Home > Reviews > MAN ON FIRE – Harry Gregson-Williams

MAN ON FIRE – Harry Gregson-Williams

manonfireOriginal Review by Jonathan Broxton

A dark thriller about murder, kidnap and revenge – and a remake of a 1987 film of the same name, which was directed by Elie Chouraqui, starred Scott Glenn in the Denzel Washington role, and featured a score by John Scott – Man on Fire is directed by Tony Scott and stars Denzel Washington as John Creasy, a former US Government operative whose life in the military has driven him to drink, and the brink of suicide. Tempted to come to Mexico by his old comrade Rayburn (Christopher Walken), Creasy takes the job as the bodyguard to a wealthy Ramos family – father Samuel (Marc Anthony), mother Lisa (Radha Mitchell), but specifically their precocious young daughter Pita (Dakota Fanning). Seeing a chance for redemption in the eyes of a young girl, Creasy grows to be a part of the family unit – until young Pita is kidnapped by a gang of ruthless criminals. Thinking the young girl is dead, and seeking retribution, Creasy embarks on a personal vendetta to seek out, and get even with, the perpetrators of the crime, whoever they may be.

Man on Fire is, without a doubt, an excellent film, boasting several stand-out performances, especially from the intense Denzel Washington, and the thoroughly adorable Dakota Fanning, who looks destined to be a popular child actress for several years to come. The film’s downfall, however, is Tony Scott’s hyper-stylized direction, and the horribly disorientating cinematography by Paul Cameron, who previously shot Gone in Sixty Seconds and Swordfish. He employs a multitude of whip pans, uses obscure camera angles, blurry hand-held shots and makes whole sequences appear out of focus for no apparent reason other than to be ‘arty’. Just how many massive close ups of Denzel Washington’s nostrils does a film really need? I understand that Scott and Cameron used the devices to create tension and to unsettle their viewers, putting them right in the heart of Creasy’s world, but the overall effect very nearly spoiled the entire movie.

One aspect of the film which worked wonderfully well was Harry Gregson-Williams’ score, a deft mix of modern urban thriller music and attractive sweeping melodrama which highlights both his gift for melody and, again, his seemingly endless energy for tackling new and interesting compositional styles. Cues such as the “Main Title”, “Nightmare”, “The Drop”, “Gonzalez”, and the violent “Sanchez Family” throb to the gritty ambient synthesizers and pulsating urban drum loops which make up the bulk of the score. Although they are closer in style to the angry sound of bands such as Nine Inch Nails or Marilyn Manson than anything in Gregson-Williams’ past, they actually work remarkably well; Mexico City may be a place more famous for its Mariachi music, but it is as vibrant and modern a city as any on earth, and is fraught with the same – if not more – dangers.

In several cues, notably “Taxi”, “El Paso”, “Followed”, and the gorgeous “Pita’s Room”, Gregson-Williams interpolates Heitor Pereira’s fluid Spanish guitar into the mix, in brief deference to the musical conventions of the setting, while traditional melodies such as “Una Palabra” and “Angel Vengador” feature moving vocal performances by a variety of Latin artists.

Somewhat surprisingly for a film of this nature, there is a great deal of surprisingly lovely and delicate ‘soft’ music, most of it acting as the musical anchor for the relationship between Creasy and his young charge, Pita. Cues such as “Creasy’s Room” and “Smiling” resonate to tender piano performances, while “Bullet Tells the Truth”, “You Are Her Father”, “The Crime Scene” and the lovely extended “The End” are sublime musical re-workings of the string work usually heard in scores by James Horner, or Thomas Newman, although one theme in particular is unintentionally reminiscent of Howard Shore’s Shire theme from Lord of the Rings. Some of the more understated moments seem to be a direct descendent of the music Gregson-Williams wrote for Scott’s previous film, Spy Game; he uses the same electric violin tones, the same suspended strings, and uses them well.

And then there is the work of Lisa Gerrard, whose unique vocal talents are used in Man on Fire in much the same way as Hans Zimmer used them in Gladiator. On many occasions, she almost seems to be singing the same foreign lyrics as she did in that film’s ‘Wheatfield’ sequences, and in actuality the effect of that is a little disturbing in that is brings you out of Gregson-William’s musical world and puts you back into Zimmer’s. One minute you’re watching Denzel smashing his way through the underbelly of Mexico City, the next you’re thinking about Russell Crowe in a toga. It’s a shame. Additional music for Man on Fire is credited to (among others) Justin Caine Burnett (so this is where he’s been hiding since Dungeons & Dragons!), and Welsh breakbeat duo Mike Truman and Chris Healings, aka Hybrid, but quite what their actual contribution was remains unclear. What is clear is that, with Man on Fire and his other recent releases, Harry Gregson-Williams continues to grow as an artist, and his standing in the film music world continues to rise. He is a man on fire in his own right.

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • Una Palabra (written and performed by Carlos Varela) (1:19)
  • Main Title (3:05)
  • Taxi (0:53)
  • El Paso (0:41)
  • Creasy’s Room (0:34)
  • The Rave (4:23)
  • Pita’s Sorrow (1:47)
  • Nightmare (1:06)
  • Bullet Tells The Truth (1:36)
  • Followed (1:02)
  • Smiling (0:48)
  • You Are Her Father (1:45)
  • No Mariachi (0:43)
  • The Drop (2:58)
  • Angel Vengadora (written by Meri Gavin, performed by Gabriel Gonzalez) (1:22)
  • You Betrayed Me (1:25)
  • She’s Dead (0:43)
  • The Crime Scene (0:57)
  • Pita’s Room (1:48)
  • Gonzalez (1:57)
  • Oye Como Va (written by Tito Puente, performed by Kinky) (4:40)
  • La Niña (1:49)
  • Creasy’s Art is Death (0:54)
  • The Voice (2:59)
  • Sanchez Family (4:45)
  • The Rooftop (5:07)
  • The End (9:34)
  • Man On Fire Remix (written by Harry Gregson Williams and Hybrid featuring Lisa Gerrard) (3:41)

Running Time: 64 minutes 58 seconds

Varése Sarabande 302 066 583 2 (2004)

Music composed by Harry Gregson-Williams. Conducted by Harry Gregson Williams and Stephen Barton. Performed by The Seattle Session Orchestra. Additional music and arrangements by Justin Caine Burnett, Stephen Barton, Toby Chu and Hybrid. Special vocal performances by Lisa Gerrard. Recorded and mixed by Alan Meyerson. Edited by Richard Whitfield. Album produced by Harry Gregson-Williams.

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