So, I’ll admit right off the bat that THIS is somewhat off kilter, considering that this blog is a ‘Film Reviews Only’ kind of an affair. But on August 19, 2012, this man chose to take his own life by leaping, with no hesitation, to his death from the Vincent Thomas Bridge over Los Angeles Harbor. Now, ordinarily I think that the notion of suicide is a selfish, asshole type of move, given the nasty emotional ripple that it sends through the people who know and love you. But on the flip side, I’ve been lucky enough (so far…fingers crossed) to have never truly found myself in the unfortunate position where self-inflicted death MAY actually be the preferable road to take.
I’ve been enthusiastically following the work of Tony Scott for…oh, I don’t know…26 (or so) years (and counting). He was (WAS is so depressing to write) one of the directors, along with his brother Ridley, Steven Spielberg and James Cameron who made me truly sit up and start noticing the craft that went into these talented and driven men getting their unique visions onto THE BIG SCREEN for our slices of cinematic escapism and enjoyment. So as a result of this idols untimely passing, I’ve found myself feeling ‘it’. And that seems strange to the logical part of my mind. It’s happened twice before this. The first time was when Brandon Lee was accidentally shot and killed on the set of the film that should’ve (and would’ve) ‘made’ him, in 1994 on the set of The Crow (still an excellent film). The next was when I heard about Heath Ledgers accidental prescription drug overdose a few years ago. Now, of course I didn’t KNOW any of these guys personally…but I grabbed on to what they had to offer the world creatively and their work ‘spoke’ to me. Yeah, I know…but it’s the only honest way that I can describe it. Tony Scott’s death is a bit different for me though, when compared to my previous two cases of ‘Celebrity Death Depression Syndrome’. His vision for his films attracted me from the ‘get-go’. They had a unique ‘feel’ to them that just worked, especially with the string of 80’s hits that made him, essentially, a house-hold name. Seriously…show me someone who HASN’T heard of Top Gun. He knew how to make ‘grit’ slick…and more importantly, marketable. Jerry Bruckheimer owes a shitload to Tony Scott for the iconic films that they made in conjunction with the also ‘dead before his time’ Don Simpson; movies that had all three men swimming through oceans of cash like so many Scrooge McDucks. But even after Scott broke free of the leash Simpson/Bruckheimer loosely had on him, he continued to hone his craft in gorgeous and exciting ways, sometimes successfully…sometimes not so much. I’ve always said ‘Tony Scott could do a film about plumbing…and I’d still watch’ because his visuals are THAT strong. Sometimes the written material behind the presentation could benefit from a touch-up…but the end result is always SO visually appealing that the short-comings are forgiven a little more easily. Ask yourself: is the story for Top Gun/Days of Thunder (c’mon…you KNOW they’re the same damn film) well written? Hell no…the stories suck. This cliche’d yarn of the macho, high-octane fall from grace and subsequent ‘resurrection’ into The Man who was inside him…ALL ALONG! Give me a fucking break. But…I still love both those films because they are so well crafted and pieced together. Tony Scott put all of us into the cockpit of an F-14 Tomcat with Maverick and Goose and sent us streaking through the sky after hostile Mig 28s (which were actually F-5 Tiger 2s, BTW), all set to a ripping 80’s soundtrack…and it was (is) great! And in Days of Thunder, we got an up close and personal look at NASCAR racing…and by gawd…he actually made me give a shit about turning left at high speed! Again…the work ON the screen…not in the script. But I want to take this opportunity to go back through Tony Scott’s filmography and just lay out what I remember about the films from the first time I saw them and what I think of them now. So, if you’re still with me at this point…let’s dive right in (Oh! Bad pun!…VERY not intentional):
The Hunger (1983) – I saw The Hunger years after it was first released. I didn’t even know it existed till the mid-90s, when I decided to go back and see what the director had done for his first feature. Interesting movie…certainly not without it’s flaws. I remember being somewhat confused by the strange, loud and flashy ending while also having my young hormones ramped up by the softcore lesbian eroticism between a young Susan Sarandon and Catherine Deneuve. I felt that David Bowie’s rapidly aging vampire character should’ve been explored a little more thoroughly but what ultimately happens to him is pretty much true to the source material, which was a horror novel by Whitley Strieber. But The Hunger almost seemed desperate in it’s attempt to appeal to the art-house crowd. Sure, the early Tony Scott movie trappings are there; the smokey indoor ‘atmospheres’, the multi-camera set-ups, the close-ups, the sudden kinetic violence etc. But there was something about it that felt like I was being held at an arm’s length from the supposed emotional core of the film. As Scott himself once admitted, it’s “esoteric”. It very much IS aimed at the snobby art-house crowd. They just didn’t bite…and if Simpson/Bruckheimer hadn’t noticed this film…his film career could’ve ended right there.
