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Ultimate Guide To Tony Scott And His Directing Techniques

ONE OF THE MISSING (1969)

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Truth be told, when I made my long list of directors to study for the purposes of this series, Tony Scott wasn’t on it.  I’d seen a small number of his films, and while I constantly found them to be entertaining, I didn’t see much of a reason to include his work for analysis.  It’s funny how death can suddenly encapsulate a life’s work and make it worth study.

Even the most commercial, formulaic filmmakers have something to contribute to the art of cinema.

All throughout the month of August 2012, I was preparing to cover the films of the Coen Brothers– that is, until August 19th, when Tony Scott leapt to his death from the Vincent Thomas Bridge in San Pedro.  I was struck by the outpouring of grief among the film community, and of the fond remembrances of his work.  His suicide was sudden and inexplicable– nobody saw it coming.

 Truth be told, he had been scouting locations with Tom Cruise for TOP GUN 2 only a few weeks prior.  What possessed this man, blessed with fame, fortune, family, and good health (despite his age), to end it all?  I’m well aware that my own analysis of the man’s work won’t generate any answers, but perhaps in my own way I can come closer to understand the mentality of a man who loved making movies, but was doomed to always toil in the shadow of Ridley Scott, his brother and an admittedly much more skilled filmmaker.

Growing up in midcentury England, he initially had no plans to become a filmmaker at all.  Instead, he went to the Royal College of Art to study painting.  It wasn’t until Ridley’s success with commercials that he was coaxed into the world of filmmaking.

Scott’s first directorial effort was a short film he made in 1969, titled ONE OF THE MISSING.  Shot on black and white 16mm film, the story concerns a Confederate soldier in the American Civil War who sneaks up on a Union encampment, only to be trapped under a pile of falling rubble from a collapsed building.  As his hopes for escape rapidly dwindle, he begins the agonizing process of summoning up the courage to commit suicide.

In his more recent career, Scott would gain a reputation for highly stylized, hyperkinetic camerawork, but ONE OF THE MISSING is much more steady and level-headed in its execution.  Serving as his own director of photography, Scott constructs a visual language comprised of extreme close-ups and a locked-off camera that is limited only to pans and zooms.

Despite the more straightforward visual presentation, he eschews dialogue and creates a surreal ambient sound bed out of heightened natural background noises and atmospheric dream textures.  It’s slightly trippy, and sets an experimental tone for what could be a fairly straightforward narrative.

Scott adeptly uses quick edits and unconventional frame compositions to jarring effect, amplifying the agony of being buried alive.  While watching a man struggle under immense weight could get boring after a while, Scott ups the suspense by introducing the fact that his own gun has fallen in such a way that the barrel is pointing directly at his face, and could go off at any second.

Cutting from the soldier’s frantic eyes and to the cold, uncaring black hole of that barrel ratchets up the tension and keeps the viewer intrigued.  Even with his first directing effort, Scott shows a knack for generating engaging action.

ONE OF THE MISSING also contains a great cameo– just as Tony had played the titular role in Ridley Scott’s debut film BOY AND BICYCLE (1965), so does Ridley return the favor, appearing as a handsome young Confederate officer.  It’s incredibly interesting to see the filmmaker as fresh-faced young man, especially now when his general public image is that of a grizzled old man.


LOVING MEMORY (1971)

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At a scant 50 minutes, LOVING MEMORY (1971) can barely be called Tony Scott’s first feature-length film. As a quiet, pastoral character film, it’s quite the anomaly within his action-oriented canon.

The film follows an old couple in midcentury England who accidentally run over a young man on his bicycle. They proceed to take the body back to their home in the country and store it in the attic.  While the husband spends his days building a mine (seemingly by himself), the wife cultivates a one-sided friendship with the carcass, telling it stories of her youth and her dreams.  It’s a very creepy story that raises more questions than it answers.

Shot in Academy ratio 16mm black and white film, Scott builds off the visual language that he established in his earlier short, ONE OF THE MISSING (1969).  He locks off his camera on a tripod and limits his movements to pans and zooms.  He also employs a recurring visual motif, where he starts close up on a subject from an overhead angle, and then slowly zooms out to reveal them as a speck against a wider landscape.

 This is repeated several times throughout the movie to dramatic effect.  For the firs time, Scott utilizes cinematographers outside himself.  With LOVING MEMORY, he employs the services of Chris Menges and John Metcalf.

