Tony Scott’s first film, The Hunger, is the one that I’ve seen the least. I don’t remember a ton from it. I remember a young Susan Sarandon, 80’s-style David Bowie, lots of billowing linen curtains, soft-core lesbian sex-scenes with Sarandon and Catherine Deneuve, some vampire shenanigans, and a distinct Euro-trash vibe. To be sure, The Hunger was a bold directorial debut, at least from a visual standpoint. Graduating from the world of commercials, Scott brought a quick-pace and luxurious sheen to his first feature film, style traits that would follow him his entire career. Maybe it’s because vampire movies aren’t my thing that I haven’t seen The Hunger very often. Despite weak reviews and non-existent box office, the film has attained healthy cult-classic status since its VHS/DVD release, and it even spawned a short-lived Showtime series spin-off, of which Tony directed the pilot.
At this point in our culture, it’s impossible to discuss Top Gun with any amount of clear-eyed objectivity. The film is a milestone for all of its key contributors. For director Tony Scott, it’s his early-career masterpiece, with True Romance his mid-career masterpiece, and Domino his late-career masterpiece. It’s also the film that got him out of director jail after the flopping of his debut, The Hunger. For producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, it was the movie that truly solidified them as the uber-producers of the 1980’s (Flashdance and Beverly Hills Cop came before; Cop 2 and Days of Thunder would immediately follow) before they came back into prominence in the mid 90’s after a bit of a dry spell. And for star Tom Cruise, it was his first runaway blockbuster sensation, his first taste of global superstardom, and the film that made him a house-hold name. Top Gun is a product of its time in a way that so few films can claim to be. Released in the summer of 1986, the film played on the still lingering fears of war with the Soviets, and carried a rah-rah, jingoistic spirit that seems laughable nowadays but probably felt very honest at the time of release. It feels pointless to rehash the plot of Top Gun – anybody with a pulse has seen it and knows all about Maverick and Goose and Iceman and Jester and Charlie and the rest of the crew. Sure, the scenes on the ground pale in comparison to the ones up in the air (Jeff Kimball’s gorgeous cinematography is still a lesson in perfection) and most of the dialogue is cheesily pedestrian. But that’s not the point of Top Gun. The film is all about machismo (a major theme in all of Scott’s work), and how men deal with expectations, loss, tragedy, acceptance, and success. Those classic scenes in the shower (or during a particular game of beach volleyball…) seem homoerotic in hindsight (and maybe they did upon first glance…), but what they’re really about is men trying to one up each other, trying to figure out how to best your opponent, and always remembering that there are no points for second place. To say that Top Gun is one the manliest movies ever made would be understatement; you can practically smell the testosterone on the set. And that’s what’s so fun about it. And when you add in the ridiculously quotable one-liners (who knew that rubber dog shit originates from Hong Kong?) and the high-flying airborne camerawork (still unmatched to this day), then it’s no wonder that the film plays every Sunday on TNT and has become one of the most influential and iconic movies ever made. And if you’re not a fan of Top Gun, then just remember, the plaque for the alternates is in the ladies room.Tony Scott is not Martin Brest, the soft-spoken director of Beverly Hills Cop 1, so it was going to be a challenge to replicate the amazing balance of comedy and action from the first Beverly Hills Cop for the sequel. Cop 2 is much more violent and action-oriented than the first installment (which was mainly a comedy), and stands as a classic 80’s actioner -- empty-brained, implausible, and entertaining, with tons of Tony’s trademarked smoke and sweat covering every scene. I am almost certain that a then-young Renny Harlin (Cliffhanger, Die Hard 2, The Long Kiss Goodnight) was massively influenced by Scott’s visual style on Cop 2, as all of Harlin’s late 80’s/early 90’s actioners look just like it. And, just this past year, the action-spoof MacGruber seemed to have been shot in Scott/Harlin/late 80’s-vision. The film was a massive hit at the box office despite being pissed on by critics (most of who loved the first one), and coming after Top Gun, put Tony at the top of the action directing short-list.
