“I’m a plagiarist – I always look back at other movies, and I steal, but I steal well, and I reinvent.” – Tony Scott.
Tony Scott is the director of the some of the most enjoyable and iconic Hollywood films of the last thirty years; his tragic death over three years ago still leaves a hole in cinema that his inimitable, gutsy style and winning charisma used to occupy. Although he was the younger brother of the much more critically acclaimed Ridley Scott, he wasn’t ever particularly overshadowed by him – essentially because their style of filmmaking was do disparate. Ridley is the classical, whereas Tony was the rock ‘n’ roll.
After graduating to feature filmmaking from the world of commercials, Scott was often accused of allowing style to take precedence over substance in his films. That may be true, but he still knew how to keep an audience thoroughly entertained via his distinguishable visual style, retina-scorching action and he also had a very good eye for decent scripts. Sure, he did make some howlers – Days of Thunder (1990), The Fan (1996), Domino (2005) – and although some of his later works were marred by being too over-directed, his legacy is still solid.
Here is the top ten Tony Scott films:
10. REVENGE (1990)
I’ll kick off with this daft but oddly enjoyable thriller. Revenge was largely overshadowed on its release by both Kevin Costner’s success with Dances with Wolves (1990) and Scott’s second collaboration with Tom Cruise, Days of Thunder (aka Top Gun in a stock car) that were both released during the same year. Costner plays a retired Navy pilot who visits old friend Anthony Quinn in Mexico, only to incur the latter’s wrath when he sneaks away with his wife, Madeleine Stowe. Revenge is essentially a piece of lavishly directed exploitation trash (not necessarily a bad thing). The plot is a convention of clichés, Costner practically sleepwalks through the film and, under scrutiny, the final act goes completely off the rails by skimming over way too many important developments and having one too many convenience occur. But, generally, Revenge is still a lot more fun, a lot more ridiculous, and, dare I say it, a lot more original than Days of Thunder.
9. UNSTOPPABLE (2010)
Scott’s final film was a staggeringly simple thriller featuring a runaway train loaded with toxic waste (or “a missile the size of the Chrysler building” as train yardmaster Rosario Dawson exclaims) that is hurtling towards a highly populated town. Throw a pair of mismatching, bickering engineers (Denzel Washington and Chris Pine) – one a veteran of the tracks and one in training, both complete with clichéd domestic issues they are harbouring, of course – whose job is to prevent the disaster and you have a what appears to be a very generic slice of hackneyed pie. The ultra-caffeinated shaky-cam cinematography and the style of over-direction Scott had been employing increasingly since Man on Fire – which ultimately crippled Domino (2005) – continues to irritate and the needless news reports that act as a running commentary sullies the film further. But for all its shortcomings, Unstoppable is acutely aware to not exceed its grasp. On that level, it is an extremely well-paced, genuinely suspenseful and perfectly functional high-concept action thriller.
8. MAN ON FIRE (2004)
Man on Fire – Scott’s first reteaming with Denzel since Crimson Tide – was a smash-hit on home video and led the duo to collaborate three more times in six years. Washington shines as John Creasy, an alcoholic US government operative burnout who reluctantly takes a job in Mexico City (kidnapping capital of the world) guarding the young daughter (an endearing Dakota Fanning) of a wealthy family. When she is inevitably kidnapped, the two have bonded as such that Creasy goes on a one-man ramage where he systematically brings hell to the wrongdoers. Despite Man on Fire being a run-of-the-mill and distractingly over-directed revenge thriller, Washington’s performance ensures that it rarely falls short of gripping, even with an indulgent 140 minute run-time. It’s a shame that the film regresses into drawn-out over-the-top territory after setting up Creasy’s character and his relationship with the young girl in such a pleasantly authentic way, but the film still benefits from Christopher Walken’s fine support and a few flashes of brilliance.