On an audio level, Scott maintains a naturalistic atmosphere of heightened background noise, and whispered dialogue.  Indeed, what little dialogue there is in this nearly-wordless film is barely intelligible. We have to strain to hear the words before they dissipate in the air like breath vapor on a cold day.  The only music is non-diagetic, played from a creaky gramophone in the couple’s rustic house.

LOVING MEMORY is the slightest strand of a story, but it’s strangely compelling in a morbid way.  Scott gives us just enough visual information to create a sense of curiosity and mystery to the proceedings.  Why does this woman dress up the dead boy as a soldier?  Why is this man building a massive mine all by himself?

Why did they never alert the authorities as to the accident?  These questions coalesce to form an incredibly enigmatic film.  It’s a far cry from the types of film that Scott would very soon be making his name on.


NOUVELLE DE HENRY JAMES: THE AUTHOR OF BELTRAFFIO (1976)

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In 1976, Tony Scott broke into television with an episode of the French series NOUVELLES DE HENRY JAMES.  His particular episode, “THE AUTHOR OF BELTRAFFIO” deals with the tale of a heated in-family feud that ends in tragedy.

It’s tough to track down the full version, but the first five minutes or so are available via a French website with no subtitles.  As such, it’s difficult to discern exactly what’s going on, but it does provide a few avenues in which to examine it in the context of Scott’s development.

The most notable aspect is that it appears to be the first of Scott’s works filmed in color.  While he would be noted later on for his extreme use of color, “THE AUTHOR OF BELTRAFFIO” employs an even, natural color palette.  True to television screens of the day, it looks to have been shot on regular 16mm with a 4×3 aspect ratio.  Lighting is also naturalistic, yet with high contrast.

Scott also utilizes a locked-off camera limited to quick pans and zooms, but rarely moves the camera around the subject of the frame.  He also uses immersive sound effects to realistically place the audience in the aural landscape of his pastoral imagery.

I can only imagine where the narrative goes from here– the synopsis makes it sound as if it gets pretty juicy as it goes on, but the selection I viewed was pretty low-key energy-wise, and a more than a little dull.  Chalk it up to generational and cultural differences.  Scott would later make television a significant portion of his career, and “THE AUTHOR OF BELTRAFFIO” represents the first step down that path.


THE HUNGER (1983)

As his breakout debut feature, 1983’s THE HUNGER finds Tony Scott establishing his personal style.  Being somewhat of a box-office disappointment upon its release, THE HUNGER has since achieved cult status for its incredibly unique and stylish depiction of vampires.  While it is very much a product of its time, the film manages to feel fresh and daring, especially when compared to the neutered vampires found in today’s cultural landscape.

Personally speaking, I hate the over-saturation of vampires in pop culture almost as much as I do zombies. THE HUNGER, however, makes up for it by eschewing the cliched vampire tropes while cooking up entirely new ones.  Almost a decade before Ann Rice’s leather-clad goth vampires glam-ed it up on screen, Scott presents his vampires as androgynous, highbrow creatures of grace, elegance and taste.

There are no fangs to be found here– instead, they siphon the blood from their victims by making an incision with a tiny blade that they wear as necklaces.  They can go out in daylight, and can even appear in mirrors.  In a nod to traditional lore, they do sleep in coffins– but only as a final resting place, just like the rest of us.

THE HUNGER concerns an ageless vampire couple, Miriam (Catherine Deneuve), and John (David Bowie), who haunt the hippest punk/goth clubs and drink their victims’ blood to stay young forever.  One day, however, John begins aging rapidly, and by nightfall he is a decrepit old man.  No amount of blood will restore his youth.  In his desperation, he reaches out to an anti-aging researcher, Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon).

As Sarah becomes more involved in her investigation of John, her young, nubile body is seen by Miriam as John’s successor.

The storyline could easily be pulpy genre fare, but Scott fashions a tone ripped straight out of the pages of Vogue.  The performances are compelling, especially Bowie, who is perfectly cast as a supernatural, androgynous vampire.  Deneuve works well as the seductive Miriam, and gradually reveals more depth and malice as her storyline progresses.

The most surprising performance was Sarandon, who fully embraces the lesbian overtones of her relationship with Miriam in order to become the agent of her demise.  She uses her natural intelligence effectively in her depiction of a curious researcher on the verge of a great discovery.  Scott’s older brother, Ridley, would use Sarandon to great effect almost a decade later in THELMA & LOUISE (1991), but Tony gets first crack at her and allows her to generate one of her most iconic performances.

Scott worked with Director of Photography Stephen Goldblatt to establish a unique look for the film, and he would later incorporate many aspects of this look into his overall personal style.  In a striking contrast to his earlier, low-key work, Scott shoots on anamorphic 35mm film, thereby allowing the film stock’s deep contrast to create striking backlit silhouettes.