Pouncing on a chance to flex his artsy-fartsy muscles after some big box office hits, Tony Scott next took on the hard-boiled Jim Thompson novel Revenge, which, from a story standpoint, was nothing like any of his previous work. Starring a subdued and stubbled Kevin Costner and a red-hot Madeline Stowe in the prime of her young beauty, this erotic drama contains some brutal violence and some truly ugly bad-guy characters (Anthony Quinn was intense). I’ve still yet to see the newly released director’s cut and I haven’t seen the film in a number of years so not all plot details are fresh in the memory banks. I remember it feeling like a Tony Scott movie on look and atmosphere alone, but I remember feeling that the narrative just wasn’t as interesting as everyone may have thought it was. Critics were mixed and the film didn’t do very well at the box office. I think I need to check it out again at some point soon…
Days of Thunder, a.k.a. Top Car, is basically Top Gun with race-cars, and while it didn’t go nearly the same box office as Top Gun, it returned Tony Scott to the chair of an expensive studio action picture. Thunder is a shamelessly stupid and ridiculously entertaining movie with some of the best race-car scenes ever put onto film. However, it’s still a mystery as to how a writer like Robert Towne could have penned some of the lines in Thunder; on-the-nose-corny is being nice. But anyone watching a race-car movie looking for Shakespearean dialogue is in the wrong place to begin with. Cruise essentially reprised the character of Maverick but instead of being in a cockpit for most of the movie he’s in the driver’s seat of a stock-car. Scott shot the hell out of every single racing sequence and all of it is 100% real (remember – CGI was still a few years away). And it truly feels it. There is an authenticity to the race sequences that feels vital, and the visceral impact of Ward Russell’s measured and masculine cinematography cannot be ignored. The sound work was also dynamite. But my favorite moment has to be Cruise’s entrance to the race track; pulling up on a motorcycle, rocking a leather bomber jacket, and cutting through some classic Tony Scott fog-machine-produced-fog, Cruise was in pure bad-boy mode in Days of Thunder. The solid supporting cast includes John C. Reilly, Robert Duvall, and Michael Rooker. This is a great flick to watch with some friends while drinking some beers, with the surround sound cranked way up.
The Last Boy Scout is some sort of treatise on the entire cop-movie genre. As written by action-film specialist/deconstructionist Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, The Long Kiss Goodnight, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), the film is like a loony tunes adventure starring Bruce Willis as an unkillable cop who just keeps coming back for more and more. From the opening moments on the under-lit, overly rain-soaked football field where a player pulls a gun out and kills his opponent, you just know this is going to be a ridiculous movie. The dark, subversive humor in Black’s writing is present right from the start, while his outlandish and over the top plotting melded perfectly with Scott’s flashy and flamboyant directing sensibilities (another terrific collaboration with cinematographer Ward Russell). Gratuitously violent, profane to the max, and silly as fuck, The Last Boy Scout is the kind of movie that the term “guilty pleasure” was created for.Tony Scott’s mid-career masterpiece is True Romance, which boasts the best screenplay that he’s ever worked with (Quentin Tarantino penned the amazing original script). Mixing glossy images with gritty locales and editing, the film is a supremely stylish and absurdly entertaining fantasy about a comic-book reading, Bruce Lee/Elvis Presley loving geek (Christian Slater in a career best performance) who crosses paths with a hooker with a heart of gold (Patricia Arquette in a career best performance) and then gets mixed up with pimps, the mafia, the FBI, suitcases of cocaine, and a stoned-out Brad Pitt sitting on a couch smoking pot from a homemade bong made from a Honey Bear. Tarantino’s colorfully profane voice can be heard in every frame and Scott’s hard-charging visual style can be felt at all times, creating an amazing cinematic experience. The supporting cast must also be commented upon: Chris Walken, Dennis Hopper, James Gandolfini, Val Kilmer, Gary Oldman, Bronson Pinchot, Saul Rubinek, Samuel L. Jackson, and Michael Rapaport all appear and make vivid impressions. True Romance is the sort of movie that I can watch at any point on any given day. Scene after scene is movie gold -- Walken's confrontation with Hopper, Slater's conversations with Kilmer-as-Presley, Gandolfini's beat-down of Arquette -- True Romance has one amazing bit after another. And while it bombed at the box office and was met with indifferent reviews, it’s become a major cult item and many critics who panned it upon its release seem to have come around on it.