Top Gun (1986)– Oh, Top Gun…how I love/loathe you! I saw this ‘classic’ in the darkened basement of an elementary school buddies house, while a group of us boys were there for his birthday party. It was a VHS double bill: D.A.R.Y.L. (remember that one?) and the newly released Top Gun. As a HUGE jet fighter geek…guess which one made the biggest impression. Right from the slow-motion, maroon-tinted shots of the deck crews doing mysterious deck crew…stuff, in among the hulking, dangerous forms of the jet fighters on the carrier…I was hooked. The opening credit sequence of Top Gun is a brilliant example of bringing a simmer to a boil. The long lead-up to the first catapult launch, the one that slams into action when cued by Kenny Loggins’ immortal ‘Danger Zone’, is pure gold. Once again…I. Was. Hooked. Hell, by the time the end credits rolled onto screen to the sounds of The Righteous Brothers, I was ready to be the US Navy’s first 9 year old fighter pilot! Now I do remember that, even then, I thought certain elements were kinda stupid. Like the idiotic, highly gay-friendly volleyball game. Or the cheezy, unbelievable romance between ‘Charlie’ and ‘Maverick’. Or the ridiculous bar serenade. But then Tony Scott put jet fighters back on screen. Jet Fighters that were caught (and edited) on film in ways I’d never seen before…and it blew my impressionable young mind. I’d even go so far as to wager that aircraft cinematography since then, STILL hasn’t caught up to 1986. The footage they captured was (and is) amazing! I’d love to see what DIDN’T make it into the film…even though it’s probably about 2 million feet of film. Something else that I remember distinctly remember is getting choked up at Goose’s accidental demise (“Watch the canopy!”). The way that Maverick clung to his best friends bloody and limp body, floating on a trail of green marker dye as the rescue chopper’s prop wash battered them. It was heartbreaking. Now when I watch Top Gun, the dialogue and general ridiculousness of the ‘story’ nearly make me cringe…but then there’s jets!!! Again…I love/loathe Top Gun.
Beverly Hills Cop 2 (1987) – My parents are cool. Back in the day, they had enough faith in me to trust that I wouldn’t mutate into a deranged drooling maniac (bwahahaa!…the fools) if I was to watch a movie that was rated a lil high for my age.. So, in amongst the R-rated ‘Robocops‘ and ‘Die Hards‘, I was able to see Beverly Hills Cop 2 as soon as it was released on VIDEO, on one of our Family Movie and Pizza Nights. And I loved it! I’d not too long prior seen the first Cop film and thought it was “neat”. But then the sequel was released and it was a whole different animal. The difference in style between Martin Brest (BHC’s director) and Tony Scott was virtually night and day. Scott infused the sequel with such a sense of palpable style, once again, a gritty slickness. Again, nothing earth-shattering in the thin plot but the style speaks volumes. The slick edits and great music selection (for the time, people!) worked beautifully with the images that Tony had committed to film. The editing also helped to give the comedic performance that TS managed to coax out of Eddie Murphy that certain ‘snap‘ that lent to a sense of ‘action’ even in the still moments. I remember having a great time watching this for the first time…and I still like to occasionally revisit it.
Days of Thunder (1990) – Also known as ‘Top Car’. I’m pretty sure that I caught up with this one almost by accident, since back then (as now) I wasn’t exactly what you’d call a NASCAR fan. In fact, I thought (and think) that it’s one of the dumbest ‘sports’ out there. But the name in the ‘Directed By’ credit was Tony Scott and he was again working with Simpson/Bruckheimer. And since I got free rentals at the video store I worked at (one of many), no money out of pocket (sorry, Tony). I liked Days of Thunder. By now, Tony Scott had settled comfortably into his trademark ‘flashy grit’ style so I wasn’t surprised by the outstanding quality of the imagery, especially EVERYTHING on the race track. The majority of the film moves along at a break-neck speed, much like the cars that the flick clearly idolizes. In conjunction, I also vividly recall The Sound. The sound design for Days of Thunder, like Top Gun, is unreal! The first time all the cars fire up at the starting line (in a beautiful aerial shot), the resulting, explosive roar was enough to give me shivers. And when the high-speed antics played out on the track, they put you IN the drivers seat of that car…they made us feel the velocity and the power. Of course, this really is just Top Gun with a new paint job and it suffers just as equally from being loaded with moronic, macho nonsense. The story MAY actually be slightly more idiotic than TG…but only slightly. But Tony Scott brought his ‘A’ game and made the (probably) unreadable script into a watchable (and exciting!) piece of cheezy escapism. There is NOTHING wrong with that, regardless of what the pretentious swarm of critics have to say about it. It’s a testament to Tony Scott’s ‘vision’ and technical prowess that we got what we got.