7. THE HUNGER (1983)
Scott’s debut was this weird, slow-burning erotic horror film that starred Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie as vampires, Miriam and John, who live in a luxurious New York apartment and teach classical music together. When John succumbs to a sudden and extreme case of aging after being promised eternal youth by Miriam, she replaces his affections with those from a female gerontologist played by Susan Sarandon. Scott himself admitted that this film suffered greatly due to his years in advertising which is probably true; The Hunger is a visually resplendent film – Scott’s trademark smoky, shadowy and backlit interiors provide an awesome backdrop that echo his brother’s work on Blade Runner (1982) – but one in which you feel the narrative content was of little importance compareed to the surface images. Aside from Bauhaus performing over the opening credits and the odd ‘80s haircut, much like the character of Miriam The Hunger has aged shockingly well, specifically in its practical effects and aforementioned cinematography. It’s just a shame there wasn’t a stronger narrative through-line to consolidate it. The end result is a film that, today, would almost certainly qualify as an arthouse horror film à la The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears (2014).
6. TOP GUN (1986)
After The Hunger’s failure, Scott was seized by hotshot Hollywood producer Jerry Bruckheimer specifically for his distinguished visual flair he thought stood out from films made by US directors. Top Gun, their first endeavour together, stars Tom Cruise as “Maverick”, a reckless, but skilled jet pilot who is given the opportunity to train with the best of the best at the TOPGUN institute. Though you needn’t be reminded of its details and impact, the film was a staggering box-office success that became one of the most iconic films of the ‘80s as it catapulted Cruise into the Hollywood stratosphere and made Scott an A-list director. The dogfight sequences are still electrifying and prove that Scott was a natural action director. This is made even more evident by how the grounded drama with Cruise, his love interest (McGillis) and the proto-villain (Kilmer) is utterly risible in its cheesiness. The film’s status as a straight-faced macho-fest was also taken apart by both Jim Abrahams’ subsequent parody, Hot Shots! (1991) and a vigorous assertion that the film is actually a metaphor for latent homosexuality by Scott’s own protégé fanboy Quentin Tarantino in Sleep With Me (1994); both subversions prove to be wincingly accurate. Even so, Top Gun’s reputation as big, dumb fun will remain forever.
5. DÉJÀ VU (2006)
Denzel’s third teaming with Scott saw him portray a Louisiana ATF agent who becomes involved with a clandestine government unit that can manipulate the past in order to save lives in the future, including a ferry-load of civilians that are killed by a terrorist bomber. Though Déjà Vu is never particularly thought-provoking despite its Strange Days (1995) meets Minority Report (2002) sci-fi-imbued premise, it isn’t particularly aspiring to be; it quickly skips over the paradoxical particulars of time-travel but still manages to create enough quasi-scientific logic for us to go happily go along with it. A suggested romantic element arrives a little too late in the day and the ending is nowhere near as neatly tied up as it thinks it is, but on the other hand, Déjà Vu is probably one of the few films with a car chase that occurs simultaneously in the past and present(!). Washington also gives another inimitably insouciant Denzel-ist performance typical of his films with Scott (complete with random outbursts of laughter, occasional awkward staring and a charismatically intimidating demeanour) which is key to Déjà Vu’s success as a slick, tongue-in-cheek entertainment.
4. THE LAST BOY SCOUT (1991)
Scriptwriter Shane Black rehashed much of the formula that made Lethal Weapon (1987) such a big hit with this foul-mouthed action comedy thriller. It also helped Bruce Willis dodge a bullet after he’d recently starring in the god-awful travesty, Hudson Hawk (1991). The Last Boy Scout sees Willis as a pessimistic private investigator who teams up with shamed ex-football player Damon Wayans in order to uncover a conspiracy concerning the legalisation of sports gambling. As an example of the ridiculous late-‘80s/early-‘90s Hollywood action films, its tremendous fun and plays out essentially like how a Die Hard 2.5 might have. The villains may be underwhelming and are unusually prone to explaining the details of their dastardly plan to the heroes whenever they meet. Wayan’s character is also strangely blasé about the death of his girlfriend which instigates the whole affair. But the film is made worthy of many repeated viewings thanks purely to the hilarity of the acerbic back-and-forth between Willis and Wayans and for how they often ingeniously work their way out of sticky situations.