The picture is dark, very dark– most of the lighting comes from background sources like blown-out windows.  Scott uses the recurring motif of billowing curtains as an effective framing device, especially in the film’s climatic scene where the obscuring of certain figures in the frame becomes crucial.  In a bid to reflect the cold nature of his vampires, Scott gives the film a steely blue color palette– offset by the use of bold reds (like the blood or a woman’s lipstick) to punch through the gloom.

His camera-work is low-key for the most part, choosing to stay bound to a tripod and limited to zooms and pans.  However, he makes up for it in stylish, experimental editing (especially in the opening credits).

He also uses music effectively, creating a striking juxtaposition between classical music, original music by Denny Jaeger and Michel Rubini, and punk songs.  For instance, the film opens with the Bauhaus track, “Bela Lugosi Is Dead”.  It’s the perfect choice to illustrate that these vampires are unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.

At the same time, Scott uses well-known classical music to score a majority of the film, as a reflection of the vampires’ elegance.  One particular moment that stands out is the use of classical music during a lesbian sex scene.  A lesser director would’ve embraced the grindhouse, exploitative nature of that story development, but Scott’s take elevates it to high art.

This was my first time seeing THE HUNGER, and I ended up enjoying it far more than I thought I would. Scott’s mainstream debut is as solid as anything his older brother Ridley did during that time period, and sets the stage for a long, successful career.


SAAB COMMERCIAL: NOTHING ON EARTH COMES CLOSE (1984)

While Tony Scott’s first credited commercial is for DIM Underwear in 1979, his epic spot for Saab is his first publicly available commercial work (as far as I’m aware).  It’s notable mainly for the fact that it would later secure him the job of director for 1986’s TOP GUN.  That said, there’s some striking elements that would later find their way into the feature film.

As his slick visuals are highly suited towards commercial work, it’s no surprise that Scott is behind some of the most iconic commercials of all time.  After his work on THE HUNGER (1983), Saab contracted Scott to direct their “NOTHING ON EARTH COMES CLOSE” spot.   The concept is very simple: the utilization of a series of parallel cuts that favorably compare a Saab car to the sleek lines and powerful performance of a fighter jet.

Atmospheric visuals, slow-motion walking, aviator shades, the fetishization of a plane’s elegantly sculpted steel…. all the hallmarks later found in TOP GUN are present here.  What is interesting is the dreary weather present— one would think that Scott would have sprung for dramatic sunset shots on a clear day.  Whether intentional or an inevitable occurrence on the day of the shoot, the overcast weather doesn’t put a damper on the spot’s high-soaring spirits.

As most commercial work inevitably becomes, the spot comes off as incredibly dated and even a little cheesy.  That’s to be expected.  If anything, the spot captures a certain mid-80’s zeitgeist, and is an intriguing preview of the career-making film that Scott would soon embark on making.


TOP GUN (1986)

Tony Scott’s second major feature film, 1986’s TOP GUN, tends to be a watershed moment for people my age.  It’s endlessly quoted, parodied, and adored by guys at my reading level (almost exclusively of a certain frathouse persuasion).  Even a class retreat at my high school had a TOP GUN theme, so it’s surprising to most people that I had never seen the film until only a few weeks ago.

Seeing it for the first time as a grown man, almost thirty years after it’s release, I was hard pressed to get as jazzed about it my contemporaries have been.  Basically, it’s goofy as shit.  It’s undeniably cheesy and dated, but it manages to capture a certain zeitgeist of 1980’s pop culture.  It’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the experience– the aerial photography is still pretty thrilling after all these years, but I was rolling my eyes during a majority of the running time.

In the context of Scott’s career, TOP GUN is the film that made him a mainstream and sought-after director. It catapulted him into the level of success that his brother Ridley was enjoying, and firmly established a style that he would utilize throughout the rest of his career.  It was also his first collaboration with Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, two powerhouse producers whose films would come to define an era of high concept blockbusters.

Maverick.  Goose.  Iceman.  We all know the players, and we all know the story, so I’m not going to waste time recapping the plot.  Tom Cruise delivers a breakout performance as Maverick, utilizing his boyish charm and cocksure swagger to great effect.  A slim Val Kilmer is the primary antagonist of the film, but ultimately is forced to swallow his pride when a larger threat to national security looms.

Tom Skerritt and Kelly McGillis are memorable in their respective roles, and even Meg Ryan shows up as Goose’s wife-turned-widow.  Nothing groundbreaking here, but everyone gives their best with what they got.