Revenge (1990) – The same year that Tony Scott wasn’t exactly wowing the critics with Days of Thunder saw him break loose from Simpson/Bruckheimer to tackle some smaller, edgier material with Revenge, an adaptation of a novella (whatever THAT is) by an author named Jim Harrison (don’t worry…I’ve never heard of him either). The story follows former US Navy F-14 pilot Cochran (Kevin Costner) who, upon his retirement, opts to spend a lil time in Mexico with Tibby (Anthony Quinn), a powerful (and scary) ‘mover n shaker’ hunting buddy of his. Along the way, he makes the dumbass (but understandable) mistake of falling for the cartel leaders sexy young trophy wife (a delicious Madeleine Stowe), after boning the hell out of her in a coat room. Guess who finds out. Guess who tracks them down and damn near kills them both. Guess who leaves Cochran for dead. You got it…Tibby. And thus begins the sordid ‘cat n mouse’ tale of…Revenge. I remember seeing this one at a buddy’s place and, after it was over, we were surprised by how downbeat the film turned out to be. It wasn’t the fast moving ‘shoot em up’ that we’d expected (although some of THAT is involved). Tony Scott, this time, took his trademark style and placed in service of a script type we hadn’t seen him tackle yet: The Slow Burner. That’s exactly what Revenge is. It’s almost more ‘contemplative’ than ‘spectacular’…and while it caught me off guard (and a lil letdown), over time I learned to appreciate the story as well as the great visuals. And then, completely by accident, I came across a used Director’s Cut version of the film languishing in a local pawn shop. I hadn’t even known that such a version existed!! After I picked my chin up off the floor, I yanked the DVD off the wall with animal-like speed and ferocity (there was probably a growl). I got home…and fired it up. Now, having been weened on the awesome Director’s Cut’s of films by Tony’s older brother Ridley, and James Cameron…I’ve come to expect 15-40 minutes of ‘new’ footage. Imagine my surprise when I found out that The Director’s Cut of Revenge was 20 fuckin’ minutes SHORTER than the version I was used to!
I wanted answers!!!
Thankfully, the disc came with a Director’s Commentary Track. If you ever get the chance to take a listen to ANY of Tony Scott’s commentary tracks, I highly recommend it. He was a smart, funny, crass, and knowledgeable man with a lazy, working-class British accent that just made him sound like a dude you’d want to swig a beer with. He was also very honest*. His explanation for the changes to the film make perfect sense and would probably make for a great exercise in a Film Studies class…a perfect example of ‘lean’ vs ‘padded’ storytelling. Tony cut the Producer-induced ‘fat’ from the film and reintroduced scenes that had been essentially stolen from him by the uppity, old fashioned producers, who didn’t care for his dark and depressing version of the story.
I, on the other hand, think that it’s great.
There are some elements that do seem a little too episodic for their own good but the overall presentation works. And again…the visuals just pop. This is a film that many forget resides in Scott’s filmography and I think that his TRUE vision of the work deserves to be seen.
*Scott used this commentary to essentially confess to his own part in a Hollywood adultery case, to which he indirectly compares the theme of betrayal in the film. If memory and intuition serve me correctly, this would be his rumored affair with his Beverly Hills Cop 2 actress Bridgette Neilsen, who I believe was dating (or married to) Sly Stallone, at the time.
The Last Boy Scout. (1991) – In my memory, this kick ass action flick stands out as being the first film I EVER saw on my own. My sister and I were in Victoria, BC visiting relatives and, somewhere along the way, we wound up heading to the theatre with our very cool step-grandmother. She decided that I could pick my own film to see. Being a fan of the first two Die Hard films, I was very curious about this new Bruce Willis flick…then I noticed who the director was and got excited all over again. So while the two of them headed off to more age-appropriate fare, I ventured into the huge, dark theatre and sat down.
The flick started…and by the time the credits rolled, I was blown away. I LOVED this sleazy, flashy action movie the first time I took it in! Right from the opening scene (after the ultra-American credit sequence) where desperate football superstar ‘Billy Cole’ guns down three players on his way to the end zone, where he then unceremoniously blows his own brains out. “Ain’t Life a bitch?” (I wonder if those same words flashed through Tony’s mind right before he jumped).
But I digress.
The Last Boy Scout was (is) loud, violent, crass and totally fucking awesome, and it had me grinning like a little idiot the whole way through. So much of this gleefully unapologetic film works incredibly well within the confines of the Action genre and, once again, Tony Scott’s visuals just ‘up’ the cool level 10 fold. It also helps that the sports gambling / film noir script by Action Master Shane Black crackles along like a freight train. This was the film that made me think that Tony Scott’s visual flair would/could one day serve one of the Die Hard sequels well…sadly, that didn’t happen. But this one could NEARLY be part of that terrific franchise, with a few small tweaks. And I loved that Scott didn’t hold back in the ‘violence’ department. The guns are loud and the blood and bodies fly. This is an Action Movie, through and through…and in that role, it’s damn near perfect.
True Romance (1993) – Also known as ‘My Second Favorite Film EVER’…right behind Aliens (1986)’.
I remember seeing the trailer on TV and instantly recognizing the style of the shots. Tony Scott was back!!! But, if I remember correctly, True Romance wound up getting a rather piddly theatrical release, especially considering Scott’s impressive (and money-making) filmography at this point in his career. So I waited…and wound up renting it VERY soon after its VHS release. This was one of the first times I’d encountered an Unrated Director’s Cut of a movie, and I was intrigued.
So, on a grey, rainy afternoon I plunked down on the couch…and hit Play. 121 minutes later…I hit Stop…Rewind…and Play again. I’d NEVER done that before. I was SO stunned by the movie that had just played out on my parents TV screen that I actually felt ‘it‘ in my chest.
I had no choice but to simply watch the beautiful bastard again.
And it is beautiful, a true work of cinematic genius! The Tarantino script is terrific, with dialogue that is inescapably catchy and smart, and characters with depth and flaws.
