Sometimes, viewing heralded films by esteemed directors can be akin to sipping fine wine. You inspect the contents, swirl it around, take a sip, revel in its greatness, and when it’s done, you yearn for more. However, comparing director Tony Scott’s films to a glass of wine would be a crime. No, watching Scott’s films is the equivalent of chugging down bottle after bottle of Jolt Cola. You know it’s not good for you, but it tastes so good and gets you so amped that when it’s over you can do nothing but brace yourself for the crash landing. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.
Tony Scott would have been content to stay on his path to become a painter, but the understanding lure of a owning a Ferrari was enough for him to pack up his brush and canvas and pick up a camera. His older brother Ridley Scott was laying tracks to boost his own film career, and Tony set forth to learn the ropes shooting commercials for Ridley’s company. After fifteen long years of making over a 100 commercials, Scott was ready to move to the big screen. Knocking on Hollywood’s door, he was offered a screenplay based on Whitley Strieber’s The Hunger, the tale of a vampire couple struggling with the effects of eternal life and rapid ageing. The film, starring Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie, and (the most beautiful woman on the planet) Susan Sarandon, is one of the best vampire stories on celluloid. Hard to believe now that this cult hit, so popular amongst would-be Nosferatus and other fishnet-and-leather aficionados who live in their parents’ basem-, I mean bat caves, was pretty much a dud when i came out. It may have left critics unsatiated and audiences walking away scratching their heads, but nobody could deny Scott had some chops and a unique style. This was 1983, two years after MTV made it’s debut, and Scott’s concise and quick edits helped lend the film music video flair. The first five minutes is basically a Bauhaus video! Amongst blue light and smoke, two devices Scott would use unapologetically for almost every movie he made for the following decade (along with white billowing curtains, rays of sunlight coming through blinds at half-shade, doves and pigeons fluttering in small encased rooms), Peter Murphy croons the Goth anthem “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” behind a thin cage in a hip NYC nightclub, while Deneuve and Bowie cooly stalk their prey. The song overplays while the vampires take a new-wave couple home, jump-cuts slice back and forth between a writhing Murphy and a seductive Bowie and Deneuve, the song crescendos with Murphy now almost having a seizure while the vamps spill blood. These were the opening credits.
Thankfully, bad boy producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer were taking note. Impressed by not only The Hunger, but Scott’s commercials, Bruckheimer and Simpson brought him on for the film that defined a decade, Top Gun. We all know the movie. In fact, it’s so hard to talk about the movie in the year 2012 without immediately discussing it’s homoerotic subtext. After just having viewed it, I can confirm it is almost definitely there. It just about screams louder than the jets zipping back and forth every ten minutes. Top Gun is the film that cemented Tony Scott as a bonafide bankable action director. It was so successful that the Navy reported recruitment was up 500% after the films release. Everybody wanted to be a Tom Cruise Maverick, gunnin’ down Commies and Libyans. You could say that with Top Gun, Scott made the most successful commercial of his career, because at it’s core it is two hours of Naval Aviation enticement. The film is about as subtle as Ronald Reagan donning a cowboy hat and straddling a nuclear warhead over Moscow.
Beverly Hills Cop II and The Last Boy Scout both make for a good trip out with the boys to movies. Both are rootin’ tootin’ exercises in macho oneup-ness. Laughs compete with car chases, titties, muscle flexing, gunfire and explosions. Scott jumped in the saddle for the sequel to Beverly Hills Cop, taking over for Martin Brest. Scott’s Los Angeles in both of these films, plus the later True Romance, is all hazy days and neon nights, about two notches down from Michael Mann and a few up from William Friedkin. Eddie Murphy and Bruce Willis are the leads respectively, and both are playing true to their type - overstaying-their-welcome funny and overstaying-their-down and out grizzle. The two films have outrageous and over the top finales, but The Last Boy Scout slightly edges out the other, and you can award that to Shane Black’s clever screenplay.
