fire (2004) is perhaps director Tony Scott’s most personal film, a long-burning ember of a project for him. The film is based on A. J. Quinnell’s 1980 novel of the same name, in which former guilt-ridden, burnt-out CIA operative John Creasy takes on a job as bodyguard for the child of a wealthy family. In the book, this was in Italy, then a major kidnap center in the world. Scott got beaten to the punch back then by director Élie Chouraqui, who cast Scott Glenn as Creasy. That film is not so well known, and by the time Scott was able to redo the project, Mexico had become the number one hot spot for kidnapping, seen by criminals as a professional enterprise. Oscar winner Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential) wrote the script, which Scott proceeded to rework with his own original ideas. Man on Fire sees Tony Scott begin to play fast and loose with film exposures, shutter speeds, long lenses, floating subtitles that pre-empt those in John Wick, and all manner of sensory overload means to get inside the madness in Creasy’s soul and the sweaty sensuality of Mexico City and Juarez, the “city of murdered women.” Taking the role of Creasy, Denzel Washington returned to the darkness of his Training Day character Alonzo Harris to a degree, as a self-loathing alcoholic, who, whilst not necessarily absolved for the extrajudicial sins of his past, warms to the nine-year-old girl Pita (Dakota Fanning) he’s assigned to protect, said protection candidly admitted to her father as being “on par with the pay.” When she is taken by La Hermandad, a group made up of criminals and corrupt public servants who kidnap their victims and hold them for ransom, he becomes a ruthless avenger, wallowing not in booze but a single-minded desire to kill anyone who took part. “Forgiveness is between them and God. It’s my job to arrange the meeting.”

“When I realized where we were going or what seemed to make sense for Man on Fire, I knew I had to go to some dark places,” Washington told Total Film. “We all have, somewhere in us, personal failures or things that people don’t know about you and that make you angry or frustrated or whatever. And you tap into that and use that. What’s different about this character and the guy I play in Training Day is that he hasn’t lost all faith. There’s still a moral core to him that’s damaged but hasn’t made him cynical. You feel he’s been through something and it’s heavy.”


What is interesting about Tony Scott’s Man on Fire is that it plays now as a “show, don’t tell” counterpoint to brother Ridley’s later cartel morality tale, The Counselor, begun just one week before Tony’s tragic demise. From our essay on it:

“Bar a brilliant shoot-out between cartel hitmen disguised as lawmen, the high-tension wire snapping off of a motorcycle courier’s head speeding down a dusty back road, and the ‘Chekhov’s gun’ reveal of the gruesome ‘Bolito’ when Brad Pitt’s Westray fails to quite feel the heat coming around the corner, dread and the pressing weight of the consequences of sin permeate Scott’s film. It’s a Faustian pact in a crime setting, what is wrong with that?”

That “Faustian pact” is at the center of Man on Fire as well. Pita’s Mexican father Samuel Ramos (Marc Anthony) is a businessman with debts he can’t manage. His slick American lawyer Kalfus (Mickey Rourke) suggests they arrange Pita’s kidnapping to claim the insurance payout to pay Samuel’s inherited debts, though they are promised Pita is to be returned unharmed. Corrupt cop Fuentes interferes with the drop, meaning the money is never delivered. Pita’s American mother Lisa (Radha Mitchell) disowns her husband and tells Creasy to “kill them all.”

In The Counselor, “C” (Michael Fassbender) naively uses criminal connections through his stock in trade to invest in a one-time-only drug deal to pay off some debts and buy a huge diamond engagement ring for his girlfriend, Laura (Penelope Cruz). When that deal goes south, Laura is kidnapped and “C” has no avenging angel to rescue her. Pita does, once he (spoiler alert!) finds out she is still alive.


Ridley’s The Counselor and Black Hawk Down are his most “Tony-esque” films. Tony told Total Film in 2002 that “we’re often offered the same stuff but normally they’ll say, ‘This is better for Rid or better for Tony.’ It’s about 50/50 whether it comes to me first and Rid second or vice versa. Rid tends to get the more meaningful stuff before I do.” Tony confirmed that he was offered Tony’s usual producing partner Jerry Bruckheimer’s Black Hawk Down first, but couldn’t see a way into it. For better or worse, Scott saw the book and his film as an attempt to address the “correctness of a nation like the United States being a police force for the rest of the world.”

Man on Fire doesn’t tend to get high praise amongst Tony’s oeuvre. One of the criticisms is that it is full of tropes, like the “black savior” of the foreign, white, “ruling class,” and “every Mexican has been summarily executed (save the ‘good’ Mexicans, who just return to their jobs facilitating criminal sociopaths and performing illegal Patriot Act invasions of privacy), and the black guy bought at a bargain has given his life for the good of the comfortably entrenched foreign bourgeoisie.” (Walter Chaw). Undeniable, yet I feel Tony Scott gets under the skin of the situation in a way that his brash style perhaps elides to without the casual viewer’s deeper analysis.