And The Cast!!! This is a genius line up. I mean really…Christian Slater, Patricia Arquette, Dennis Hopper, Christopher Walken, Val Kilmer, Michael Rapaport, Gary Oldman, Brad Pitt…all supported by the likes of James Gandolfini, Chris Penn, Tom Sizemore, Bronson Pinchot and Samuel L. Jackson? How could you go wrong?! The answer is…in Tony Scott’s capable hands…you don’t. For all the bloody violence, and there IS a lot…this film is still a ‘romance’ at its core. The story of comic geek/loser Clarence and sweetly naive call girl Alabama, falling in love and going ‘on the lam’ with an accidentally stolen suitcase filled with cocaine, after blowing off her pimp’s cock…then his face, in search of fortune and adventure, is romance all the way. Yes, that DOES sound like strange ingredients for a ‘romance’ film but trust me…it ‘s. A ‘romance’ that features an awesomely savage fist fight between ‘Clarence’ and ‘Bamas’ ‘white but thinks he’s black’ pimp Drexl, played with animal ferocity by Gary Oldman. A ‘romance’ that doesn’t shy away from watching ‘Bama’ get the living shit beaten out of her by a menacing James Gandolfini (boy…does she ever get him back, though!). A ‘romance’ that showcases a now-classic extended dialogue between Walken and Hopper about the insulting ‘creation’ of modern day Sicilians…culminating in a messy series of loud *Bang!*s.
“I haven’t killed anyone…since 1984.”
A ‘romance’ that nails the audience with one of the most tense Mexican standoffs EVER filmed…and the resulting bloodbath where pretty much EVERYONE dies… badly. These gloriously unsavory elements only help to heighten the emotional journey of the two main characters. And speaking of characters, I don’t think that I’ve ever found myself enthusiastically rooting for a protagonist who is CRAZY, like I did with this one. What a ballsy move on Scott’s part to embrace THAT nuance of the ‘Clarance’ character. You can argue otherwise, but any dude who lets his Elvis Presley-inspired ‘imaginary friend’ convincingly instruct him on the proper way to kill a pimp…and get away with it, while he takes a leak…is nuts! But under Scott’s direction, Christian Slater gives ‘Clarence’ a certain, boyish charm and resourcefulness that makes him easy to sympathize with. Same goes for Patricia Arquettes charming ‘Alabama’ character. You want these crazy kids to succeed, get away, and ride off into the sunset together. It’s part of the magic of True Romance. For a long while, Tony Scott considered this to be his favorite film, out of his own catalogue. Even he realized that he’d hit it ‘out of the park’…and this was a man with a confessed fear of failure.
He nailed it.
There’s a shitload more that I could prattle on about when it comes to True Romance but if you haven’t seen it (shame on you!), then I encourage you to seek it out. I seriously doubt you’ll be sorry.
* I love this film SO much that I own a Reel #1 and a Reel #7 from an actual 35mm theatrical release print. I’m quite proud of them. True story. Just saying.
Crimson Tide (1995) – As a sucker for a good military thriller, the fact that Tony Scott was at the helm of this one pretty much made it a slam dunk for me.
And I was right.
I distinctly remember sauntering out of the small-town theatre with a sense of genuine satisfaction; satisfaction stemming from having just witnessed a supremely well-crafted suspense film. Tony Scott’s preference for realism, particularly in his settings, served this movie well. Re-teaming with Simpson/Bruckheimer enabled Scott to indulge himself with some very impressive sets; particularly the inner guts of the USS Alabama Los Angeles class ‘boomer’ submarine. We’ve all seen submarine films and understand that there is a certain expected aesthetic, but again Scott’s visual ‘trappings’ just made the environment ‘pop‘. Added to which is the terrific cast that Tony and Co. managed to assemble. You’ve got Denzel Washington and the fantastic Gene Hackman going head to head during a DefCon 2 Alert, as the Captain and Exo whose ideologies and methods clash spectacularly at The. Worst. Possible. Time. Ever.
What this film lacks in high-velocity gunfire and action, it definitely makes up for in tension and character dynamic. The shouting match scene from which the mutiny is derived is worth the price of admission alone. Supporting these two ‘masters of their craft’ are the likes of Viggo Mortensen, James Gandolfini (again), George Dzundza, Matt Craven, Danny Nucci and Ricky Schroder…yes, ‘Silver Spoons’ Ricky Schroder. The whole cast works, even on a superficial level. All the actors look distinctive, which is a major plus in a film in which everyone is in uniform. Another excellent thing about the script is that at the end, it becomes apparent the both protagonists were equally right AND wrong in their motivations and actions. The fact that this element is worthy of debate is evidence (to me, anyway) of some very clever writing and research. I recently came across the Jerry Bruckheimer Special Edition series, which is a collection of the producer’s films released in their original ‘directors cuts’ versions, and Crimson Tide is one of THOSE titles. There’s a slew of tiny (and surprising) snippets and scenes added back in, and for the most part they DO add to the experience. But in either form, Crimson Tide is a great film.