Visually, TOP GUN is a striking departure from Scott’s previous feature THE HUNGER.  For one, it’s shot on the Anamorphic aspect ratio, creating wider vistas and more cinematic compositions.  Contrast is high and colors are super-saturated, favoring the warm orange hues of southern California.

Acting as the director of photography, Jeffrey Kimball imbues the film with a glossy, epic feel while keeping the camera steady and locked-off, favoring composition and music-video edits rather than actual camera movement.  The aerial dogfight photography is admittedly where TOP GUN excels– it’s gorgeous to behold, even now in our post-IMAX world.  Since the cameras are mounted to the actual fighter jets, you get the feeling of being there in the action and soaring across the clouds.

Another stylistic element that became Scott’s trademark is firmly established here, having previously been explored in THE HUNGER.  Much of the interior action takes place in rooms that are backlit by intense, washed-out daylight screaming through the windows.  There’s almost always a framing device, like a billowing curtain or more consistently, venetian blinds.

In that sense, Scott seems to be borrowing a page from the production and lighting design of his brother Ridley’s BLADE RUNNER (1982).  It’s actually pretty distracting when you notice how often it shows up in his films.

A second visual motif is Scott’s use of dramatic, magic-hour skies.  He adds a lens filter to the camera to make the heavens a deep red while maintaining the normal daylight colors in the bottom half of the frame.  It’s become a visual cliche by now– slow motion shots featuring men of action doing their work while backlit by a setting sun– but Scott truly owns it.

Other parts of the movie don’t age so sell.  Specifically, the music.  Scored by Harold Faltermeyer, it certainly exudes an unmistakable mid-80’s feel, but I just can’t get over how goofy it is.  It’s just inherently silly.  Kenny Loggins’ “Highway To The Danger Zone” shows up three times, and the cheesy, crunchy guitar riffing doesn’t help any aspirations to timelessness.  (Same goes with the recurring love theme, “Take My Breath Away”).

It’s fun to be sure, but it definitely didn’t make me want to go hop in a fighter jet and shoot me some commies.

More than enough has been said of the blatant homoerotic undertones of the film– it’s so prominent that I suspect that it was Scott’s intention all along to make the film really about the strange fetishization of masculinity the military fosters.  We all know about the beach volleyball sequence, the moments of rivalry between Maverick and Iceman where their faces are so close that they could kiss, etc.

What’s more interesting to me is how it’s almost a perfect crystallization of a bygone era, or of a very specific moment of time in American history.

TOP GUN was released at the height of Ronald Reagan’s administration, and it wears that influence on its jumpsuit sleeve.  The film illustrates the excess of a superpower who’s largely unequaled.  They have the biggest, baddest toys that money can buy, and they fly them with wild abandon because..why not?  There’s always another one waiting in the wings!

Hell, they even wear aviator sunglasses at night.  Everyone in this film in convinced of their awesomeness and supremacy over everyone else.  It’s an incredibly Reagan-era mindset, right down to the nameless communist country they end up fighting at the film’s climax.

Ultimately, TOP GUN is just a very, very silly film disguised as a serious blockbuster.  Despite my own opinion, I can’t discredit it’s influence on pop culture and, even, modern filmmaking.  It’s the film that put Tony Scott on the map and Tom Cruise in our hearts, so that has to count for something.  There was even talk of a sequel in recent years, but with Scott’s recent suicide, it’s uncertain how that will pan out.


KENNY LOGGINS MUSIC VIDEO: HIGHWAY TO THE DANGER ZONE (1986)

What would a mid-80’s blockbuster film be without an accompanying music video for its breakout soundtrack hit?  We certainly wouldn’t have this little gem for Kenny Loggins’ “HIGHWAY TO THE DANGER ZONE”, would we?

This music video was crafted entirely as a marketing tool for Scott’s feature film TOP GUN (1986).  It’s notable in that Scott himself also directed the music video, most likely when they had some leftover film and time to kill after wrapping early on the last day.

“HIGHWAY TO THE DANGER ZONE” falls into the most tired trope of music videos for motion picture music. It alternates between footage/B-roll from the film, and a mullet-ed, dead-eyed Kenny Loggins while he mouths the lyrics and gropes at himself like a total weirdo.  Oh, and hey, there’s the aviator shades they wear in the movie, too!

The only dead giveaway that this is Scott’s work is in the way that the blown-out daylight is filtering in from the venetian blinds.  It strives to match the color tone and look of TOP GUN, despite being shot on the 4:3 aspect ratio intended for television.

