Movie fans were saddened by the passing of director Tony Scott in an apparent suicide on Sunday, August 19th. Though never achieving the acclaim of his Oscar-nominated brother Ridley – in either a critical (Gladiator, Black Hawk Down) or cultural (Alien, Blade Runner) sense – Tony Scott was nonetheless a filmmaker of genuine talent.
Scott was never as interested as his elder sibling in crafting films made to stand the test of time. Instead, he was far more concerned with living in the cinematic moment, in bringing us moments of exhilaration, escape, and just a good ol’ time at the multiplex. And along the way, he created for himself a distinct visual style that has been aped by many other action directors, yet never quite duplicated.
Tony Scott’s feature directorial debut, The Hunger, was never well-received. But it caught the attention of action producer Jerry Bruckheimer (and his late partner, Don Simpson). And when they tapped Scott to direct Top Gun, they helped Scott achieve something that relatively few other filmmakers have done: Tony Scott directed the highest-grossing movie of the year.
When you think about it, there aren’t that many directors who can claim to have made the highest-grossing movie of any particular year. Steven Spielberg has done it six times, but it’s a pretty elite group of filmmakers that can say they made the one movie that year that got the most ticket purchases out of moviegoers.
A lot of Top Gun feels dated to me now, but it – like all films – is a product of its time. But while much of the film’s appeal (or lack thereof) arises from Cruise’s cocksure attitude as Maverick, many of the best touches are Scott’s. Sure, he’s responsible for slinging all that ham across the screen in the beach volleyball scene, but for a movie that is basically a string of training exercises, the aerial dogfights are kept taut and exciting. And let’s face it: Top Gun’s soundtrack is still pretty bitchin’, and the director has ultimate say in the song choices. Admit it; if you’ve seen Top Gun, you’ve probably got “Danger Zone” by Kenny Loggins or “Take My Breath Away” by Berlin stuck in your head right now.
After Top Gun‘s success (and after Scott directed the sequel Beverly Hills Cop II to reasonable success), a re-teaming of Scott, Cruise and Simpson/Bruckheimer seemed only natural. The result was plopping the same smarmy Cruise into a different high-speed vehicle, and Days of Thunder was born. Yet the fact that filming began without even a completed script is evident. Days of Thunder is a total paint-by-numbers affair, with very little of what made Top Gun endure on display.
Many directors often pair themselves repeatedly with actors with whom they’ve worked well in the past. While they’re not exactly on the same level as Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro (or even Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio), the pairing of Tony Scott and Denzel Washington was obviously an enjoyable one for them both. Washington’s immense talent adds a gravitas to Scott’s kinetic style in a manner that brings legitimacy to Scott’s popcorn aesthetics. While not always a guarantee of success, it was at least a team-up to watch for.
Man on Fire is their highest-ranked collaboration on Flickchart, but it left me a little cold. The killer-with-a-heart-of-gold had been done before (How about Luc Besson’s The Professional?), and Washington played bad-to-the-bone better in Training Day.
Deja Vu, meanwhile, is under-ranked, as far as I’m concerned. But I’m a sucker for time-travel tales, and Deja Vu is a nice little thriller with a twist. Creasy may be an interesting character in Man on Fire, but Deja Vu is the far more enjoyable (read: “fun”) film, and right up Tony Scott’s alley.
This is the film widely considered to be Scott’s best pitted against the film that – five years later – served to truly define the director’s signature visual style.
Some people cry foul, wondering what True Romance could have been had Quentin Tarantino been allowed to direct his own script. I say that True Romance is the best movie I’ve seen that has QT’s name attached to it. And at #320 in Flickchart’s database of over 39,000 films (in other words, in the top 1%), Tony Scott’s highest-ranked film looks pretty respectable. The story of Clarence and Alabama is told with panache, action aplenty and suspense sustained. And Scott proves he knew two keys to action movie success: He knew how to cast, and he knew how to stage a big shootout.
With the turn of the millennium impending, the technological conspiracy thriller Enemy of the State rode on the charisma of star Will Smith, and was the first film to truly display the singular style that would define the rest of Tony Scott’s cinematic career: all restless cameras, whip-speed editing and saturated color palettes. Common was the theme among conspiracy thrillers, but Scott, as usual, kept a taut pace, and his kinetic camera work would become a style aped by many… though never to quite the same effect.
Tony Scott’s visual style to the extreme vs. possibly the least stylized – and most atypical – of his films.
Domino is where Tony Scott’s style-over-substance method really hit overdrive. Every frame has Scott written all over it, but the results are less than stellar. Maybe it’s just hard to buy a toothpick in the form of Keira Knightley as a deadly assassin? This movie is notable for casting Mickey Rourke only a couple of years before his career resurrection at the hands of Darren Aronofsky and The Wrestler, but the rest is a bit of a muddled mess.
Meanwhile, the best thing about Crimson Tide is pitting Denzel Washington against Gene Hackman, and watching two great actors chew the scenery to pieces. All Scott really needed to do was point the camera, and he still would have captured something electric. Oddly, this is one of Scott’s movies with the least amount of physical action, but Washington and Hackman provide all the necessary sparks.
Casting coups. One thing Scott did have a knack for was getting big names into his movies, even if the resulting films did not rise above mediocre. The Fan and Spy Game would both be pretty forgettable to me if it weren’t for that Tony Scott style and the pairings of their stars. Robert Redford and Brad Pitt trump Robert De Niro and Wesley Snipes on this one, and Spy Game scores a few more points for Scott ironing out the kinks in his visual flair.
Tony Scott’s last two films were both Denzel Washington vehicles, and both were good fun, if slightly less than exceptional in the action genre. Scott and Washington were on a roll by the time they got to Pelham, this time with Washington in familiar good-guy territory. But John Travolta seemed somewhat miscast as the villain…
Unstoppable presented Washington and Star Trek‘s new Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) chasing down a runaway train. What could be more fun than that? Scott’s last movie is actually the one I’ve seen most recently – first catching it only about two weeks ago – and I thoroughly enjoyed the proceedings.
The world of action filmmaking is a tough one to create a truly unique cinematic voice. Yet it is a feat that Tony Scott accomplished. Even at their most generic, every Scott film possessed the style, creativity and attention to detail of a genuine artist. Never one to fish for critical praise or aspire for immortality on celluloid, Tony Scott was a man who simply wished to provide his audiences with an hour or two of fun and escape. Action cinema will never quite be the same without him.