The dizzying shootout/kidnapping in Man on Fire comes a full 50 minutes into the 146-minute movie. Up until then, Tony Scott has offered little but extended set-up: depressed, alcoholic former CIA operative Creasy (Denzel Washington) heads to Mexico and takes a gig as bodyguard for a rich couple's young daughter Pita (Dakota Fanning). Creasy learns the ins and outs of Pita's daily schedule of piano lessons and swim practice over several scenes, which Scott methodically covers in unfussy, stylistically sober fashion, focusing on performance, character detail, and milieu. When Pita is snatched under Creasy's watch, the character and the film erupt: Creasy and the kidnappers exchange a hail of gunfire and Scott unleashes a full-fledged impressionist assault unlike anything previously seen in his filmography, or anything in contemporary action filmmaking since mid-90s Wong Kar-wai.
“What I tried to do was get inside Denzel's mind,” Scott noted of the sequence; this quest for subjective rush led him to use a 1910 hand-cranked camera (varying the speed from six to 100-frames-per-second), reversal film stock, and a cross-processing technique on the celluloid. The camerawork becomes jumpier, the cuts come faster, washed-out color photography snaps to black-and-white and back again, and the effect smears everything into a continuous blur. "I think it feels like part documentary—part grabbed real footage—and part opera," Scott said, and his attempt to combine gritty realism with florid high-drama sets the template for the remainder of this “movie of extremes”—and its director’s career.
The techniques Scott experiments with here come into fruition in his subsequent features (Domino, Déjà Vu, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, Unstoppable), as well as the underseen commercial shorts he made in between ("Agent Orange" and "Beat the Devil"). Each one is a fury and flurry of freeze frames, camera swoops, step-printing, double-exposure, triple-exposure, quadruple-exposure, jump cuts, smash cuts, cuts, cuts, cuts. Many critics have derided the orgiastic late Scott house style as "excessive," "spastic," or "histrionic," and while it's certainly not subtle (especially his affection for flashes of onscreen text, sometimes subtitling perfectly audible lines of English dialogue), it's undeniably his, a fully realized decoupage aesthetic that deconstructs dramatic beats into tangible sensory details.
Maybe Scott was seen as a threat to staid convention; directors who don't hold a shot longer than two seconds are viewed with immediate suspicion, but those who hold a shot longer than two minutes are instantly taken seriously. The irony, of course, is that under the sheen of his radical pyrotechnics, Scott was something of a classicist. Man on Fire's shootout scene preserves action cinema's most treasured virtue: visual coherence. He stages the scene with Creasy at one end of a town square and Pita at the other, separated by a distance of roughly 300 feet with the kidnappers and their cars right in the middle. Even amid all the visual noise of the scene, the audience is never left in doubt about spatial dynamics. Scott worked with classic plots, too—Man on Fire is built on on pure hoary hokum, ham-fisted and time-tested: a grizzled old pro strikes up an Unlikely Friendship™ with a precocious kid; the angelic young girl is placed in peril; the wounded man flies off on a rampage of revenge. As with our best B-moviemakers, it's Scott's sui generis style that (energetically, triumphantly) elevates the cliches.
While Man on Fire is certainly the most problematic of Scott's late pictures (it gleefully asks the audience to root for the grisly deaths of its one-dimensional bad guys), it still marks an important chapter in his evolution. Starting with Domino, Scott would push this cubist approach to greater and more productive ends—splintering his scenes, flying more freely across time and space, collapsing the narrative exposition directly into the action. He proved himself one of the few Hollywood directors willing to grapple with a world so overloaded with information and anxieties; viewers were left to breathlessly catch up—and we’re still trying.