Crimson Tide is the best submarine movie ever made. A bold statement, yes, but a statement that I feel is perfectly valid. It has two of the most dramatically commanding actors (Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman) giving two of their most intense performances. Michael Schiffer’s tight and smart script had zero fat on its bones and presented a thoroughly believable nuclear scenario. And Scott’s clear-eyed and extremely focused direction was placed mostly on his actors as opposed to his trademark visual splendor. Not to say that the film is a slog to look at – hardly so – it’s beyond gorgeous to behold. From the claustrophobic set design to the neon-lit interior of the sub, Scott and his cinematographer Dariusz Wolski created a sense of forward moving urgency in every single scene of Crimson Tide. In a film where every second counts big-time for the characters, the filmmakers have to be up to the visual task of conveying that intensity to the audience. Crimson Tide also had some great humor (mostly thanks to a Quentin Tarantino on-set re-write) to go along with all of the tough-guy dialogue and submarine jargon. The film was a big hit with critics and audiences alike, and it’s one of Scott’s films that I’ve seen the most amount of times.
The Fan made one thing clear – never hire a Brit to shoot a baseball movie because Scott didn’t know what he was doing with the baseball scenes in this dark, bombastic thriller. The Fan is probably Scott’s “worst” movie but that’s like saying that the Hershey’s company slightly screwed up a bar of chocolate. An angry, mean, and scathing portrait of a psychopathic knife salesman (a deranged Robert De Niro) who stalks a Barry Bonds-esque baseball superstar (Wesley Snipes, pre-IRS trouble), The Fan is Scott’s attempt at a straight thriller, and while he gets the pulse racing, the script is so overblown that it’s impossible to take any of it seriously. However, that doesn’t stop it from being absurdly entertaining every step of the way, all the way up to the asinine climax that literally makes zero sense. It’s also got some glossier than glossy cinematography courtesy of Dariusz Wolski.
Political thrillers don’t get much more live-wire and jacked-up than Enemy of the State, a shiny, cool-blue, lightning-fast “man-in-the-wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time” movie which served as a critical and box-office comeback for Tony Scott after the drubbing he took for The Fan. Mixing The Conversation with The Parallax View and adding in a few terrific car and foot chases with some stylish shoot-outs, Enemy of the State was the fifth collaboration between Scott and producer Jerry Bruckheimer, and marked a more dramatically serious trend for the producer (films that immediately followed Enemy included Remember the Titans, Black Hawk Down, Pearl Harbor, and Veronica Guerin). Will Smith, fresh of the mega-success of Independence Day, was perfectly cast as a hot-shot lawyer who inadvertently comes into possession of a video showing an evil U.S. Senator (John Voight, appropriately oily) masterminding a murder. Smith teams up with a reluctant ex-spook (Gene Hackman, terrific as always, doing a riff on his immortal character from The Conversation) and goes head to head with the NSA in an effort to clear his name. The pacing of Enemy of the State is unbelievable as images and plot are hurled at the viewer. But what’s amazing about that approach is that everything can be followed logically and coherently despite the frenetic nature of the filmmaking style. Scott, working with cinematographer Daniel Mindel (who also shot Scott’s aesthetically groundbreaking Domino), put cameras in every corner of the room in Enemy of the State, mixing various film speeds and stocks with an overall high-contrast visual palette, resulting in a film that feels icy-hot to the touch. The camera never stops moving, never slows down, and never gets tired; it’s energetic filmmaking to the max, especially when set to the rhythms of Harry Greggson-Williams’ pulsating musical score. By the time the film reaches it’s thoroughly clever finale, in which Scott even cribs from himself (True Romance, anyone?!), you can’t help but feel out of breath and exhilarated.
