The word "problematic" connotes different things to different people in different contexts, to the point where it's best used precisely to avoid committing oneself to anything specific and meaningful. Yet there are occasions where it's absolutely the perfect word: and if there was ever a platonic idea of a "problematic" motion picture, surely it would be Man on Fire, the 2004 kidnapping thriller which reteamed director Tony Scott and star Denzel Washington nine years after Crimson Tide, kicking off the last great collaboration of Scott's career: of his final five features (beginning with this one), four of them starred Washington, and both men benefited greatly from the team-up. But the mere fact that Washington's presence in Man on Fire means that it is very much the best version of itself that I can imagine isn't meant to distract from the more important fact, which is that saying that I like Man on Fire - and I do say that, in a long-gestating shift from the very emphatic dislike I felt when I last saw the movie the better part of a decade ago - makes me feel a little bit like I'm voting for racism.

So here's what we've got: a terrific opening 50 minutes with Washington getting a whole host of different moods to play and 9-year-old Dakota Fanning giving what might still actually be the best performance of her career, besting not just the sensitivity and complexity she displayed as the mind-rape vampire in The Twilight Saga: New Moon, but also the profoundity and range of her one-word performance in The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 2. It's also, pretty easily, the most aesthetically important film in Scott's career, and while "important" might seem like a silly word for it, I ask you to think of the sheer volume of movies in the last quarter century more or less explicitly designed to mimic Top Gun in every stylistic detail - it's "important", whatever other value we might ascribe to it.

The cinematography (by Paul Cameron, in the second of just three projects with Scott - the first was the short Beat the Devil - that made him, briefly, one of the most interesting cinematographers in America) and the editing (by Christian Wagner), and particularly the way that the cinematography and editing work in concert with one another, is frankly astounding. While it could not be any farther from "subtlety" - the film's visuals are a subtle as being run over by a tank - it's doing something that I can't recall having seen anywhere else: the way that the litany of film processing tricks (a cinematographer friend astutely suggests that Man on Fire was the last shot-on-celluloid movie that even today could not have been made digitally), including double-exposures and cross-fades and all sorts of marvelous things with saturation, and the continuity-optional flow of shots that cut so hazily with each other that it feels more like a continuum of images than a system of cutting takes together sometimes, end up combining to create a wholly visual subjectivity that gives the movie far more emotional heft than the plot (which isn't meaningfully subjective at all}, wouldn't likely achieve on its own.

And it's in service of a story that, though it's maybe not as thoroughly rancid as I took it to be once upon a time, is still mostly about killing Mexican people without any kind of moral cost for doing so. Now, that's baked into the scenario, a bit - the source novel by A.J. Quinnell, which Scott had been angling to adapt for years, was about a kidnapping in Italy, but by the time the movie was in production, Italy no longer had a systematic culture of kidnapping, whereas Mexico did, and that was a pretty significant shift that the story required in order to be functional - but just because something is legitimised by the story, doesn't make it any more palatable, or defensible. This is still a movie where anybody who ends up alive at the end of a very fucking bloody chain of revenge killings has a remarkably high likelihood of being A) white; B) female. And we're not really meant to be too much worked up about this.

So, in Mexico City, a prominent businessman named Samuel Ramos (Marc Anthony) and his American wife Lisa (Radha Mitchell) are on the hunt for the newest in a line of bodyguards for their beloved daughter Pita (Fanning, who looks half-Latina to about the same degree that Chiewetel Ejiofor looks like a native Swede). They settle upon John Creasy (Washington), formerly of the U.S. Marines, an emotionless drifter who needs to be sweet-talked into taking the job by evidently his only friend, or social acquaintance of any standing, Paul Rayburn (Christopher Walken, in an uncharacteristically sweet and friendly turn).

Creasy is a bit of a cold asshole to Pita, who patently wants to befriend the bodyguard, and much of the impeccable first half of the movie (it divides into two very different films almost exactly at the midway point) consists of the process by which the darling little girl slowly thaws out the bitter old man. Which is, let's face it, not a new plot, no more in 2004 than 2013, and not one we should encourage them to make more of. But the thing is, Washington and Fanning are terrifyingly good, with the kind of chemistry that you get one time out of 50 generically-plotted thrillers. Scott and screenwriter Brian Helgeland, one of the best writers that the director ever worked with, take far longer to flesh this out and slowly evolve the relationship between the two characters than you'd ever expect: it's a 146-minute action thriller where literally not one single action-packed or thrilling scene happens in the first hour. But Washington's gradual shift of Creasy's attitude (which seems, miraculously, to be happening without the character noticing it, making it far more convincing than so many cute kid/crabby adult pictures) is enthralling enough that even though, by rights, the film should be a wretched slog, it zips right on by.

Eventually, of course, Pita is kidnapped, and taken to be dead, and Creasy goes unhinged; the implication being that having someone to care for didn't make him a nicer, warmer man, but simply a mad dog when the thing he loved was taken away (it is due entirely to the way that Washington embodies this sense of scorched-earth rage, and the aforementioned subjectivity tricks in the visuals, that this doesn't end up having its own awful racial implications). Stylistically, this half of Man on Fire is just as exhilarating and unique as the first, and in that regard, I cannot speak against the film at all; and having down the languid work of building character in the first hour, the rest of the film earns no small amount of rage. But God, is this a dark piece of cinema. The implicit devaluation of people who aren't white Americans is already a red flag, but it's possibly not even as unsettling as the completely detached way that the film depicts the brutal acts of violence Creasy commits en route to finding and punishing the guilty. Again, this is a hugely subjective film; it does a fine job of showing violent acts as they are seen by a man driven so far over the bend by loss that he can no longer distinguish between acceptable and unacceptable acts. But that doesn't make it pleasant to watch, nor does it shake the sense that the movie really does not place any value whatsoever on the life of a human being, and finds nothing wrong with subjecting people guilty of not even terribly severe crimes to what can only be called torture.

None of this is sadistic: it's uncompromisingly nihilistic, which is almost worse. It does not care about the acts it's showing, and no matter how well Washington justifies that through his remarkable performance, I can't gin myself up to admire the film for it. So what to do? We have some beautiful character stuff, absolutely enthralling visual technique, and over an hour of material so scabrous that I feel like I need to shower just for watching it. The movie has an effect, you can't deny that; and having an emotional impact is something to be unreservedly, especially in movies made by such a glossy filmmaker as Scott. But it's brutal, and while I think, on balance, that I am quite glad to have revisited the movie for its many excellent strengths, it's just not the sort of thing you can go around recommending to people.