Ridley’s film made do with Spanish locations to double for Mexico. Tony filmed authentically, heavily protected, although Denzel Washington shrugged the danger off. “I always had a lot of bodyguards around me. But you find out it’s not as bad as you think. You get to know people. But that’s the tricky thing about Mexico City. It can happen. You can’t let your guard down too much. I never personally felt danger, but I did in the sense that I would ride around in armored vehicles and my bodyguards were tense the whole time. The Mexican security was a lot more casual. They knew what to expect.” “Tony Scott’ gets you in” said one of the crew, with regards to accessing Mexico City’s criminal investigations bureau. Not for nothing is his video monitor on set labeled “General Scott.”


Man on Fire is as much a story of power structures in a corrupt society as The Counselor is, in this case laying the consequences on the working class (including Creasy) rather than dilettante interlopers. Pita’s parents live fat off the land in a palatial home, adorned with a mixture of old and crass art (that Zebra!), a jarring mixture of tastes. These wealthy suburbs often jostle next to poorer areas around the block. As Creasy and Pita’s relationship is allowed to develop, we subconsciously witness the house staff’s interactions, from gardeners to maids and cooks. They are part of the background, but Scott does not shoot Mexico as has become common, with “shithole country-vision” color correction. “Everything is played against light. Everything revolves around the sun,” said Chris Seagers, his production designer. From Sight and Sound:

“I’m preoccupied by the visual,” [Scott] said. If cinema is primarily a visual art then Scott demands to be recognized as a visionary director in the most literal sense of that term—think of the way that he filmed fire, for instance, or the way light reflects on the hood of a vehicle or a human face.” His Mexico pops off the screen, drawing the eye in an impatient coalescing whirl of color, as inspired by his favorite artist, Robert Rauschenberg—vibrant oranges, greens (the Mexico City Volkswagen taxis), ochre, mustard, chrome and cobalt. As the rampaging revenge kicks into gear, Scott utilizes a variety of techniques including time-lapse photography, shooting at six frames a second and using high-speed film, often hand-cranking the camera himself to get juddering images. For the kidnap shoot-out itself he placed Denzel on one end of a merry-go-round, the camera on another, to heighten Creasy’s dawning awareness of the set-up. DoP Paul Cameron: “What we’re doing in this film is we’re taking it to another level and using multiple exposures […] at any given time on certain sequences. So, literally rolling the film forward, backward, different speeds. Just coming with some techniques that kind of reflect the tension and emotional quality of Denzel’s character.” The camera was also dollied with Washington by 360 degrees as he observes his surroundings. “So it’s like he’s ‘whirlwinding’ not knowing which way to go,” said Scott.

Creasy has no qualms in showing those involved in the kidnap the consequences of their actions. Retribution holds no fear for him. A misfiring bullet in a suicide attempt tells him he still has work on this plane of existence, to avenge (and then retrieve) Pita. His friend Paul Rayburn (Christopher Walken), a fellow operative who has somehow made his peace with his past and set him up with the job, tells the honest detective Manzano (Giancarlo Giannini) that “Creasy’s art is death. He’s about to paint his masterpiece.”


There is no joy in the retribution though. Creasy’s arc is a tragedy. The misfiring bullet he leaves for Pita’s duplicitous father, along with his automatic. This time, the bullet tells the truth. Creasy cuts off fingers, tapes explosives up a sweaty backside, blows digits away with a shotgun, fires a rocket at a protected convoy in a busy street, without cracking a smile or a quip. It’s raw and brutal, and the kidnappers have no bargaining power, except that of his own life in the end, a wounded bear shepherding its cub to safety.

Complementing the film’s “woozy sense of sensory immersion” is an excellent score by Harry Gregson-Williams, with disparate beats that reflect or contrast with the mood on screen, depending on the threat level or thawing relationship between charge and protector. There are also a few separate tracks used in a diegetic manner, namely Linda Ronstadt’s Blue Bayou, as Creasy drinks in his room and contemplates taking his own life; or Oy Como Va (performed by Kinky) when Creasy tortures Jorge the crooked cop in his car for information. I particularly like when the sound of the song judders with the film stock as Creasy applies the car’s cigarette lighter to the stumps of Jorge’s taped hands on the steering wheel. The whole scene, visually and aurally, sways and swoons with a claustrophobic nausea. In a nice touch, Creasy keeps tabs of who’s who in Pita’s notebook.

Lisa Gerrard also contributes a trademark vocal, entitled The End, an uplifting yet mournful reprise for Creasy’s character as he says goodbye to Pita, the one good thing in his life that he thought had been snatched from him. This is not the same piece she sings over Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, as some think. But it is a nice cross-pollination of ideas between brothers. In The Counselor, the cartel chief Jefe tells the bereft Counselor that “You are the world you have created.” Conversely, Creasy’s world, even in its dying moments, is now one of hope. He is the sheep that got found.

Ridley Scott dedicated The Counselor to his brother.