It might have seemed cool back in the day, but it’s the heights of cheese today, so it’s really hard for me to take it seriously and judge it on artistic merit.  Ultimately it just seems like an afterthought and barely represents even a blip of development in Scott’s overall career.


GEORGE MICHAEL MUSIC VIDEO: ONE MORE TRY (1987)

The recently-departed George Michael was a huge star in the late 80’s, and it only made sense that a director of equal stature should direct the music video for his single “ONE MORE TRY”.  Those duties fell to the capable hands of Tony Scott, fresh off his blockbuster success with 1986’s TOP GUN.

Shot on the 4:3 aspect ratio intended for television, the look of the music video bears Scott’s unmistakeable fingerprint.  In a tone that evoke his gothic debut feature THE HUNGER, Scott films George Michael mainly in silhouette against blown-out daylight.  Everything is draped in a colorless patina, with a cold, blue tone. All the furniture is covered in sheets, and the windows are dressed with billowing curtains.

It’s so quintessentially Scott that I couldn’t help but roll my eyes a little bit.

What’s most interesting about the video is the camerawork, or rather, the lack of it.  Scott frames a majority of the video in a wide, static full-body shot that’s held for two minutes before cutting away to a closeup. He uses said extreme close-up of George Michael’s too-perfectly manicured beard sparingly, and is quick to cut back out to the wide shot.

This was a time when music videos as a medium were still being figured out, and what the proper format should be.  The idea of “music video editing” hadn’t quite come into play, so many music videos (this one included) were content to simply be moody performance pieces.  It’s a technique that serves to put more emphasis on the song and its lyrics, as well as the performer, rather than any flashy techniques.

Ultimately, it’s a very low investment in terms of Scott’s involvement; it most likely was a one day shoot that pocketed Scott a few thousand bucks without having to work too hard.  It’s barely a blip in terms of his personal development, but it serves as further validation of his cache within pop culture.


BEVERLY HILLS COP 2 (1987)

Tony Scott followed TOP GUN’s (1986) mega success with a big-budget sequel to one of the biggest film franchises of the 1980’s.  BEVERLY HILLS COP 2 (1987) features Eddie Murphy at the top of his game– a bittersweet sensation considering how dismal his career has become.  Proving that Scott had the chops to handle a huge franchise film, the movie builds on his penchant for slick action and stylish visuals, while also delivering a heavy dose of humor throughout.

I haven’t seen any of the other BEVERLY HILLS COP films, so I had a fair amount of catch-up to play in regards to figuring out who these characters were.  Murphy is the wise-cracking, fast-talking Axel Foley (a zeitgeist 80’s name if I ever heard one), who’s tendency to shoot off his mouth rather than his gun gets him into a fair amount of trouble.

Presumably, he returns to his native Detroit after whatever happens in the first film, where he is called back to LA’s sunny streets when his friends at the Beverly Hills police force run afoul of a nefarious crime syndicate.

An effective comedy relies on strong performances, and BEVERLY HILLS COP 2 certainly delivers.  This younger, edgier Murphy is infinitely more watchable than today’s hollow incarnation.  80’s comedy personalities Paul Reiser and Judge Reinhold presumably reprise their characters from the first film.

Reinhold’s character was my personal favorite– an uptight, whitebread guy who becomes loosened up throughout the case and finally lets himself have some fun.

I got the biggest kick, however, from all the celebrity cameos throughout.  Chris Rock shows up as a valet at the Playboy mansion, long before anyone knew his face or name. Hugh Hefner shows up too, looking a spry 25 years younger than what I’m personally used to seeing.  Gilbert Gottfried even shows up, using his unmistakeable screech of a voice to great effect as a smarmy lawyer.

Celebrity cameos in general tend to be a cheap gimmick, but Scott uses them to solid effect here and keeps our attention from flagging.

Despite it being somewhat of a broad action comedy (and a sequel warranting a look similar to its predecessor), Scott utilizes all the hallmarks of his trademark style here.  Lensed in the Academy aspect ratio by TOP GUN’s Director of Photography Jeffrey Kimball, the picture is quintessentially Scott: high contrast, with saturated (yet naturalistic) colors favoring warm orange tones when in Los Angeles, and cold blue tones when in Detroit.

 Lighting is also supplemented by bursts of neon and that old standby: overblown light filtering in through venetian blinds.  He also retains his affectation for dramatic, orange skies.  It’s a good fit for the subject matter, and the sunny climes of southern California.

