Five for Five: An Acknowledgment of Director Tony Scott's Most Vital Screen Achievements

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The film community lost an important figure on Sunday; director Tony Scott died at the age of sixty-eight, the victim of an apparent suicide attempt.  While the details surrounding Scott’s death are still shrouded in mystery, Scott’s influence on cinema is as grand and ironclad as the movies comprising his cinematic career.  To put it simply, Scott revolutionized the way that filmmakers made Hollywood blockbusters.

Scott’s aesthetic was gaudy, lush, hyper-real; I’m thinking of how his marrying together pop songs and propulsive flight sequences galvanized the 1986 smash hit Top Gun, or how the laser-fast editing and pop-compositions of his Spy Game and The Last Boy Scout turned what could have been stodgy, thrillers into visceral screen fantasies.  Some have criticized this style, blaming it for the MTV, ADD-ification of current filmmaking, and I won’t dispute the cause-and-effect.  Whether you like it or not, though, you can’t deny the effect it has had on an entire crop of directors (Michael Bay, Paul Greengrass, and Joe Carnahan spring to mind), and on cinema as a whole.

Scott’s populist instincts long distinguished him from his equally successful older brother Ridley – with few exceptions, the elder Scott has always tried to infuse his features with grander ambitions (shifting gender politics in Thelma and Louise and G.I. Jane; the nature of the soul in Blade Runner and Prometheus) – yet Tony’s output never drifted into hackwork.  Tony Scott might have been making fluff, but he always tried to ensure his fluff was as compelling, technologically innovative, and challenging as it could possibly be.

That desire to elevate escapism reached its apex during his most recent – and last, unfortunately – directing period, which spanned from 2004’s Man on Fire to 2010’s Unstoppable.  The five films he helmed during this period (the other three are Domino, Déjà Vu, and The Taking of Pelham 123) found Scott experimenting with tone and form more aggressively than he’d ever done in previous pictures.  Gone were the picture-perfect, hazy color schemes and smoky textures of his 1983 to 2001 movies; Scott started attacking the image – shredding it, over-exposing it, fragmenting it – and vacillating wildly between high and low action in an attempt to see how far he could distort common action-movie tropes without losing what made them so entertaining.  It was a far more expressionistic style of movie-making, created a feeling through atonal slivers, and it proved Scott’s unwillingness to compromise on even the most trivial of projects (the way-better-than-it-has-any-right-to-be Taking of Pelham 123 remake comes to mind).

Scott left sixteen feature films, and for action-movie junkies, all of them merit a viewing.  But I wanted to highlight five in particular: the five that best encompassed what Tony Scott excelled at, the heights he could – and often did – surpass.

In ascending order…

Revenge.  The most underrated film in Scott’s oeuvre, Revenge tells the seedy, noir-infused tale of a callow Air Force pilot (Kevin Costner) who betrays his best friend (Anthony Quinn) when he embarks on a torrid affair with the friend’s much younger wife (Madeleine Stowe).  Critics and audiences mostly hated Revenge upon its release in 1990, and I can’t blame them; it was too long and too unfocused, with nary a sympathetic character to be found.  But in 2007, Scott released a director’s cut that transformed the film, trimming away the fat and making the affair – as well as Quinn’s brutal revenge machinations – all the more powerful.

Enemy of the State.  It took a while for time to catch up to this one.  Scott’s 1998 thriller first played like The Conversation on speed; a lawyer (Will Smith) gets involved in a sprawling government conspiracy, and only a rogue surveillance expert (Gene Hackman, attacking his part like Harry Caul twenty years later and far more paranoid) can protect him from the NSA’s all-seeing eyes.  The technology used to hunt Smith once seemed far-fetched, but now, you can check out the same cameras that monitored him on Google Maps, and the idea of a Big Brother-like NSA takes on a far more sinister tone in this post-9/11 world.

Crimson Tide.  Here, Scott employs a well-worn trope – he’s riffing on Mutiny on the Bounty and The Bedford Incident, casting Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington as two Naval officers whose very different interpretations of an international incident stand between Earth and World War III – and turns it into, after Das Boot, the best submarine movie ever made.  Scott doesn’t demonize or deify either Hackman or Washington’s characters, a choice that gives Crimson Tide wonderful ambiguity: you just don’t know who’s in the right.  Bonus points for the uncredited screenwriting assists from Quentin Tarantino (you’ll feel his stamp when the cast starts talking about submarine movies and the Silver Surfer).

Man on Fire.  The action movie as primal howl.  The first film from Scott’s deconstructionist period is still his best; that fragmenting chaos perfectly suits the unpredictable and violent criminal underworld of Mexico City.  What really gives it resonance, however, is the unexpectedly tender relationship between hired gun-turned-bodyguard John Creasy (Washington, in his best screen performance) and his ten-year-old charge (Dakota Fanning).  They form such an immediate an enduring bond that you could watch a whole movie just about these two people, which makes her kidnapping and Creasy’s blood-soaked pursuit all the more wrenching.

True Romance.  The best film Scott ever made.  Written by Quentin Tarantino (allegedly when he was fifteen), True Romance finds Scott playing in QT’s heightened world of lowlifes and underdogs to brilliant effect.  Every scene works, every line is a zinger, and the cast is a Murderer’s Row of scene-stealing talent; in addition to leads Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette, the movie contains vivid turns from the likes of Gary Oldman, Dennis Hopper, Michael Rapaport, James Gandolfini, Tom Sizemore, Chris Penn, Christopher Walken, Val Kilmer (as the Ghost of Elvis Presley, natch), and Brad Pitt, whose stoner layabout is a comic creation on par with The Dude in The Big Lebowski.  Criminally underseen when Warner Bros. first released it in 1993, True Romance has become just as important to the Tarantino Canon as Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill, and Scott is 100% responsible for making the script’s unholy mixture of graphic violence, slapstick comedy, and heartfelt love story feel like one of the classics.

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