The Fan (1996) – After riding the wave of critical success with Crimson Tide, Tony Scott switched gears and went off in a totally different direction. In other words, this film dropped like a stone, in more ways than one. The critics hated this ‘sports stalker’ movie, in which Robert De Niro’s mentally unbalanced knife salesman, ‘Gil Renard’, decides to come to the dangerous ‘rescue’ of his favorite, highly overpaid baseball star, ‘Bobby Rayburn’, played convincingly by Wesley Snipes. I saw this one in the theatre and loved it. Now, I’m definitely NOT a baseball fan (I feel the same way about it as I do about NASCAR) and that may have actually helped my viewing experience…seeing as how a major complaint about the film was its misrepresentation of the sport.
Me? I couldn’t care less.
The baseball, while made to look real and engaging, was merely window dressing to serve the somewhat creepy plot. While I do acknowledge that there are parts that come off as ‘clunky’, with a couple substantial plot holes present, Tony’s visual flair again comes to the rescue. The Fan looks (and feels) terrific. In fact, as weird as this MAY sound, I think that Scott hit his peak artistically in this particular style with this particular film. He also had another great cast to work with is the form of De Niro, Snipes, John Leguizamo, Benicio Del Toro, Ellen Barkin and Charles Hallahan. They all bring their A Game. I think this flick was unfairly dismissed and does deserve to have people take a second (or first) look at it.
The Swords (The Hunger Series, Season 1, Episode 1, 1997) – In my searches for lesser known titles in Scott’s filmography, I stumbled across mention of this ‘short’ that he directed for Scott Free Productions first (I believe) major foray into the Television market. Once again, I found it hiding in the aisles of that first video store I worked at, and promptly absconded with it. I find this little story completely entertaining and it was sweet to see Scott bring his style to the small screen. It’s strange to note that this twisted story, of a recovering drug addict rich kid sent to London (from LA) to represent his fathers’ cosmetics company at a symposium and, after finding himself in a gay fetish bar, becomes involved with a side show attraction named ‘Musidora,’ actually floats nicely on an effective emotional core. Of course it ends in tragedy, but the fact that the ‘Musidora’ character is portrayed with a certain naivete, even considering that her shtick is to allow people to run real swords through her exposed mid-section, because she’s in a spell and can’t be hurt, made me feel sorry for her when the ‘final moment’ goes down. To me, that’s evidence again that Tony Scott is NOT just an empty stylistic hack…as many critics have ‘opinion’d’ over the years. In among all the ‘style’, Tony was able to pull good, effective performances out of his many actors and, as a result, helped to elevate his art. The Swords is no different. Sure, it’s funny to hear him recycle music from Revenge and True Romance but luckily they work…it’s not a point against the ‘piece’ as a whole. If you enjoy Tony Scott’s films, I would certainly recommend that you search this little gem out. It’s worth it.
Enemy of the State (1998) – This was a movie I was excited for, the first time I saw the trailer. Again, The Man at The Wheel of this flick was a major ‘draw’, as his style seemed tailor-made for a desperate, exciting techno-laced espionage thriller. Added to which was Scott’s re-teaming with his impressive Crimson Tide lead, Gene Hackman, and a nicely rounded cast to fill out the story of Will Smith’s (rightfully) paranoid labor lawyer, on the run from the mob AND a rogue team of NSA operatives intent on retrieving damning evidence that had been planted on him. And I was right…Tony Scott’s trademark style helped bolster this story immensely. It gave him the opportunity to use the film’s hyper-kinetic style to metaphorically reflect the frightening speed and accuracy of ‘todays‘ intimidating surveillance technology and the potential abuse of it. As usual, the action sequences kick some serious ass, with a desperate vehicle chase/ shootout through a busy train yard, following a HUGE building explosion, and a crazy foot pursuit through a Washington DC business district that culminates in a messy close encounter with the front of a speeding fire engine, standing out. And speaking of action, this film marks the second time that Scott fell back on something from one of his previous films,: the gnarly Mexican Standoff from True Romance! We have another here, taking place with all the major players of the film drawing down on each other in the cramped kitchen of an Italian social club….and then pretty much everyone dies…quickly. Some people can take a look at that and accuse Tony Scott of laziness but, truth be told, it IS a fitting end to this flick. I think that Enemy of the State is so well crafted that even the obvious flaws in the script seem cool. Like Gabriel Byrnes cameo as a very capable ‘asset’ that gets in dangerously close to Will Smith’s Bobby Dean character. Seriously…where in the hell did he come from?! We’d seen absolutely NO evidence or mention of his character leading up to the scene…and suddenly…there he is! And just as quickly, he’s gone. We know he didn’t die in that car crash. But we never see him again. Not even the surprisingly repacked Extended Edition acknowledges this plot hole…but it really doesn’t matter, because the entire scene is cool and well-shot. In fact, I find the little holes in this one actually somewhat charming, and they just add to the entertainment value, in my humble opinion. I also thought that the very final shot of the film had a slight edge of clever subversiveness to it, with Larry King essentially addressing the Powers That Be and pointedly informing them that they “…have no right to come into my home.” as we watch a surveillance satellite drift past the camera, its probing eyes pointed down…at us. I appreciated the attempt to inject a modicum of ‘message’ into a big summer action flick. As you can probably tell, I think that Enemy of the State is one of the most entertaining flicks in Tony Scott’s filmography.