Other visual tricks include mounting cameras to moving vehicles, like Foley’s sports car.  It comes off as a ground-based interpretation of the epic camera-mounted shots of fighter jets in TOP GUN.  The camerawork is steady and mostly stationary.  Again, he relies on cuts and composition to tell the story, rather than relying on moving the camera.

Scott retains the services of TOP GUN’s composer, Harold Faltermayer, who creates a synth-y electronic score that reprises the iconic BEVERLY HILLS COP theme song (admit it, you’re humming it along in your head right now).  Scott also peppers the soundtrack with popular contemporary rock songs– which means that twenty five years after its release, it now just sounds incredibly dated and silly.

However, the film is clearly a product of its time, so the music is congruent with all the other outdated elements.

All in all, the film is consistent with the then-burgeoning Simpson/Bruckheimer brand.  It’s a mass market release that deals in the heights of 1980’s escapism- fast cars, big sunglasses, tropical locales, high-riding bikinis, and long hair.  It’s notable as Scott’s first overt comedy, albeit wrapped up in action that’s more along his wheelhouse.

It would be entirely disposable entertainment if not for the BEVERLY HILLS COP brand (which has no cultural cache with me personally, but certainly does for a large swath of the population).  If anything, the success of BEVERLY HILLS COP 2 proved that Scott’s success with TOP GUN was no fluke– he was one of the top mainstream Hollywood directors of his time, and he was there to stay.


DAYS OF THUNDER (1990)

As Tony Scott’s first major work of the 1990’s, DAYS OF THUNDER is obviously trying to recapture past TOP GUN (1986) glory by swapping fighter jets with race cars.  That said, it’s not  nearly as cheesy as its predecessor, but recycles many of the same style elements and story tropes.  As a result, the reheated leftovers can’t quite amount to the undeniable cultural impact of Maverick and Goose.

In the beginning of the 90’s, the producing team of Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer had a near-monopoly on the highest-grossing American studio films.  They developed a certain gung-ho, patriotic style that utilized huge budgets to deliver super-sized thrills.  They shepherded an entire generation of action directors, from Michael Bay to Simon West– but Scott is arguably the finest director in their stable.

With DAYS OF THUNDER, Scott again works with these producing powerhouses to score another box office hit.

Scott re-teams with Tom Cruise, who headlines the film as Cole Trickle: a young hotshot race car driver whose supreme confidence is shaken when he’s involved in a traumatic accident on the job.  The characters of Maverick and Cole are essentially the same– the key difference being the length of Cruise’s hair.

Robert Duvall is incredibly effective and believable as the blue collar, Southern-drawled farmer/car engineer who’s lured back into racing and becomes Cole’s mentor.  A young Nicole Kidman is the love interest, but updated with a 90’s twist.  Keeping in tradition with Kelly McGillis’ whip smart flight instructor in TOP GUN, Kidman plays an equally whip smart doctor who is strongly resistant to Cruise’s charms.

It’s also interesting that she seems to be using her natural Aussie accent here, instead of going for the expected American one.  Kidman would later go on to become Cruise’s real-life wife for a spell, as well as his on-screen one in Stanley Kubrick’s EYES WIDE SHUT (1999).

The supporting cast is filled out with strong character actors like Randy Quaid and John C Reilly.  Knowing how Quaid has somewhat spiraled out of mental health in recent years, it’s really interesting to see him here as a cleaned-up, slick shark of a businessman.  I didn’t know he had that kind of range.

It being a new decade and all, Scott switches up his team of collaborators behind the camera, but still achieves a look that’s consistent with his past work.  Ward Russell serves as the Director of Photography, and ably accommodates Scott’s fondness for high contrast, warm color tones, dramatic orange skies, and an epic-feeling Anarmorphic aspect ratio (not to mention that damn daylight through the blinds!).

 The camerawork is low-key, choosing to stay locked-off and compositional rather than flashy for a majority of the story.  The pace of editing and placement of the camera ramps up substantially, however, during the film’s racing scenes.  Mounting the camera to the cars like he did to the jets in TOP GUN, Scott ably puts the audience right there on the track and gives off a strong sense of speed.

The story is, unfortunately, almost a note-for-note rehash of TOP GUN.  It’s not as strong or compelling as its predecessor, and the love story is stale and formulaic, but Scott creates a few memorable sequences. One of my favorites was a wheelchair-bound racing scene through a hospital corridor.  It goes to show the intense competitive spirit inherent in these young men and why their profession is everything to them.

It’s a lighthearted moment, to be sure, but it’s also a great insight into the characters’ psyche.

