Tony Scott, who died on August 19th 2012 in Long Beach, California. He was 68 years old.
If you’ll permit the indulgence, this is how I want to remember British film director Tony Scott, who committed suicide on Sunday: On a film set, replete with his signature baseball cap, setting up some kind of practically staged set-piece, with mayhem about to be unleashed.
He was a director whose career and films arrived roughly in parallel with my love of movies – one of my abiding memories from my teenage years is of collecting tokens and sending off via mail order for a “Top Gun“ movie poster, back when that defining Tom Cruise vehicle was the action movie par excellence of its day.
“Top Gun”, from 1986 – when films seemed simpler, even if the underlying politics were anything but.
Whilst a lot of the coverage of his death will focus on the way in which he chose to take his life, please forgive my preference to focus on his work and recommend some of his extensive catalogue of films which you might want to check out.
Scott’s movies were just that – commercial, unashamed action-thrillers and dramas. Whilst his academic career seemingly set him on a path towards fine art, he duly found himself working in commercials – see his celebrated, iconic SAAB advert here, which largely influenced producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer to hire him for “Top Gun”. His first film was the stylish, erotic and singular vampire drama, “The Hunger“, which underperformed in cinemas and led to a prolonged return to the ad world until Simpson and Bruckheimer’s Air Force drama pitched him onto the directorial A-List.
His career from there is the very definition of diverse. He made modern classics like “True Romance“, “Crimson Tide” or “The Last Boy Scout“, and more eccentric, darker fare like “Revenge” , “The Fan” or the unique, one-of-a-kind Keira Knightley starring, profoundly meta bounty hunter flick, “Domino”, which is the very definition of an assault on the senses.
In recent years, he had formed a reliable working relationship with Denzel Washington and their collaboration yielded such films as the aforementioned “Crimson Tide”, “Man on Fire”, “Deja Vu”, “The Taking of Pelham 1,2,3” and their last film together, “Unstoppable”.
Weirdest car chase ever? I think this film is a candidate for that honour…
If I were going to recommend a film which shows Scott and Washington at their best, it would be the very underrated sci-fi thriller, “Deja Vu” – a mind-bending tale of time travel, terrorism and a love story which happens across multiple versions of reality. Sort of. It’s indicative of the way that Scott’s bravura style mellowed in recent years – the bullets still fly and the helicopters still zip around on-screen like hyperactive dragonflies, but there’s a human story at the core which makes the more elaborate action sequences somehow mean a bit more.
If you don’t like the sound of that, I recommend Scott’s desperately underrated and fantastic espionage drama, “Spy Game”, which applies his warp-driven visual style to the kind of low-key, introspective story which seemed apposite at the time but utterly thrives on the clash of styles. Scott loved the inherently dramatic possibilities of a ticking clock and “Spy Game” is the very model of a story constructed around impending cataclysm – veteran spy Robert Redford’s last day on the job is spent covertly trying to save the life of Brad Pitt, the spook he recruited whose execution is imminent.
Two arguing big lugs versus a runaway bomb the size of a football pitch – sounds like a party…
Scott’s last film is one of his best – the runaway train thriller, “Unstoppable”, marked his fifth film with Denzel Washington and one which deals brilliantly with the ticking clock motif (in this case personified by a train stuffed full of toxic chemicals, barreling almost unchecked towards a small town) present and correct and a pair of plucky, underdog blue-collar heroes in the form of Washington and Chris Pine who are the only guys who stop things from going boom.
I love movies which pit heroes against nature and eschew heavy firepower in favour of street smarts saving the day – the compelling thing about this story (nominally based on true events) is that it’s a thoroughly normal, not essentially heroic pair of guys who find themselves doing the right thing in the face of mind-boggling unlikely odds and with a boatload of personal baggage making their already crappy day worse (Washington’s seen-it-all before train driver is about to get canned by the railway company and Pine’s brash young buck is estranged from his partner and having child visitation access problems).
It’s bonkers, but oddly easy to relate to – there’s a purity about his last film which confirms that Scott was a master at diverting your attention from the cliches inherent in a premise and making the arguably shop worn story so compelling that you couldn’t deny it and were gripped throughout.
I loved a great many of his movies – he never made high art, but Tony Scott made Friday Night Movies Par Excellence, filmic escapism which helped erase the woes of the working week for a couple of hours. And there’s not much more that you can ask of a film director other than to make movies that people want to see, and sneak some of your personality in there too if possible. He will be greatly missed by me – selfishly, I’ve lost one of the directors who made me love movies and going to the cinema.