An adult espionage tale that's light on gadgets but big on story, Spy Game had the somewhat unfortunate event of being a CIA/spy/terrorist movie that got released one month after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Well reviewed by critics, the film did solid box office, but has become a big player on DVD and cable (it seems to be on the tube every day). After a mostly wordless and utterly gripping opening 10 minutes which sees Brad Pitt’s young spy character getting nabbed in China for spying, Spy Game hurtles along at a break-neck pace, shuffling between flashbacks which establish the relationship between Pitt and his mentor, a grizzled but still suave old spook (Robert Redford), and his status as a prisoner of war in a Chinese holding cell. And for a ticking-clock additive, he’ll be executed in 48 hours in accordance with Chinese espionage laws. The physical similarities between Pitt and Redford were clearly not lost on Scott, who photographs his leads with maximum gloss set against gritty, war-torn backdrops – it’s an interesting mix (and much like his work years later on The Taking of Pelham 123). Christian Wagner’s propulsive editing works perfectly with the sonic booms of Harry Greggson-Williams’ score; Spy Game is a film that never seems at rest, always on the go, from way up in the sky to the corners of a small room. My favorite scene in the film, other than the opening 10 minutes and the lushly photographed hotel explosion, is the clandestine conversation that Pitt and Redford have on the roof of a building somewhere in Beirut (or are they in Germany?). Scott would be the only director to think of shooting a two person scene like this with a helicopter, and not only did he do it, but the results are stunning and incredibly rare. Redford was famously annoyed by the idea and couldn’t understand why Scott was shooting coverage with a helicopter for a dialogue scene. Until he saw the finished film (at least that’s the story that I heard around Tony’s office when I worked for him…). He’s gone on to do versions of this scene in Déjà Vu and Pelham but this one bit in Spy Game is a real standout. And without spoiling the fun, of which there is a lot in Spy Game, the ending is a real hoot; Redford’s subversion of his bosses is great to watch on repeated viewings and the final twist is sympathetic yet earned.
Tony Scott’s late-career, ultra-impressionistic style began taking its roots with the gloriously hyperactive Beat the Devil, his contribution to the BMW film series, The Hire, which was a series of extended BMW commercials in the guise of slick and exciting short films with serious Hollywood pedigree. The talent in front of and behind the camera on The Hire was staggering. Directors included John Woo, Wong Kar-Wai, Joe Carnahan, Ang Lee, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Guy Ritchie, John Frankenheimer and Scott with an acting lineup featuring the likes of Don Cheadle, Mickey Rourke, Madonna, Gary Oldman, James Brown, Danny Trejo, Stellan Skarsgard, F. Murray Abraham, Ray Liotta, Dennis Haysbert, Maury Chaykin, and Marilyn Manson. And for those of us who hoped to see Clive Owen as the next James Bond, we’ll always have The Hire, where Owen plays the nameless Driver, an expert behind the wheel (always a BMW, naturally) who is tasked with various life-threatening missions with differing degrees of difficulty. The one linking thread between the different films, Owen brought a manly command to the lead role that helped solidify the entire series. Beat the Devil is the most out-right entertaining film of the bunch, and it’s the one that seems to be having the most fun. It centers on the idea that James Brown (who played himself), back in his youth, sold his soul to the Devil (a hysterical Gary Oldman, in make-up and costume that has to be seen to be believed) in exchange for the chance to have a legendary career. But now that the rocker is getting old, he wants to renegotiate the terms of his deal so he can go back to being young, so he suggests that his Driver (Owen) will race Lucifer’s driver, Bob (Trejo), from the Vegas strip out into the dessert. Winner takes all. For roughly 10 minutes, Tony Scott makes cinematic rock ‘n roll love to his camera; every image is cranked, every sound effect is juiced, every edit is sharp as a tack. His fragmented, cubist style that would be seen in future efforts like Man on Fire and Domino was being first experimented with here (overlapping subtitles, a washed-out and de-saturated color scheme, staccato editing patterns, skewed camera angles). Beat the Devil exists primarily as a sensory blast but it’s also got a great sense of humor, probably the best sense of humor out of any of the movies in The Hire, which is why it’s my favorite.
