Director Retrospective: Tony Scott
Hey! Yesterday, I posted a retrospective on Ridley Scott — one of my favorite living directors, albeit one with whose overall body of work I have a very “complicated” relationship. Sort of tangentially, that got me to thinking about his brother — the late Tony Scott — a filmmaker with a quite different and, ultimately, unique aesthetic. So today we’re talking about Tony Scott.
The Big List
So far, I’ve seen all 16 Tony Scott films — listed here in chronological order by release-date. If it’s not listed here, then I haven’t seen it, so it won’t factor into my later thoughts.
Here’s the list: The Hunger (1983); Top Gun (1986); Beverly Hills Cop II (1987); Revenge (1990); Days of Thunder (1990); The Last Boy Scout (1991); True Romance (1993); Crimson Tide (1995); The Fan (1996); Enemy of the State (1998); Spy Game (2001); Man on Fire (2004); Domino (2005); Deja Vu (2006); The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009); Unstoppable (2010).
[NOTE: In my original version of this retrospective, I hadn’t yet seen Scott’s The Hunger — a film that I enjoyed and one that subsequently forced me to revise “The Top 5” below, placing The Hunger at #4 and kicking Crimson Tide off the list. That said, I still like Crimson Tide, as it’s a fun film — just not quite up to the par of these others.]
The Top 5
Here are my picks for Tony Scott’s best five films (from #1-#5, with some thoughts on each one)…
True Romance (1993) – Without a doubt, the pinnacle of Tony Scott’s filmography, True Romance tells the story of a movie-nerd (played by Christian Slater) and a prostitute (played by Patricia Arquette) who fall in love, commit the murder of a pimp (an over-the-top performance from Gary Oldman), steal some cocaine, and go on the run from the mob. Written by Quentin Tarantino, whose own obsessions with the cinema and pop-culture shine through here, the script features some of that director’s signature dialogue and penchant for successfully (and slowly) ratcheting up the tension of a scene until it explodes in physical violence. No better example of this than in an iconic interrogation scene between Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper, where the characters struggle to establish power and control over one another. I feel that most of the people who watch this film probably come to it because of its connection to Tarantino (which is understandable), but don’t ignore Tony Scott’s directorial contributions here — particularly in the filming of the climactic shootout.
Spy Game (2001) – For most people, when they think of “spy movies,” they probably think of James Bond, maybe Jason Bourne or Ethan Hunt. (I don’t blame them; after all, I love a good Bond, Bourne, or Mission Impossible film.) But I’ve always been more interested in spy narratives that focus less on “action” and more on savvy trade-craft and political maneuvering (e.g. movies like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, A Most Wanted Man, and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold — which are all, coincidentally, based on John le Carre novels). Tony Scott’s Spy Game is exactly this kind of spy film, where the vast majority of meaningful “action” that occurs takes the form of a well-timed phone call to an informant, a purposefully misleading slip-of-the-tongue, the counterintelligence of a document made available to prying eyes, etc. This story follows the professional and personal relationship between a spy (played by Brad Pitt) and his handler (played by Robert Redford) and the consequences of love and friendship. Along with All is Lost, this role is almost certainly the best performance from Redford in the last two decades. Pitt does an underrated job here, and Catherine McCormick also gives a fine performance. And bonus points for Stephen Dillane — most likely known from Game of Thrones or maybe John Adams — for his role as a truly unlikable bureaucrat. A good one to checkout if you’re of fan of the spy genre.
Man on Fire (2004) – I am an unabashed fan of Tony Scott’s Man on Fire, a remake of a 1980s film (of the same name) that, oddly enough, Tony Scott was originally slated to direct — only to direct another version nearly 20 years later. That said, I would say it’s a bit of a guilty pleasure, as it’s certainly not without its issues. For example, some of the actors (e.g. Mickey Rourke) aren’t given much to do, while others (notably Radha Mitchell, whose accent changes about 2-3 times during the film) don’t quite perform as well as you’d like here. Moreover, the film’s full embrace of violence will understandably turn off some viewers. That said, Denzel Washington is electrifying (and terrifying) as a man with one singular mission (i.e. revenge), young Dakota Fanning is a nice tonal foil to Washington’s performance, and Christopher Walken works with uncharacteristic subtlety. In my opinion, this is the most successful example of Scott’s flair for highly stylized visuals, exploring some unique formal possibilities in film.
The Hunger (1983) – In my original director retrospective on Tony Scott, I hadn’t yet seen The Hunger. However, at the behest of a friend of mine, I finally managed to track down a copy. And all I can say is…wow. For those that might not know, this is Tony Scott’s first feature-length film — up to this point, he’d only done commercials — and tells the story of a love-triangle involving a vampire (Catherine Deneuve), her longtime lover (David Bowie), and her potential new mate (Susan Sarandon). As far as vampire stories go, it’s a bit of a strange cross between the family / sexual dynamics of something like Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive combined with the “vampirism as blood-pathogen” idea of Stephen Norrington’s Blade (of all things). It’s absolutely gorgeously filmed, and a remarkable first effort by, at the time, a young filmmaker. [Oh…and the “twist” of sorts pulls a bit from Petronius’s Satyricon — which most people probably know best from the epigraph of Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” I won’t spoil it.] There’s some pacing problems here, as the film feels a little too brisk at just a shade over 90 minutes; and some of the characters’ actions feel “un-earned.” Moreover, in many ways, this feels like the most “un-Tony Scott” Tony Scott film and is, at moments, definitely reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s early work (notably The Duellists and Blade Runner) in its shots, lighting, and editing. But it’s totally worth seeing for those interested in Tony Scott’s oeuvre or vampire films, in general. And it’s got a really, really early cameo by Willem Dafoe in the enviable role of “2nd Phone Booth Youth” (no joke). Seriously…all you need to know is that it’s got David Bowie in it, alright?
