Since Tony Scott’s shocking suicide last week, I have been meaning to write something, but I have to admit that I am somewhat at a loss for words. Unlike his most adamant supporters, I do not claim that any of his late films are misunderstood masterworks, but unlike his many detractors, I certainly do not see them as the work of a hack. I do see Scott as someone who was constantly pushing himself – and his films – though. He worked in Hollywood’s blockbuster model, even though he only made one sequel, and never did a superhero movie, his movies certainly represented Hollywood at its BIGGEST – and at times its boldest.
His early films were fine, if nothing particularly outstanding. I know some people love The Hunger (1983), Top Gun (1986), Beverly Hills Cop II (1987), Days of Thunder (1990) and The Last Boy Scout (1991), and while I can’t say that any of them are masterworks, they are agreeable, mainstream movies, full of broad violence and comedy. I never saw Revenge (1989), which was considered a flop at the time, but which in the past week, I have heard many say is perhaps his best film from this period. From the beginning, his films were BIG and over the top. He worked with Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson a lot, and like many of the films they produced, they had the same style. Had Scott continued in this vein throughout his career than the criticism that he was a hack – albeit a very talented one – would be a valid one.
But in 1993 he made a film that was undeniably HIS – in True Romance. The screenplay was written by a young writer who never had anything made before – named Quentin Tarantino. Scott apparently wanted Reservoir Dogs, but “settled” for True Romance, since Tarantino was already preparing to direct the previous film. True Romance certainly resembles a Tarantino movie – with its non-stop talk, full of memorable dialogue and pop culture references. And Scott does a great job of getting his actors to be their best – especially in small roles, where Gary Oldman, Christopher Walken, Dennis Hopper, Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Saul Rubinek and Bronson Pinchot shine brightest. At the center of the movie is the love story between Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette, and as Tarantino had written it, he was going to make you fall in love with the characters, and then kill off Slater – a cynical gut punch to the audience. But Scott was too much in love with the couple to do that – and refused to kill off Slater. Even Tarantino now admits that Scott made the right choice – for his movie anyway (Tarantino insists that if he had directed the film, his ending would have been better). True Romance remains one of Scott’s best films.
After True Romance, Scott continued to work in the Bruckheimer/Simpson factory – but certainly made better films for them than most did. Crimson Tide (1995) is as good as any submarine movie – claustrophobic and intense, and built just as much on the characters as the action and special effects. The less said about The Fan (1996), with Robert DeNiro as an obsessed baseball fan, who turns violent against his hero (Wesley Snipes), the better – but maybe it was Scott’s attempt at more serious fare. Realizing he wasn’t Martin Scorsese, he returned to what he knew best – action movies and thrillers. Both Enemy of the State (1998) and Spy Game (2001) are top notch examples of both. Scott certainly did what has become known as the Michael Bay style of rapid fire editing better than Bay ever has – and at the very least, both of these movies are coherent action films, unlike most of Bay’s work.
And yet, if I were to look at the Tony Scott’s legacy, I think his most innovative and memorable movies were the five movies he made between 2004 and 2010 – Man on Fire (2004), Domino (2005), Déjà vu (2006), The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009) and Unstoppable (2010). No, I do not think any of them are masterpieces – but all of them push style to the extreme, and then push even further. Unlike Bay, who seems content on repeating himself time after time, Scott was pushing his style further and further. These films have become influential to many action filmmakers in Hollywood – and almost no one can do them better than Scott did.
Man on Fire may just be his best film – an over the top revenge story where an alcoholic former military man (Denzel Washington) is stuck becoming a body guard for a rich girl (Dakota Fanning) in South America, who surprisingly finds himself loving the little girl he has vowed to protect. And when she is taken from him, he goes crazy – and seeks revenge on anyone who had anything to do it. Scott continued with his rapid fire cutting in Man on Fire, but also experimented with other things – like the bizarre color palette his later films would have, the excessive slow motion, used at seemingly strange times (the lighting of a cigarette for example). Starting with Man on Fire, Scott no longer seemed to concern himself with being at all believable – he pushed everything to the extreme.
His next film was the gloriously insane, over the top Domino, about a rich girl (Keira Knightley) who becomes a bounty hunter, and gets involved with one bizarre person and incident after another. The violence is over the top from the get go here – you cannot believe a second of – but it has such a delirious energy, you cannot look away.
I may not have been a huge fan of Déjà Vu when I saw it back in 2006, but looking back at it now, it seems better than when I first saw it. The movie seems in many ways to be a take on Hitchcock’s Vertigo – where the hero essentially falls in love with a dead woman. The sci-fi premise of Déjà Vu is that a machine allows you to look back into the past to see what actually happened, which of course helps police solve crimes. But then Denzel Washington’s cop falls in love with the murder victim on his most recent case – and is determined to do more than simply look back – but actually go back and save her. Déjà Vu is much more complicated than it first appears – and a perfect vehicle for Scott’s style.
The Taking of Pelham 123 is a more straight forward action movie – with John Travolta as a bad guy who takes a subway car hostage and demands money, and Denzel Washington as the cop trying to negotiate with them. This was a more down to earth movie than Déjà Vu or Domino or Man on Fire, not quite having as much fun with all the excess he was then – and perhaps that’s why the reviews were much nicer to it.
His final film was Unstoppable, which was pretty much a perfect vehicle for Scott. This film is about a runaway train, and the two train operators – grizzled vet Denzel Washington and new kid Chris Pine – who have to try and stop it. Since the story was simple – essentially two hours of a train running out of control – it allowed Scott to practice his relentless approach, and amp up the intensity and energy to match that of his story.
It is in these five films, sadly Scott’s last five, in which Scott pushed himself further and further – and strangely, although audiences seemed more than willing to embrace these films, critics seemed more than willing to bash them. Some of his most high minded supporters compare him to avant garde filmmakers – his films becoming more abstract as he moved on his career. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but it does seem to me in these five films that Scott is pushing himself – is trying something new in each of his movies. His editing becomes more experimental, his images more exaggerated – his use of slow motion turned seemingly non-important incidents into monumental moments. It is easy to mock these images – and certainly I have at times, since although I admire Scott for trying something new each time, it didn’t always work. There are moments in all five of these films which, truth be told, are downright silly and ridiculous. And yet, while Scott had reached the height of success in Hollywood, he never rested on his laurels – he didn’t phone in his movies. In each passing film, he tried something new, unique and totally his own. I completely understand if you hate these films – they are easy to hate in many ways – but they are not the work of a hack. I often felt over this time period that Scott was striving to achieve something wholly unique and innovative – he just hadn’t quite found the right material yet to make his masterpiece. Sadly, he never quite did, despite my admiration for these later films. But while he was here, I sure had fun watching him try.