Sanctuary (The Hunger Series, Season 2, Episode 1, 1999) – Ok, I’ll confess. I’d never seen this piece of Tony Scott’s work prior to the writing of this ‘review’. So, I decided that it was now time to catch up on one of the last ‘films’ in the mans now cut short filmography, that I’d missed, to date.
I found this to be an interesting addition to his artistic catalog, as it’s plain to see here that Scott was beginning to embrace the idea of change, and experimentation. Sanctuary is the story of a disgraced performance artist, played by a key cast member of Scott’s first film The Hunger (1983) (that inspired the series), David Bowie, who, while residing in the abandoned prison that he calls home, encounters a desperate (and wounded) low life, played with rodent-like panache by Giavanni Ribisi. And cue the metaphysical mind-fuck. This is a strange one, as some elements border on Torture Porn, which to me, seems below Scott’s integrity as a director. However, he does make this 30 min flick engrossing and entertaining, despite some of the uncomfortable details. It’s interesting to compare the two episodes of this series, that Tony directed. The Swords was pure ‘old school’, reliable Tony Scott…using his established (and by now, expected) style to tell THAT sordid little love tale. Here, he begins using some techniques that audience-goers hadn’t encountered yet. Things like experiments with camera speeds, ambiguous freeze-frames accented with date/time stamps, B/W frames/shots, dual-layered imagery…all laid out on the expected canvas of slick multi-camera setups, ‘zoomed in ‘telephoto lenses, quick cutting edits and gritty lighting. The new additions to his technique would go on to become familiar to his fans (and the critics) ,as he would continue to push certain cinematic boundaries with this particular artistic phase. Some successfully…some not.
Spy Game (2001) – I remember following the making of this film with great enthusiasm, devouring any little tidbit of info I could get my beady lil eyes on. After loving Enemy of the State, here was Tony Scott delving back into the espionage genre, and my not-so-inner Movie Geek was itching to see it. Right off the bat, I thought that Scott had hit it out of the park with his casting alone. The Classic Thespian Robert Redford and The Rising Star Brad Pitt was a good start for this spy vs spy yarn. Eventually the countdown reached zero and I raced to the theatre to have Tony Scott blow my mind again. Did he succeed with Spy Game? Not entirely. SOMETHING about this one left me somewhat…cold. Which is strange, all the elements seem to be in the place to guarantee success. Aside from the ‘box-office magnet’ leads, you’ve got a good supporting cast (Catherine McCormack, Stephen Dillane etc) telling the nail-biting story of an ‘old dog’ CIA operative, hours from retirement (of course!) racing against the clock to orchestrate the rescue of a former pupil (Pitt) from a Chinese prison. I just didn’t buy the emotional connections between the players that the film presents us with. Again, the visuals/editing crackle…but they’re unsold by the lack of emotional core. Some of the scenes, on their own, are very cool,…like the attempted prison break that opens the film and the HUGE truck bombing/building explosion that eventually divides the two main characters. It’s interesting to note that this film was released rather soon after that horrible real-life event of 9/11 and, as a precaution in service of the wounded sensibilities of the North American audience, Universal had Scott re-cut the suicide bombing scene to eliminate footage of roiling clouds of dust and smoke, as they too closely resembled the frightening footage of the World Trade Centre towers collapse and dusty aftermath., that we were bombarded with at the time. This film also strained logic a little too far, in my opinion, as I just couldn’t realistically accept the deftness with which Redfords character is able to pull the wool over the probing eyes of his peers AND arrange a special forces prison rescue, in a hostile country, on the other side of the globe. It all looked great (naturally) but, truth be told, it was lacking as a story. When I think ‘Tony Scott Films’, Spy Game is NOT the first one to leap to mind.
Beat the Devil (BMW Films commercial/short film, 2002) – I was mystified by the industriousness of the BMW ad campaign known as The Hire. It was comprised of two seasons of short films that would showcase a particular model of BMW, while featuring it in a self-contained piece of visual entertainment. The cars were ALWAYS driven by The Driver (go figure), played with pizzazz by a then up and comer Clive Owen. Numerous A-list directors (John Frankenheimer, Ang Lee, Joe Carnahan, Guy Ritchie etc) turned up to lend their respective visions to the idea, and Tony Scott scooted in with them. Beat the Devil features The Driver chauffeuring James Brown (*“I feel good!!!*”) into Las Vegas for a meeting with Satan himself, played with perverse glee by Gary Oldman, in order to renegotiate the terms of the contract for his soul. It is completely bizarre and I think that it’s where Tony Scott may have felt the he now had The Cosmic Go Ahead to let himself off the chain a bit with regards to his cinematic experiments. As with the last couple films before, only in a much heavier dose, we get frantic trickery with camera speeds, defects and flourishes with contrast and color grading, super-impositions, strange use of subtitles, and abrupt changes in music. Basically the ENTIRE flick is comprised of this. It IS a small blessing that it’s only 10ish minutes long. Should he have attempted this as a full-length feature, at this point, the audience would end up mentally battered and bruised (we’ll get into that soon). But for a short, quasi-experimental ad campaign, it was just the ticket for Tony to play around. He evidently had some serious fun, as the ‘new’ Tony Scott style comes HIGHLY into play for the next few years after THIS.