Top Gun (1986) – What can one say about Top Gun that hasn’t already been said? It’s one of the most iconic films of the 1980s. It influenced countless action films to follow. It cemented Tom Cruise (as physical an actor as there has ever been in American cinema) as a household name and a box-office power. It provided Val Kilmer’s strangest performance. It practically justifies the existence of queer theory all by itself. But, most importantly, Top Gun gave the world Kenny Loggins’s “Danger Zone,” and, if I have to argue why that’s important, you should just stop reading this right now. So…yeah, it’s not exactly subtle in its nationalistic jingoism, and there are some genuinely ridiculous scenes involving volleyball and impromptu group-karaoke. But it’s a damn fun, endlessly quotable film with some legitimately superb action flight-work from the director’s chair. [Side-Note: A few years ago, I had the opportunity to watch Top Gun in 3-D, which didn’t really offer any new insights or benefits to the film but feels like one of the most needlessly excessive things I have ever done.]
The Underrated One
Both Top Gun and Days of Thunder are rated as “rotten” by the aggregated critics of Rotten Tomatoes, despite the fact that both are fun, (mostly) enjoyable endeavors. Moreover, in the case of Top Gun, you’re also talking about an incredibly influential action film that has become, for at least my generation, something of a cultural touchstone in filmmaking — i.e. everything remarkably entertaining and gloriously campy about 1980s American action-cinema. And Scott’s Enemy of the State (more on that one below), which barely missed my “top-five” list for this director is also well worth seeing. But here’s one that I think has been somewhat forgotten since its release, Tony Scott’s final directorial effort: Unstoppable (2010). Though the film is loosely based on a true event that happened in Ohio, there’s a certain absurdity to the plot — i.e. it’s more or less a mix between a 1970s disaster blockbuster and Jan de Bont’s Speed but involving an unstoppable train (instead of a bus) full of harmful chemicals careening on a crash-course toward a local town. Really, for a lot of reasons, this could have (and maybe should have) resulted in a bad movie; however, it’s elevated by its two leads (Denzel Washington and Chris Pine), and the literal momentum of the train paired with the aesthetic energy of Tony Scott’s direction results in a pretty riveting product.
The One to Avoid
There are a few contenders here (e.g. Domino, The Fan, maybe The Taking of Pelham 123, etc.). However, for this one, I think it’s got to be The Last Boy Scout (1991). The reason why is mostly because of the level of expectation one might have going into this movie, which was scripted by Shane Black — who has consistently shown an ability to craft excellent, hilarious, action-packed buddy films like Lethal Weapon, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and The Nice Guys. But if you’re expecting The Last Boy Scout to be on a similar level — and why wouldn’t you, since it utilizes a similar formula to those other films? — I think you’ll be pretty disappointed, as it’s a clear step down from those other works. Basically…it’s a bad script with pretty bad acting and terrible characters, resulting in a product that Tony Scott can’t elevate to anything beyond a deeply flawed, mostly dumb, and entirely forgettable movie.
The Place to Start
To my mind, you can see a pretty clear visual difference between Tony Scott’s earliest work (e.g. Top Gun, Days of Thunder, The Last Boy Scout, etc.) and his later work (e.g. especially in films like Man on Fire and Domino). While his entire filmography has a frenetic, action-oriented sensibility, his latter films take on a visual style that is almost hallucinatory with extremely stylized film-editing techniques, which seems avant-garde compared to most of your typical “blockbuster” type action flicks. Because of this visual difference between early/late Tony Scott, it’s hard to know where to start. A film like Enemy of the State (1998), however, serves as a nice liminal moment that uses elements from both halves of Tony Scott’s career. Along with his subsequent film (Spy Game), this film blends some relatively mainstream storytelling with some moments of visual experimentation. If, after watching this particular film, you prefer the straightforward stuff, then I’d suggest drifting towards Scott’s earlier films; if you’re drawn to the moments of high stylization, then perhaps you’d better appreciate his later films. Oh…and Enemy of the State is a good movie in its own right — with a nice performance by Will Smith in the leading role and a fun supporting role from Gene Hackman that’s reminiscent of his character in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (another film you ought to watch).
The Final Word
It’s almost certain that Tony Scott’s career will never invite the degree of acclaim, the same sort of prestige that his brother’s career has received. Truth be told, with the possible exception of Top Gun, there are no “genre-defining” works here for filmmakers to replicate in their own movies or for critics to obsess over in their own writings. Still, Tony Scott made enjoyable films that, at their best, exist somewhere in a strange no-man’s land between popcorn flicks and formal artwork. He’s a director who, by the end of his career, had discovered a way to channel his films’ frenetic spiritual energies into a unique and instantly recognizable visual aesthetic — resulting in something akin to (if not exactly) an auteur quality. And though his late career featured a string of bad-to-mediocre movies, it’s worth noticing, I think, that his final directorial effort demonstrated a return of sorts (as modest as it may be) to making good movies. What I am trying to say is that it’s a bit of a shame he’s not around anymore; selfishly, as a watcher of movies, I think he still had good ones in him worth the making.