With the news Sunday of Tony Scott‘s passing, it leads many films fans with a sense of confusion. That’s probably because everyone has a favorite Tony Scott film, and most people have a film of his that they hate–a testament to Tony’s art.
Brought into the commercial-making business by his brother Ridley Scott, he spent longer toiling in the commercial industry than his brother, who by then had pursued artistic (The Duelists) and commercial (Alien) filmmaking success. Tony’s first film came in 1983, as a wave of British filmmakers trained in making thirty seconds spots seemingly took over Hollywood. The first film was The Hunger, and from the opening sequence when Bauhaus performs “Bela Legosi’s Dead” as vampires feast on their prey, Scott was announcing himself. Those vampires are played by Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie, and it was as close as Tony ever came to trying to doing something similar to his brother, with its arty sensibility mixed with a little perversion (it features a love scene between Deneuve and Susan Sarandon), and the quest for immortality. It bombed, but – as with so many of Scott’s misfires – has developed a passionate cult following.
His next project saw him embracing his commercial directing roots, and found him working with producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson. Though they had perfected the formula for their films (as my friend Jeremy Smith pointed out), Scott applied that to an action film, and in 1986 his Top Gun became the year’s biggest film and turned Tom Cruise into the star he is today. That the film became a recruitment tool for the Navy, and was coded as being a homoerotic love story (a read of the film championed by Quentin Tarantino) says a lot about the filmmaker. That he followed it with 1987′s Beverly Hills Cop 2, which was a huge hit and an utter disappointment, turned Scott into an A-list director, but marked him as a brain-dead hit-maker.
1990′s Days of Thunder, which reunited him with Cruise, only added fuel to that fire. That it followed a similar template as Top Gun only marked Tony as the lesser brother, something the release of 1990′s Revenge (which starred super-hot Kevin Costner and bombed) seemed to confirm. And then came 1991′s The Last Boy Scout, which at the time was seen as lesser than Die Hard, Top Gun, and Lethal Weapon. This was because it combined Scott with Bruce Willis and Shane Black (his Boy Scout script was sold for a million dollars, which was a record at the time, which also meant the knives were out). But time has done nothing but enhance the pleasures of almost all these films.
Scott followed that with one of his biggest box office failures. In September 1993, the only people who seemed to care about True Romance were those who were hipped to 1992′s Reservoir Dogs (which, at the time, wasn’t many). Now it’s regarded as – if not his masterwork then – one of his finest achievements. Oddly, Scott and Tarantino have a Astaire and Rogers thing in this film. The main character, Clarence Worley (as played by Christian Slater) is almost painfully obviously a Tarantino surrogate, and in a lot of ways this is his student film (and in QT’s original version Clarence dies, which fits with the “freshman at film school” template). But Scott saw the greatness of Tarantino’s voice, and transformed it into a pop culture love letter. Whether or not Scott’s view on violence was ever coherent (and his films often trafficking in a use of violence that borders on sociopathic), there is an argument to be made that he never took it that seriously. He made movie movies. And violence was just the nature of that world, because – for the most part – he didn’t make films about the real world. There was no Ken Loach in him. Tony Scott wanted to get you high.
But even though it led to some of his best work, Scott knew it was time to return to something safer, so he re-teamed with Bruckheimer and Simpson for Crimson Tide, which pitted Gene Hackman against Denzel Washington, and was a sizable hit. Though he misstepped with 1996′s The Fan, which had Robert De Niro play a more mainstream version of his Travis Bickle character opposite Wesley Snipes, he delivered another hit with Enemy of the State. Though the film was made in 1998, few films before that time captured the possibility of technology and its improved ability to monitor people’s every movement. Scott couldn’t have known it then, but few films capture the post 9/11 paranoia as perfectly. That it was also a semi-sequel to Francis Ford Coppola‘s The Conversation is just icing on the cake.
2001′s Spy Game showed a master craftsman at work. Pairing Robert Redford and Brad Pitt together, the film is essentially a long con job of a film, perfectly executed by Scott. It was a big, smart Hollywood movie, but by then Scott was no longer making films that were in vogue. 2004′s Man on Fire was a small success, but in retrospect began one of the most fascinating chapters in Tony’s career. Not only is the film a platonic love story between Denzel Washington and Dakota Fanning, Tony was having fun playing with technology. From how the subtitles appear on screen to shooting techniques, Scott was after a new language of cinema, something that’s readily apparent in his next film, 2005′s Domino. That crashed and burned at the box office, but it’s also pure Tony Scott.
He followed it with 2006′s Deja Vu (again with Denzel Washington), which only seems like a normal Hollywood movie on the surface, but reveals its strangeness. And then came The Taking of the Pelham 1 2 3 remake, and finally Unstoppable. Unstoppable is a weird note to go out on. The film feels like a throwback because it’s the story of two men working together from stopping a train crash. Scott directs it with an eye toward character and coherent action, and it takes its fun/dumb premise and delivers.
Without Tony Scott we would have no Michael Bay, and that much is certain. As someone who made the biggest hits of an era, it’s easy to see why he was despised for a while, and why he’s got fans who only love a certain film or section of his career. But as someone else pointed out, there’s generally a film of his that someone will love, even if they don’t like the rest, whether that be The Hunger, The Last Boy Scout, Top Gun or True Romance. Where brother Ridley often swings for the fences, and misses more often than he hits, Tony Scott was more consistent, and used mainstream cinema to make his weirdo movies, but also infused even his most obvious for hire jobs with a sense of style and craftmanship. He also never embraced CGI as a solution to all of a movie’s problems. And for someone known for lunkheaded action movies, the list of talented performers he worked with is long, and his films are filled with memorable performances from them.
Tony Scott jumped off a bridge after realizing that he had inoperable brain cancer. And with his passing leaves one of the most fascinating hitmakers of the 20th and 21st century.
What’s your favorite Tony Scott film?