DAYS OF THUNDER marks Scott’s first collaboration with Hans Zimmer, who has since become one of the most sought-after composers in today’s filmmaking scene.  Zimmer crafts an electronic, synth-y score that strives for the pop zeitgeist that TOP GUN’s score achieved.  With the 80’s firmly in the past, and grunge rock planting its roots in dank Pacific Northwestern basements, the soundtrack must’ve sounded a little cheesy even back then.  Today, it’s another goofy element that dates what could otherwise be a timeless film.

This was my first time seeing DAYS OF THUNDER, and perhaps it was the outdated DVD transfer, but I had a hard time connecting with it— if even for the fact that it was a rehash of a story I already didn’t connect to in TOP GUN.  That being said, I can’t argue against its solid box office success and standing in 90’s pop culture.  It’s another notch in Scott’s belt of bonafide action successes.

It was around this point that Scott was crystallizing his “brand” as a helmer of big-budget, big-star-name action vehicles.  It’s a decidedly different tack from what his brother Ridley ended up taking, but by focusing his craft on this particular frequency of the cinematic spectrum, his natural talents allow him to turn otherwise-disposable entertainment into enduring fan favorites.


REVENGE (1990)

The year 1990 saw the release of two feature films from Tony Scott.  The first, DAYS OF THUNDER, was met with significant box office success, but his far stronger effort that year was REVENGE.  It’s a much smaller, moodier film, but Scott still imbues it with his unique sense of style and edginess.

It’s not a great film by any means, and it certainly hasn’t earned quite the cache that his bigger movies have, but with REVENGE, Scott shows he’s at home with small thrillers as much as he is big action spectacle.

REVENGE is the story of Michael “Jay” Cochran (Kevin Costner), an ex-Navy fighter pilot who spends his first few weeks of retirement in Mexico under the hospitality of a wealthy Mexican businessman and close friend, Tiburon Mendez.  When he finds himself falling for Mendez’ beautiful wife, Miryea, he goes against his own personal convictions to begin an affair with her.

Their romance meets a tragic end when Mendez discovers the affair and attacks them.  Left for dead, Cochran is resolved to track down Miryea, who’s been sold into prostitution, as well as take revenge on Mendez himself.

REVENGE deals in extremely murky morals, which I found to be quite refreshing.  Costner is first presented as a principle, rather vanilla guy who loves his dog and his country.  He at first resists Miryea’s advances, but then quickly (and uncharacteristically) gives in to his lust.  In doing so, he betrays his good friend and Miryea’s husband, yet we’re still expected to sympathize with him.

When the time comes for him to hunt Mendez down in revenge for nearly killing him, it creates conflicted feelings for the audience– why are we rooting for a guy to get revenge when he was the one who did the wrong in the first place?

This strange dynamic is tempered by an antagonist who is only lashing out because an unspeakable wrong was originally done to him.  Anthony Quinn plays Mendez as a sophisticated, Mexican gentleman of wealth and loyalty.  Sure, he’s got a history of being unhinged and is seen to go a little bit too far in his business dealings (assassinating business associates and going completely apeshit on Cochran’s countryside cabin), but throughout it all he’s a man who values integrity and respect.  Those are his operating principles, and it makes him a sympathetic villain while also maintaining the sympathy of Cochran.  It all reads as an inevitable collision of two runaway trains.

Madeline Stowe is effective as Miryea, Mendez’ wife and Cochran’s lover.  It’s tragic to see the consequences of her actions unfold.  I was only recently made aware of Stowe as an actress, previously seeing her for the first time in Michael Mann’s THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS (1992).  I was definitely more impressed with her tragic performance in REVENGE.

The rest of the cast is filled out with actors I don’t particularly recognize, although John Leguizamo makes a baby-faced appearance in one of his earliest film roles here.

Behind the camera, Scott re-teams with Jeffrey Kimball, who again serves as Director of Photography. Together, they replicate Scott’s trademark look: high contrast, dramatic skies, and extremely saturated colors skewed towards the orange spectrum.  With REVENGE, however, Scott starts experimenting with drastic coloring– a style he would adopt fully in his later 2000’s features.

He paints the Mexican landscape and searing heat in an unrelenting, aggressive orange tint.  The camera-work follows suit with his previous films– low-key and languorous (with the exception of the action sequences).  Other Scott fingerprints include the use of intense light streaming through curtains and venetian blinds and a fighter jet sequence that recalls the action of TOP GUN (1986).

Jack Nitzsche provides a forgettable soundtrack, but from what I remember of it, it sustained the tone of the picture without intruding on it.