Tim Pelan was born in 1968, the year of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (possibly his favorite film), ‘Planet of the Apes,’ ‘The Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Barbarella.’ That also made him the perfect age for when ‘Star Wars’ came out. Some would say this explains a lot. Read more »


I do an inordinate amount of research. I try to read anything and everything I can get my hands on if it relates to what I am doing. There is no substitute. You cannot be smarter or know more than the actual reality of something. The key is when you think you finally know, then read one more book to make sure. And then another after that. I also interview people if it is appropriate for the story. When I was doing Man on Fire with Tony Scott we spent a week in Mexico City simply interviewing people who had been kidnapped, families of kidnap victims, ransom negotiators, police experts and even former kidnap gang members. When you see the process shown in the film it is all real. On ’42’, besides the plethora of books available that touch upon the Dodgers 1947 season, I had the good fortune of being able to talk with Jackie’s widow Rachel and with former teammate Ralph Branca directly. Research becomes the breadcrumbs others have dropped before you to help lead you where you’re going.Brian Helgeland

Screenwriter must-read: Brian Helgeland’s screenplay for Man on Fire [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.


Brian Helgeland is one of Hollywood’s master screenwriters of intelligent crime film, and has won an Oscar for L.A. Confidential and a BAFTA nomination for Mystic River. He has also collaborated with Tony Scott (Taking of Pelham 123, Man On Fire) and Paul Greengrass. In this BAFTA Guru lecture, Helgeland urged screenwriters to ‘fight’ to assert themselves in front of commissioners and executives, argued that films should be ‘commercial’ (that is, profitable on some level) and paid tribute to Cool Hand Luke screenwriter Frank Pierson.


“For me, everything started at least subliminally the first time I saw Cool Hand Luke. It’s not a crime movie, per se, but everyone exists in it because of either a crime they committed or because their job is to keep the men incarcerated or because they have to visit those men. Whether Luke’s eating fifty eggs or digging his own grave, it had a profound effect on my creative life. As for crime itself? As the sinew of things, I like it because it strips people down to their basic elements. It gets to the hunting-gathering heart of the matter. I don’t want to write about the ennui rich people feel. I don’t want to write about how fun it is when groups of couples get together for laughs. I could care less. I want to write about what’s in people’s heads, hearts and between their legs when they either are in prison, might go to prison, have a gun in their face or are pointing one. You live or you die, literally or figuratively, depending on a few pressured choices you make. It is my firm belief that people only reveal themselves when things go wrong and crime and its cousin suspense make things go very wrong indeed. And like in Luke the guy with the code wins. It doesn’t mean he’ll live; it just means he wins. And the code isn’t a moral one. It’s just the way a character makes certain rules for themselves, has drawn lines within themselves, and then we get to watch and see if they’ll cross them or not. There’s nothing like a saint without a god as far as I’m concerned.” —Brian Helgeland


A documentary on the making of the 2004 film Man on Fire, mixing movie clips, behind-the-scenes shots, and interviews of cast and crew. The program covers the flick’s genesis and very long path to the screen, adaptation concerns and changes from the original story, the choice of Mexico as a location, research into real-life kidnapping and various case studies, training and realism, casting and characters, shooting in Mexico City and location issues, cinematography and the movie’s distinctive look, Scott’s style on the set, and general thoughts.


Director Tony Scott and actor Denzel Washington introduce their film Man on Fire.


If you want to know what it’s like working with Denzel Washington—and not just how great he is to work with—then listen to this track. When Denzel Washington was in his trailer, he was Denzel Washington, but when he stepped out, he was John Creasy. The actor generally stayed in character during the shoot. The movie was shot chronologically, so Washington even distanced himself from Dakota Fanning at the start of the shoot. When the characters became closer, they both started to improvise often. The most meaningful moments in the movie, according to Scott, were Fanning and Washington’s improvisations. Scott knew they were “so good and honest” the relationship would never turn corny. Along with a nice constructive look at the performances, Scott shared his knowledge of Mexico, Italy in the ’80s, and famous kidnapping cases, and that information alone makes this commentary track fantastic. —Jack Giroux, /Film


The late Tony Scott was a master storyteller, and his visual language was so unique that it made his films stand out from the rest. For this scene study, we are examining the kidnapping scene from Man on Fire, starring Denzel Washington. In this scene, you will see how Tony Scott uses hyperreality to create tension, energy, pacing, and more. And since Tony Scott is one of the best action auteur directors to have ever worked in filmmaking, we end this video with a tribute montage toasting Tony’s legacy. —Kaya Savas, Film.Music.Media



Director Tony Scott and director of photography Paul Cameron explain how they shot the kidnapping scene in Man on Fire.


Tony Scott talks about his approach and process.


Inspiring short interview with the late director Tony Scott about directing and his brother Ridley Scott.


Dedicated to Tony Scott, one of the most visually innovative men in Hollywood history.


Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Tony Scott’s Man on Fire. Photographed by Keith Hamshere, Carlos Somonte, Stephen Vaughan, Jürgen Vollmer © Fox 2000 Pictures, New Regency Productions, Scott Free Productions. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.


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