When news broke this week of Tony Scott’s suicide, he was usually identified as the director of Top Gun and several Denzel Washington films, not to mention brother / creative partner of the more critically respected Ridley. The more in-depth pieces mentioned Scott’s love of vehicles, speed, and editing rhythms that could make a mockery of narrative cohesion.
He left a Hollywood resume checkered and filled with utter disasters and cock-eyed brilliance – a resume that would leave directors of arguably more talent aghast. He whipsawed from Eurotrash vampire erotica dressed up as a high-end perfume ad (The Hunger) to glistening pectoral jingoism (Top Gun) to crackpot Southland surrealism (Domino) to overhyped action comedy (Beverly Hills Cop II) to frenzied computer-age surveillance paranoia (Enemy of the State).
Scott’s films featured wickedly large and talented casts, a love of the smoky backdrop and billowing curtains, and — for all the jittery editing and camerawork – fairly simple A-B-C screenplays shorn of all but the most basic, blood-pumping dialogue. Most lines were best said through gritted teeth while pressing the accelerator.
One of Scott’s films that somewhat broke free of this template was 1993’s True Romance. Scripted by Quentin Tarantino and his old running buddy Roger Avary, it was snapped up by Scott in that fecund afterglow following the 1992 detonation that was Reservoir Dogs. It featured Clarence (Christian Slater), an Elvis-worshipping Tarantino-esque comic-book geek who goes on the run with the proverbial golden-hearted hooker Alabama (Patricia Arquette) after killing her pimp (Gary Oldman.)
Everything ends up in a feather-strewn and John Woo-esque shootout with mobsters, movie producers, and the FBI. With its glossy cinematography and crowded cast of stars who wanted in on the next big thing, this was a turning point for Scott and Tarantino in specific, and Hollywood in general.
For Scott, True Romance’s half-gritty and half-tongue-in-cheek attitude was a sign that he could produce a narrative more complex than the increasingly dunderheaded pap he’d been grinding out (The Last Boy Scout, Days of Thunder). For Tarantino, getting this screenplay produced by the likes of Scott showed that he could be a major player, and not just an indie darling. (According to Scott, he read both this script and Reservoir Dogs and wanted to direct them both; a then-nobody but impressively savvy Tarantino said, “You can only do one.”)
What Hollywood received was an injection of fresh blood, a grindhouse mashup that was a slap in the face to all the “safe, geriatric, coffee-table dog shit” which Clarence terms quality filmmaking. (Lest we forget, the Academy Awards were still in the Merchant Ivory business at the time.)
Of course, it tanked at the box office and then found a second life later on VHS and DVD, as these things do. Most of the audience then (and likely now, as well) didn’t know what to do with Clarence’s sugar-hopped genre obsessions and how they bled into the running-from-the-Mob narrative. Elvis (Val Kilmer) himself pops by occasionally to get Clarence’s spine up. Ultraviolent Sonny Chiba and John Woo footage is spliced in like flashes from Clarence’s fevered mind, where he gets to play out all his vengeful adolescent Charles Bronson fantasies.
Over all of it is grafted the dark fairy-tale spine of Badlands, both Alabama’s dozy Sissy Spacek narration and the chiming of “Tubular Bells”. In other words, exactly the sort of thing that you would expect word-wise and smart-ass movie-mad video-store clerks like Tarantino and Avary to come up with.
It was an ambitious mix, and one that Tarantino wouldn’t himself have been able to pull off so successfully at the time. Scott uses plenty of his visual clichés (all those blowing curtains) but also brings a darker, more painterly aspect to his camerawork that gives everything a curious and bloody beauty.
He is also able to marshal cunning performances from each of his actors, even Bronson Pinchot in a should-be thankless role as a producer’s gofer. As in much of Tarantino’s early writing, the joy is in the small asides, the wildly politically incorrect dialogue curlicues that spin off from the main action but provide the story’s real juice. In one deservedly legendary exchange about the ethnic ancestry of Sicilians, Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken expertly filet each other line by line until the tension practically sings. (You would have to wait until the opening scenes of Inglorious Basterds to see another Tarantino conversation so taut with expectation and threat.)
The assuredness that Scot brings to every scene in this cameo-littered film shows how good he could be with the right script, and how far Tarantino had to go as a filmmaker. With 1994’s Pulp Fiction and 1997’s Jackie Brown, Tarantino proved that he could write crackling dialogue and craft smart and knowing genre pieces. But as a director it would take him until 2003 with the vibrantly-shot Kill Bill: Vol. 1 before he could prove himself to be truly a filmmaker, and not just a writer who also directed.
For his part, Scott moved on to some more interesting material. Though films like Spy Game and Man on Fire were not close to what he had accomplished with True Romance, they had far more flair than his previous work and were also many degrees more inventive than what his fellow blockbuster directors were doing through the 1990s and 2000s.
Scott’s style also prefigured, with admittedly less depth of field, the frantic chaos of post-9/11 storytelling from directors like Paul Greengrass and also the froth of punchy pulp violence and self-referential humor that today seems almost de rigueur (sometimes, oppressively so). In True Romance, Scott came close to achieving that sublimely subversive mainstream pulp concoction which took Tarantino another decade to perfect.