3. ENEMY OF THE STATE (1998)
This terrific technological thriller boasts one of Will Smith’s best performances as a lawyer who unknowingly comes into possession of an incriminating recording of a congressman’s secret NSA-sanctioned murder. Soon enough Smith is being hunted by NSA official Jon Voight and his gang of trackers with satellites, electronic transmitters and hidden cameras and mics at their disposal. Enemy of the State scores high on the list for being an exhilarating action thriller that still manages to raise some scarily intriguing questions regarding national surveillance for the digital age: If we are being watched, then who watches the watchers (and so on)? Where is the line of privacy drawn? Enemy hints at the over-direction and –stylisation of Scott’s later films but it actually compliments the central technological theme and breakneck nature of the story. The film also earns extra points for casting Gene Hackman as an off-the-grid veteran surveillance expert, ‘Brill’, who is an obvious homage to the Harry Caul character Hackman portrayed in Francis Ford Coppola’s similar themed masterpiece, The Conversation (1974). One plausible theory even suggests that Caul and ‘Brill’ are the same person.
2. CRIMSON TIDE (1995)
Very much Scott’s and Hollywood’s Das Boot (1981), his first teaming with Denzel Washington was this white-knuckle submarine thriller that explores the issues of war and nuclear deterrent. Mostly a two-hander, Crimson Tide sees a domineering war veteran (Gene Hackman) hit a brick wall in the form of his intelligent but less experienced XO (Washington) when an enemy missile knocks out their communications before they receive full confirmation on whether to launch an attack on Russia or not. Hackman has his finger on the horribly tantalizing doomsday button whereas the mutinous Washington opposes an attack; if either judgements are wrong, they cause a nuclear holocaust. Crimson Tide is a terrific film for two specific reasons: firstly, the lead actors are electric and generate a convincingly palpable antagonism between them. The second reason is the way in which the film wholly succeeds in vicariously placing you on both sides of the debate: would it be good or evil to violate procedure and blindly launch an attack if you thought it would protect your country, or would it be noble or cowardly to hold off unleashing war despite it leaving your country unprotected? Scott claimed that Crimson Tide was his most daunting film to make simply because there is no space in a sub to crash a car, fly a jet or deliver his usual bombastic tricks and stunts. Instead he had to rely purely on his actors and his own ability to accurately simulate the close-quarter pressure-cooker environment of a submarine which he does so well; the masterstroke being that Scott never cuts to the surface once the sub is under allowing no ease for the tension. The film’s only misstep is its trite and dispensable epilogue.
1. TRUE ROMANCE (1993)
The Tarantino-scripted cult favourite True Romance is without a doubt Scott’s finest film. Though it was a box-office bomb on its release, this exhilarating and darkly comic crime thriller has gone on to become one of the most beloved films from the ‘90s. Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette star as a winsome young couple, Clarence and Alabama, that venture from Detroit to L.A. to score big money from a case of Mafia contraband that falls into their posession. Despite the ultra-violent mayhem that ensues during the couple’s honeymoon escapade, True Romance still plays out as a glorious fairytale because it was written purely as a piece of manically exciting romantic escapism where the heroes always win and the bad guys always lose (thank Scott for not going with the original ending). Given that the film is told largely from the perspective of a movie-quoting geek that is essentially living out his own cinematic fantasy, the film is also afforded a splendour of cinematic intertextuality and a dream ensemble cast that many directors would have killed for. From its music that is ripped straight from Terrence Malick’s similarly themed Badlands (1973), to Clarence slaying demented pimps that appear straight out of exploitation movies, True Romance knows exactly what it is doing and hits all the right notes. The movie’s peak moment, however, is the much vaunted “Sicilian scene” that sees cinematic legends Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper go head to head in a ten minute verbal standoff; it’s still probably the finest scene Tarantino ever wrote.
- Liam Hathaway