Immediately after Beverly Hills Cop II, but before Days of Thunder (affectionately known across the world as “Top Gun with Race Cars”) and The Last Boy Scout, Scott broke from the Simpson/Bruckheimer machine to make a smaller film, the gritty Sam Peckinpah flavored Revenge. Revenge is an often overlooked film in Scott’s canon, and that’s a damn shame. I don’t know why. Is it because of Kevin Costner? It might be, and that’s too bad, because Costner is in fine form here. This was before Dances With Wolves, before Robin Hood and before the inflated ego took over. Once upon a time, Costner could have been the next Steve McQueen. He oozed that much bad boy/good ‘ol boy charisma. Take a look at Fandango, American Flyers and No Way Out and tell me I’m wrong. Watch Revenge and try to say something bad about Costner. You can’t. It’s a love story that takes a left turn into vigilante justice in grimey Durango, Mexico. Costner starts coveting his crime boss buddy Anthony Quinn’s wife, played by a sultry Madeleine Stowe, and things take a turn for the worse before you can say Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. The brutal beatings that are administered by Quinn’s henchmen upon Costner and Stowe are new territory for Scott. This isn’t Eddie Murphy/Bruce Willis cartoon violence being unleashed, this is pure and ugly torture. With the help of criminally underrated character actor Miguel Ferrer, and an almost silent John Leguizamo in one of his earliest roles, Costner exacts his revenge in pure Scott fashion - gunsmoke, haze and scattering doves.
True Romance , penned by a hot as shit at the time Quentin Tarantino, comes off as the cooler little brother to Revenge. Both films are stories that run with the theme of love at any cost. With a cavalcade of top notch actors - Dennis Hopper, Christopher Walken, Gary Oldman, Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini and Val Kilmer among them, Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette are the leads in a film that takes its best notes from Badlands, Bonnie and Clyde and Wild at Heart at will. This was Tarantino’s second movie to hit the screen after Reservoir Dogs, and his script and Scott’s direction are a match made in movie geek heaven. Two young, hip and pop-culture obsessed lovers are on the lam from Detroit to Los Angeles with hearts full of good and a suitcase full of drugs. Soon, the two are being chased by cops, gangsters and other outside threats to their movie-fantasy lives. In one chilling, ultraviolent scene, comparable to the brutality of Revenge, Arquette gets beaten by Gandolfini to a limp, bloody pulp. It’s not pretty, but again, it’s set against Scott’s full on gloss - the ubiquitous blue lighting, sunlight filtered through the blinds, Gandolfini’s constant curling cigarette smoke. True Romance was a smash hit with both audiences and critics alike, and set the stage for Tarantino’s eventual Hollywood onslaught.
1995’s Crimson Tide may be Scott’s best. The script is almost tailored and ready made for Scott’s sensibilities. There would be no feminist outrage here - because there are no women. Taking place aboard a nuclear submarine at sea during heightened tensions between the US and the remnants of the Soviet Union, Scott has no restraints on the macho scale. Casting Gene Hackman, and the first of many future collaborations with Denzel Washington, as the leads was surefire box-office bait. But both actors are at their finest as the captain with archaic views of war and his second-in-command with a more questionable outlook. It’s a taut thriller, and the claustrophobic and labyrinth layout of the submarine is stifling and harrowing. Watching Lex Luthor and Malcolm X act out a chess game of attitudes and actions towards impending nuclear war is a delight, and Scott never lets up the tension.
Crimson Tide marks the last of Scott’s best work. He had blips on the radar here and there afterwards, but there was a new boy in town, and his name was Michael Bay, and he had the full backing of Scott’s ex-producer cohort, Jerry Bruckheimer. Scott may have been a “roller-coaster” director, with his movies full of ups and downs and twists and turns, but Bay was/is all about that first drop the coaster takes. More guns, faster car chases, bigger tits and bigger and bigger explosions. Scott’s last film, Unstoppable, is a worthy end to his pantheon. Like Crimson Tide, it casts Washington against an ideological opposite while dealing with certain catastrophe, this time a runaway train. It’s another nail-biter, but what could have been pure Fast and Furious bullshit is handled deftly and efficiently by Scott. It’s a great bookend to a fun time at the movies career. He’s left us recently, he took his life for reasons unknown but to him (I have my theories, feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to talk about them if you care to, I don’t wanna go off on conspiracies right now) and I was pretty upset when I heard the news. Every time I’ve had something dramatic happen in my life - a fight, a mugging, a car accident, or hell, even making love - I wonder how Tony Scott would have looked at it and filmed it. RIP, Mr. Scott. I hope Heaven is full of blue light and doves.