Agent Orange (short film, 2004) – Clearly not finished with his short film experiments, Tony Scott then, for some reason, tossed together this little 5 minute flick about a strange, hooded kid, lurking in a subway station who sees an attractive girl, decked out in all orange, drop her bagged goldfish as she rushs to the train. After retrieving the poor fish, he embarks on a stalker-like ‘search’ campaign to locate this girl, return the fishy and (hopefully) fall in love. Sounds pretty simple, yeah? Well, holy shit! Tony Scott went to town!!! At this point, it seems (if memory serves correctly) that he’d become enamored with the use of old-fashion hand-cranked cameras, and decided that Agent Orange would be the film with which he’d let them ‘stretch their legs’. As cool as the imagery and presentation is, it IS a bit of a kick to the brain. Scenes and shots speed up, slooooooow doooooown, double up, ‘smash zoom’ in and out, blur etc…all paced to the hyper-kinetic editing style that Scott lived by. It’s jarring. I won’t bullshit you…I love Scotts work, but ouch! This one is a creative sucker punch and I imagine it resembles the inside of a seizure, with a narrative.
Man on Fire (2004) – Tony Scott took his new found obsession with hand-cranked cameras and applied to this story of a washed-up, alcoholic former military adviser turned bodyguard, Creasy and his humanizing relationship with the 10 year old girl that is his ‘charge’. Scott re-teamed with Denzel for this one and the effect that he brings is quite striking. Dakota Fanning is a strange foil for the imposing Mr. Washington but the footage that Tony Scott captured works very well, ESPECIALLY the ‘concubine discussion’ scene, that was apparently an adorable ad-lib from the two actors that Tony wisely opted to include in the final film. That moment alone solidified the emotional core of the film and gave fire to Denzels journey of retribution later in the flick. Man on Fire also has the notable distinction of being THE feature that Scott decided to ‘cut’ in the style of the last couple short films he created, before this. All the not-so-subtle effects are on vivid display here: the camera speed changes, the doubling of the image, the artistic use of subtitles and ‘cards’, the ambiguous freeze-frames etc. When this movie gets going, like its protagonist, it doesn’t stop. It just keeps coming. I’ve always maintained the Man on Fire, with some small tweaks, could be/should be The Punisher movie that we’ve all been waiting on. Now it’s not perfect, there are some elements that I found (and find) somewhat deserving of the ole eye-roll, but overall Scott and Co. had crafted a mean, kinetic action/revenge story where he gave himself license to artistically play a bit. Some people loved the new changes to his style…some people felt that is was a little too self-indulgent and distracting. I can certainly understand both sentiments…as I fall into both camps. I understand the need to branch out and expand and I (mostly) encourage it, but there IS such a thing as Subtlety. And while this flick didn’t get THAT memo, his next movie took the memo, spat on it, lit it on fire and threw it out the damn window, while cackling maniacally the whole time.
Domino (2005) – Tony Scott flipped the selector switch to ‘rock n roll’ full auto for this ‘based on a true story…sort of’ tale of real-life ‘rich kid’ model turned bad ass bounty hunter, Domino Harvey and her over-the-top, comic book-like adventures. Using his inspired cast of Kiera Knightly, Mickey Rourke, Edgar Ramirez, Delroy Lindo, Christoper Walken and Mena Suvari (among many others), Scott went pretty much stylistically ape-shit here to create a dizzying kaleidoscope of crazed imagery that just happens to run on a bizarre and, at times, random narrative. This movie is a blast! While I did have some issue with Scotts new found appreciation for frantic experimentation in Man on Fire, largely due to the fact that THAT story didn’t really need the gimmicky nuances that he scattered throughout, in Domino the wild presentation gives this flick a coke-fueled heartbeat that just tears along, and drags you, the viewer, with it. I swear, not one shot in this movie lasts longer that 2.2 seconds. Editing this flick would’ve been some special kind of bitch but in the end, the work is on screen, and despite what the ‘hating’ critics would say, is totally entertaining…to me anyway. Now, Domino is certainly NOT for everyone. Looking past the crazed style, there are a few grisly/unsavory bits in this one. Like the accidental shotgun-blast arm amputation. Or the out-of-control Mexican standoff (yep…another one) where EVERYONE shoots EVERYONE (again) in a strobing, loud mini war over looking Las Vegas. Or the mescaline-fueled RV crash/sex scene in the desert. Or the brave but skanky lap-dance for the room full of armed Latino gang-bangers. This movie has it ALL! Tony Scott basically lets it all hang out with Domino and it’s a helluva thing. Love it or hate it…it can’t be denied that some impressive work was poured into this movie experience.
