[28 August 2012]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
With his suicide on 19 August of 2012, Hollywood and the world of film lost one of its most influential and frustrating filmmakers. Tony Scott, brother to fellow artist Ridley Scott, got his start as his older sibling did - in the world of commercials. After art school, he ended up working for for the family business. For years, he helped guide the RSA, the brothers’ company, creating memorable ads and watching the bottom line while Ridley went on to titanic Tinseltown success. Before long, Tony had joined the fray, parlaying decent notices for The Hunger (and a jet-themed commercial for SAAB) into a chance to helm Top Gun. While he wasn’t convinced of the project’s viability, he took the reins anyway. The rest is early ‘80s legend. Gun became a megahit, and suddenly Tony was the Scott in the brightest beams of the spotlight.
It would become a complicated career. With any spec script at his disposal, Scott made the odd decision to direct Beverly Hills Cop II (for friends and Gun guys Simpson and Bruckheimer). He then tackled another Cruise concern (Days of Thunder) before bombing with the Kevin Costner led romance, Revenge. Thanks to a young industry upstart, however, Scott would regain his footing and become a frequent A-lister. Indeed, Quentin Tarantino’s True Romance would be, what many consider, the quintessential example of the man’s work. Before his death, he had nearly 17 features under his belt. As a result, we’ve decided to break down his oeuvre into a telling 10 best. While his efforts weren’t always great, there were consistently interesting. Too bad he choose leave us before he could fully expand his cinematic horizons.
It’s tough to determine Scott’s least successful “success.” No one would champion the bungled Beverly Hills Cop sequel (it looks like an Obsession ad gone gonzo) or the spastic Spy Game. So we choose to go with this anomaly, a remake that doesn’t destroy outright the memory of the original. As he would through four other Scott films, Denzel Washington is our hero, up against an angry ex-Wall Street whiz bent on revenge, played with scenery-chewing skill by John Travolta. The result is more action-oriented than the original, but still contains enough character twists and turns to better some of the filmmaker’s flaws.
Will Smith is a poor Denzel substitute. Still, after the flame-out known as The Fan, Scott needed some practical bankability. He got it in the post-ID4/MiB star. Sadly, the rest of the movie didn’t make much sense. Some were saddened to see co-star Gene Hackman apparently riffing on his character from The Conversation, but for the most part, his turn is the least troubling aspect of the film. No, the real issue is the botched Big Brother theme, undercut (and overwritten) with too much high tech gobbledygook. For others, it was just a bunch of empty action beats.
Scott announced himself as an equal to his already established brother Ridley with this ridiculously campy and carnal vampire effort. Catherine Deueve is the aging neckbiter entranced by a young (and vital) Susan Sarandon. Rocker David Bowie plays a previous paramour now cast aside and destined to dry up and die, literally. Sure, there’s a whole medical subplot involving a cure for aging and way too much soft focus sexuality, but for the most part, Scott grasps the needs of the genre quite well. Oddly enough, he would never return to horror again.
Remember how everyone adored Source Code and screamed that David Bowie’s son Duncan Jones had scored another sci-fi smash. Well, this was Source Code before Source Code was a twinkle in the 40-something’s eye. Denzel Washington uses technology to go back in time and prevent a terrorist attack from happening. Naturally, things go a bit wonky when he falls in love with potential victim. Handled with expertise and an innate ability to make the complex plot seem simple, Scott excels at making the possible problematic premise viable. We never doubt the designs, just the decisions involved.
This was not the first time A.J. Quinnell’s novel was adapted to film. There was a French-Italian production back in the mid-‘80s, starring Scott Glenn. This time, however, Scott signed up creative collaborator Denzel Washington and the actor gives a devastating turn as the ex-CIA agent hired to protect the daughter of a high profile Mexican businessman from cartel kidnappers. When things go astride, his revenge-filled determination comes perilously close to a suicide mission. There’s tragedy and heartfelt emotion here, something usually missing from Scott’s often slick and slight vision.
For many, this is Tony Scott’s best film. It’s all machismo, jingoism, and—at least according to Quentin Tarantino—a wellspring of suppressed homoerotic longing. Unfortunately, the final result has not aged well at all, lending credence to the notion that the ‘80s was nothing more than empty high concept crap delivered in preachy, pedantic obviousness. Still, the dogfight sequences are excellent and, as usual, Scott gathers together a terrific cast. Everyone involved tried something similar with Days of Thunder, and the pre-NASCAR phenom failed. Probably not enough same sex allusions. right?
Sadly, this will be known as Scott’s last film, and his final collaboration with his ‘DeNiro’, Denzel. The premise seems preoccupied with the set-up of this particular rail system, including an elephantine command center, backstabbing internal politics, and a track that offers a nasty, last act dead man’s curve. While Chris Pine has a time keeping up with his costar, he matches Washington in ways the screenplay couldn’t have anticipated. In a sense, one steely man of dramatic action appears to be passing the baton to his deserving younger. The results are fast and furious.
Dismissed at the time as an example of Hollywood hubris run wildly amok (Shane Black’s script nabbed a record $1.75 million), this efficient and artfully manned production proved that Scott’s style could support even the most macho genre title. Featuring an important turn by Bruce Willis (this proved his post-Hudson Hawk disaster mantle) and a fascinating football setting (not to mention a rare villain roll for oddball comic Taylor Negron), everything here is overheated, overused, and overextended. Still, it succeeds because Scott understands splash within style. He delivered both here in true auteur form.
It’s the battle of multiple Oscar winners here, though at the time, Washington was waiting for his second slice of recognition. The story is one that’s been done dozens of times before (hot shot second in commander questions leader’s decision making in lieu of an international crisis) and the submarine setting feels a bit too much like The Hunt for Red October. Still, Scott knows how to handle actors, and both Washington and Hackman reward his faith in their abilities. Their confrontations bring on much of the suspense. The story succeeds as a nailbiter as well.
Head and shoulders the best work Scott ever did, though he had a lot of help in the process: a brilliant script by Quentin Tarantino, a terrific cast topped by Christian Slater, Patricia Arquette, Gary Oldman, Dennis Hopper, and Christopher Walken, and the appropriate balance of art and artifice. There are moments in this movie that are so kinetic, so energetic and lively that it’s hard to believe it’s just a film. Instead, it feels like a real moment captured in time, all the sense locked into a crazy crime story and a couple of star crossed kids. Scott would never top this… ever.