We’re all shocked and saddened by the news that filmmaker Tony Scott, 68, died Sunday in what appears to be a suicide (possibly prompted by inoperable brain cancer). As tributes and obits roll out today, most will identify Scott with Top Gun, his biggest commercial success — but as with most filmmakers, his biggest hit was far from his finest work. Though Scott never quite made the move from blockbuster-maker to critical and Oscar darling that his brother Ridley did, the second half of his career was marked by entertainments that refused to pander or condescend to their audience in the way that big-budget action films often did. He was a filmmaker who first found a style and then found substance, and it’s worth taking a moment to praise a few of his films that may have been under-appreciated or undervalued. Five of our favorites are collected after the jump.
Though his most financially successful films (Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop II) were released in the mid-1980s, Scott reached something of a creative nadir by the end of that decade with films like Revenge and Days of Thunder. But he got something of a jumpstart when he signed on to direct True Romance, a gritty, smart, wildly inventive screenplay by then-unknown Quentin Tarantino (who sold the script before making Reservoir Dogs). The finished film is, somehow, a perfect fusion of their very different styles: Scott’s intense lighting and hyperactive camera are present, sure, but he also varies his tempo, invests in Tarantino’s characters, and knows when to dial down and simply let us observe the electrifying dialogue and tough-guy sparring of Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper in the film’s most memorable scene.
In spite of its positive critical reception (a rarity for Scott, at that point), True Romance didn’t make much noise at the box office. But his next film was a giant hit, and one that had the fingerprints of his previous film all over it (and not just in the more obvious moments of Tarantino’s uncredited rewrite, like the out-of-left-field discussion of Silver Surfer comics). Crimson Tide was a tense post-Cold War thriller in the tradition of Caine Mutiny, Das Boot, and The Hunt for Red October, but its most exciting moments weren’t found in the underwater dogfights or occasional fisticuffs; it was in the masterful two scenes between stars Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington (in the first of his five turns as Scott’s leading man). Over the course of these two films, you can feel Scott discovering — and delighting — that he can make two people talking (and growling, and shouting) just as thrilling as two airplanes shooting at each other.
Enemy of the State
Hackman re-teamed with Scott three years after Crimson Tide when he co-starred with Will Smith in Enemy of the State, a treat for film fans that finds the actor and director making several sly references to Hackman’s 1974 classic The Conversation (his character here, Edward “Brill” Lyle, dons similar clothing and a similar world view, and works in a nearly identical workspace, to his Harry Caul in the earlier picture). The film itself is a crackling, enjoyable paranoia thriller — but also a story way ahead of its time, its snapshot of government surveillance and tracking of citizens seeming rather prescient in this post-Patriot Act, post-warrantless wiretapping landscape.
Man on Fire
This 2004 thriller was Scott and Washington’s first collaboration since Crimson Tide, and was — for a big-star, big-budget studio action picture — surprisingly experimental. Not only was Scott tinkering with film stock and editing techniques, but he told this somewhat boilerplate story of kidnapping and revenge with far more patience and emphasis on character than was the norm. The first act contains almost no action whatsoever — it focuses entirely on the slowly developing friendship and trust between Washington’s Creasy and Dakota Fanning’s Pita, the little rich girl he’s been hired to protect. It’s a risk, to bring in an audience that’s been promised action fireworks and instead give them a keenly observed surrogate-father story, but it works; because Scott, screenwriter Brian Helgeland, and actors Washington and Fanning (both doing some of their best work) have so carefully established the bond between the two, we’re more emotionally invested in Creasy’s hunt for her kidnapper, and frankly more forgiving of the brutality involved in that hunt. In Man on Fire, Scott’s big risk has a big reward.
After the flawed but fascinating Domino, Scott reteamed with Washington for this challenging and uncommonly brainy action thriller, which merges the surveillance hardware of Enemy of the State with post-9/11 themes of the lengths to which we’ll go to prevent terror attacks. But there’s some juicy subtext to consider in this one as well; its protagonists’ act of watching the recent past can be close-read as analogous to the act of watching movies, meaning this superbly crafted picture may very well turn out to be considered Scott’s Vertigo.
Also worth seeing: The Hunger, Unstoppable, The Taking of Pelham 123, and Spy Game — and I’ll admit that I’m not immune to the pleasures of The Fan and The Last Boy Scout. Add your own favorite Scott films, and thoughts on these, in the comments.