Man on Fire is such a bad-ass movie. It really is. You’ve got Denzel Washington as a one-man killing machine bent on revenge after the little girl (Dakota Fanning) he’s been assigned to protect gets kidnapped. Simple set-up, simple story. Brian Helgeland’s lean and mean script took it’s time setting up the relationship between Denzel and Dakota before her abduction, which gave real weight to the violence and bloodshed that Denzel unleashes after she goes missing. It’s a straightforward narrative goosed by Tony’s desire to immerse the viewer in a hyperactive, extremely in-your-face style that grabs you by the neck and never lets up. Mexico, judging from Tony’s vision in Man on Fire, is a festering shit-hole, a place where violence and kidnapping are a common way of life (the film states that someone is kidnapped every hour in Mexico). I don’t doubt it to be honest…there are so many problems with that country it’s a joke, and their problems have only worsened in the six years since Man on Fire’s theatrical release. But that’s another matter for another blog entry. Man on Fire is a very Catholic film in many respects, and the moral questions it asks about violence, murder and revenge drive most of narrative. Washington’s hit man character, Creasey, is a man of few words who has lived a damaged, violent life. Clinging to the bottle and growing unsure of himself in society, he has very little to life for. Until he’s given a reason to care. It’s the classic cinematic hit-man scenario, and what Scott does in Man on Fire from a visual standpoint is thrust the viewer into Creasey’s burnt out psyche. Subtitles race across the screen, images are blown-out to hot-whites, and every edit feels like a pin-prick, as the increasingly disorienting style starts to feel perfectly normal – this is what a descent into a violent hell would feel like. Paul Cameron, Scott’s cinematographer on Man on Fire, really earned his money on this one. The film was greeted with mixed reviews overall (it has some serious lovers and haters) and did strongly at the box office. And it’s yet another title that seems to play every week on FX or Showtime.
Domino. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. Hahaha…we’ve come to the most divisive, most misunderstood film in Tony Scott’s filmography. Most people hate it. Some people, like me, consider it to be the apex of Tony Scott’s career as a storyteller and stylist. Boasting his most intricate script (by Donnie Darko/Southland Tales scribe Richard Kelly) and a wild cast of characters (Keira Knightley, Mickey Rourke, Edgar Ramirez, Mo’Nique, Christopher Walken, Dabney Coleman, Delroy Lindo and many others), this is a wild and crazy pseudo-biopic of bounty hunter Domino Harvey (the fantastic Knightley) that exists primarily as a showcase for Tony Scott’s obsession with style. Simply put, this is one of the most visually elaborate and sophisticated movies ever created. It resembles, to my eye, a form of cubist-style filmmaking, a hyper-stylized form of visual storytelling that feeds off of adrenalin, excitement, and raw visceral impact. What makes Domino work as a whole is that the story is as wild as the style. Also, many people seem to forget that much of the film takes place through a cloud of mescaline, hence the fragmented and baroque style. Much of the third act incorporates a hallucenegenic trip aspect to the proceedings. And then there’s Domino herself – a wild, rebellious British model turned bounty hunter, the real Domino Harvey did in fact lead a crazy life, but it probably wasn’t as over the top as Kelly’s criss-crossing and zigzagging script. The filmmakers make it clear upfront that they have taken liberties with the facts – there’s even a graphic that reads: “Based on a true story…sort of.” What I love most about Domino is how aggressive it is, and how incredibly intricate the plotting is. At one point, in a bit of hysterical, self-reflexive irony, Kelly and Scott literally draw out a diagram of all of the various plot strands on-screen which is accompanied by Knightley's voice-over. Scott’s hyperventilating and exhilarating style would mean diddly-squat if it wasn’t in service to an exciting plot with characters you like. Knightley shredded her good-girl image with her balls-out performance in Domino; from the lap-dance scene to breaking Brian Austin Green’s nose to busting out the double machine guns during the explosive finale, she grabbed the role and ran with it. Mickey Rourke’s recent career resurgence really began here (and then continued with Sin City) with a gruff and stern performance as Domino’s boss. And Edgar Ramirez, currently blazing up the screen in the epic five hour terrorist biopic Carlos, busted out in a big way as Domino’s partner. For me, Domino is a work for art, and a masterpiece in the truest sense of the word. Free from the demands of a major studio (the film was produced independently), at no instance during any part of Domino does the film feel compromised or anything less than Scott's total vision. Starting with the obscenely amazing opening credits sequence and climaxing with an exploding casino and a massive, three-way shoot-out, the film is akin to a roller-coaster ride. It’s got big laughs (Walken is incredible as reality producer Jerry Heiss), a twist-filled plot, and enough visual fireworks for 10 movies. As Manhola Dargis of the New York Times said in her glowing review of the film: “It’s all the Tony Scott you could want in a Tony Scott movie.” Damn straight.