Deja Vu (2006) – It would seem that Tony Scott heard the dismay, in the reviews, of a number of the critical critics out in the world regarding his mind-numbing approach to Domino; as Deja Vu features a FAR more restrained style. The styling (ALWAYS relevant with Tony) plays out feeling a lot closer to his late 90s veneer, reminding me at times of Enemy of the State and The Fan. For this time-travel action flick, the restraint is most welcome. Here, he again re-teams with Denzel Washington to tell the story of Denzels ATF Agent Doug Carlin and his investigation into a horrible (and spectacular) incident of domestic terrorism , in New Orleans. Along the way, Carlin uncovers a covert surveillance team who have an accidental ‘wormhole’ view into 4 days prior and are using it to back engineer the lead-up to the VERY impressive ferry explosion. Once again, Tony Scott made some very cool casting choices here, surrounding Washington with the likes of Val Kilmer, Jim Caviezel, Bruce Greenwood, and Paula Patton to delve into what is really his only TRUE science fiction film ; a genre I REALLY hoped he would’ve tackled in greater depth someday. In truth, the sci-fi elements are just clever constructive tissues for the number of exciting action sequences scattered along the narrative. Aside from the HUGE ferry bombing that opens the film, there’s also a very unique car chase in which Carlin must keep pace with a vehicle driving 4 days in the past in order to discover some key evidence (much random vehicular destruction ensues), a high-speed ambulance crash and subsequent shoot out/fiery explosion, and a ‘cat n mouse’ fire fight in amongst the parked cars on a traveling ferry, to name a few. As a SCIENCE FICTION movie, Deja Vu is a little light, but as an ACTION flick, it kicks some seriously cool ass. It was a welcome ‘return’ to style for Tony Scott and in THAT regard, I hold it kinda ‘dear’.
The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009) – This Die Hard-styled remake of the 1974 ‘original’ (adapted from a novel of the same name) was an attempt by Scott to marry his two ‘phases’ of styling together into one blockbuster package. According to the grosses…he failed. Pelham 123 did O…K at the box office, but it lacked the financial ‘Pow!’ that the studio may have been expecting/hoping for. And really, who could blame them. You’ve got Action Maestro Tony Scott at the helm, teaming up YET again with Denzel Washington and James Gandolfini but with John Travolta, John Turturro, and Luis Guzman tagging along for the ride. You’ve also got a cool premise, with a subway car in New York being hijacked by Travolta and Co., with the passengers being held for ransom. And let the violent Cat n Mouse game begin! Many elements of ‘Pelham’ work (as with ALL Tony Scotts films) but it’s the ones that don’t that REALLY stand out. Number One Complaint for This Guy would be the casting of Travolta as Ryder, the loud-mouth leader of the small criminal gang. He doesn’t really seem to know what to do with the role and tends to just yell obscenities into a CB and glare menacingly, with a really stupid looking neck tattoo. Another ‘bitch’ could be the use of the (now) slightly tiresome variable camera speeds. Again, this is a story that simply didn’t need THAT embellishment. On the plus side, it’s kept relatively minimal. Overall, The Taking of Pelham 123 is one of those Tony Scott films that is entertaining when you watch it but it’s not the first Tony Scott film that may jump to mind, if you were to be asked.
Unstoppable (2010) – In many respects, the fact that this is (sadly)Tony Scotts last film is SO fitting. Here we have a movie that is built on the premise of Out-of-Control Speed by the man who essentially redesigned the notion of cinematic velocity and the excitement ‘experience’ of the Big Screen. I mean, look at, to this day, how many people instantly recall Top Gun and Days of Thunder. Two films riding on ridiculous, bone-thin scripts, yet are fondly remembered for their kinetic displays of high-speed excitement. Unstoppable is no different. This one is a resounding triumph on Tony Scotts filmography. This flick had me riveted from beginning to end. One thing, as with all of Scotts films is the use of the ‘practical’. ALMOST everything you see onscreen is accomplished ‘in camera’ (or ‘on-set’), and when the material is full size locomotives barreling along with a convoy of trucks, trains and choppers in hot pursuit, that makes for some exciting shit! I dare anyone who HASN’T seen this one to do so…only try and do so without clenching up ANY part of your bod. Betcha can’t. I sure couldn’t! One thing that I realize now is that I haven’t touched on the musical ‘scores’ of his films, most of which compliment the visuals immensely…but for some reason the music for Unstoppable just helped the punch the tension home so effectively. As I mentioned, for this to be the period on the sentence that is Tony Scotts career, and subsequently…his life, is something that he, while chilling in the After Life with an expensive cigar and his trademark faded red cap, can look back on…and nod contently about.
And there it is. My memory-based KNEEJERKS to Tony Scotts filmography. It really is a bummer that he’s gone and that THAT list won’t continue to grow, but at least there is a sizeable (and entertaining) cinematic legacy left behind for others to be inspired and challenged by. High Profile directors like Michael Bay, Joe Carnahan, Simon West and Dominic Sena owe FAR more than they’d probably care to admit to Tony Scott in regards to the emulation of his trademark style. Not that I’m complaining, it IS an effective and entertaining method of making movies.
“My adrenalin kicks in at 2:30 in the morning, when I get up and bolt upright with fear…fear of failure…of creative failure.”
Sir, you DID NOT fail. Certainly not creatively. That which you left behind is great, even the ‘failures’. So now, you may lie back and close your eyes. Ya done good, kid. You can now sleep, with no fear. Rest in Peace, Tony Scott. Thanks for the movies!
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