Déjà Vu is a trippy thriller with nods to real-world science fiction, a genre that Tony Scott had never tackled. Snazzily photographed by Paul Cameron (Collateral, Man on Fire), Déjà Vu contains some incredibly rendered explosions (the one that opens the film is mind-blowing in its intensity to be perfectly honest), a heady murder/conspiracy plot, and one of the coolest car chases ever devised (it’s certainly one of a kind). When a massive bomb goes off killing hundreds of Navy sailors and their families, ATF agent Doug Carlin (a headstrong Denzel Washington) is called in to investigate. However, he never would suspect that the U.S. government has time-travel technology that might be able to help catch the terrorist (a sleazy Jim Caviezel). The production design in Déjà Vu is extraordinary and one of the film’s best assets; the fast moving computer images and zooming of the time-machine’s controls keep your head buzzing. And then there’s the breathless car chase set on a bridge in which Denzel is in two planes of time at once (the past and the present). As his character says mid-chase, “This is trippy!” It’s probably Scott's most underrated movie.
Bloody, profane, and obsessively stylish, Tony Scott's hostage/hijacking tale The Taking of Pelham 123 is more than up to the task of reimagining its source material (Joseph Sargent’s 1974 original film which itself was based on an original novel by John Godey). Scott’s version is crisply written and wonderfully efficient (Brian Helgeland gets screenplay credit and does a crafty, tight job) with juicy performances from Denzel Washington (his 5th movie with Tony) as the morally conflicted hero and a sneering, bald, tattooed, and constantly cursing John Travolta, in one of his best performances, as the psychopathic villain. It's quite clear Travolta was having a blast; he's in Face/Off territory here. The Taking of Pelham 123 isn’t an awards movie and it's not the sort of film that appeared on a ton of top 10 lists. It's just a souped up genre film made with extreme skill by a director in love with is craft. Scott takes a well-worn narrative (the hostage crisis thriller scenario) and amps up the thrills and excitement with sexy cinematography (by Tobias Schleisser, a Peter Berg regular) and flashy editing techniques (Chris Lebenzon, the action genius behind Top Gun, Crimson Tide, Enemy of the State, and Pearl Harbor), which makes for a fast-moving piece of hard-edged, R-rated entertainment. Scott always brings the visceral in all of his movies and Pelham is no exception. And with Pelham, at this point, I think it’s safe to say that Scott can be considered an auteur -- something that most elitist "critics" might not want to admit, but deep down inside, they know is true. Over the last 30 years, Scott (with some help from his brother Ridley), has done more to set the visual standards employed by his peers than maybe anybody else in the business. Guys like Bay and Fincher and Jonze and Boyle and Glazer (just to name a few) have all been clearly influenced by what Scott has been perfecting over the years. And even though he's pushing 70 years old, Scott is showing no signs of slowing up. His work keeps getting bolder, faster, more intense, more impressionistic, and more visually audacious. Watching his movies is like experiencing two hours of Picasso-esque moving images while tripping on a bit of acid. Some people say that this is a case of style over substance. But in Tony’s world, the style is the substance.