Ultimately, I enjoyed this film more than I thought I would.  It’s a surprisingly erotic thriller that finds Scott getting down and dirty to deliver a lean, mean piece of pulp entertainment.  It’s stature has grown in recent years, and is arguably better than DAYS OF THUNDER, his mainstream contribution that year.  I just can’t believe they killed the dog.  That’s gutsy, man.


TRUE ROMANCE (1993)

Tony Scott created his strongest works whenever he paired with an equally gifted screenwriter.  Having found a large degree of success from his collaboration with Shane Black in THE LAST BOY SCOUT (1991), Scott’s next project would stem from the mind of 90’s break-out wunderkind, Quentin Tarantino– arguably one of the most original, dynamic, and controversial voices in cinema to this day.

The result was 1993’s TRUE ROMANCE, a Generation X take on the “lovers on the lam” film done so eloquently before with Arthur Penn’s BONNIE & CLYDE (1967) and Terrence Malick’s BADLANDS (1973).

TRUE ROMANCE is one of Scott’s most seminal films, and with good reason.  Tarantino’s referential, witty dialogue meshes well with Scott’s aesthetic, and the cast is compelled to deliver some career-best performances.  Despite being nearly twenty years old, it hasn’t aged a day.  Scott foregoes a flashy, stylish look for something more subdued, subtle and timeless.

It’s clear that BADLANDS is a huge influence on the film, and indeed, TRUE ROMANCE almost plays out like a grunge perversion of the same story.

TRUE ROMANCE is a simple story about a boy meeting a girl.  However, it just so happens that the boy is an aimless slacker (whose internal monologue with himself takes the external form of hallucinating Elvis) and the girl is a prostitute.  Clarence (Christian Slater) spends a magical night with Alabama (Patricia Arquette), a woman he met in a movie theatre (because where else would a Tarantino romance start?).

When she reveals to him that she is a prostitute, he offers to free her from the grip of her slimy pimp so they can be together.  To make a long story short: Clarence’s meeting with the pimp (Gary Oldman) goes horribly wrong, he kills the pimp and steals a briefcase of coke, and the lovers flee to Los Angeles with the coke’s mafioso owners in hot pursuit.

As a general observation, actors love working with Tarantino’s dialogue, and it’s certainly evident here. Christian Slater, who frankly has never been better than he is in TRUE ROMANCE, is likeable and sweet, despite his scruffy appearance, cheap sunglasses, and propensity for violence.  As Alabama, Patricia Arquette is sweet and virginal, while fully aware of her sexuality.  She’s a smart cookie trapped in a bimbo’s body.

Together, they have incredible chemistry that singes the edges of the frame.  It’s very clear that Tarantino meant for TRUE ROMANCE to be a modern update of the “lovers on the run” films he grew up with, and the characterization of these two lovers bears his umistakeable stamp.

The supporting characters are equally as strong.  As Alabama’s pimp, Gary Oldman is utterly unrecognizable behind rasta dreadlocks and metal teeth.  It’s a shocking performance, considering how fresh his take on Commissioner Gordon in Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY is our collective consciousness. Samuel L. Jackson shows up in one scene as well, biting it fairly early on.

As Clarence’s cop father, Dennis Hopper is a welcome presence.  He’s a straight arrow, an exhausted part of the establishment.  As a blue collar, middle-aged man, his performance is a far cry from his career-making role in the rebellious EASY RIDER (1969).  It’s a brief appearance, but he brings an incredible amount of depth to his role, and accomplishes arguably the finest performance in the film.

Michael Rapaport, who never truly established mainstream success outside of television, plays Clarence’s actor friend in Los Angeles, and finds himself as the fulcrum on which the action of the second half swings. Christopher Walken makes a one-scene cameo as the drug lord who’s cocaine has been stolen.

His interrogation of Hopper is one of the most famous dialogues in film history, and he burns the screen with a menace that hasn’t been equalled in his performances since.  The future Tony Soprano– a fit and trim James Gandolfini– appears as Walken’s right-hand man who follows the lovers to Los Angeles.  Chris Penn and Tom Sizemore also show up as a pair of tough, wisecracking LA detectives who find themselves way in over their heads at the film’s climax.

And last but not least, Brad Pitt shows up in the minor, yet incredibly memorable role of Floyd.  As Michael Rapaport’s character’s stoner roommate, the young Pitt is hilarious and incredibly believable.  Having made his feature film debut in Ridley Scott’s THELMA & LOUISE only two years earlier, Pitt is able to squeeze in a career performance (making the most of minimal material) for the younger Scott brother.

I had seen TRUE ROMANCE once before in college, and enjoyed it.  Watching it again, and having since seen Malick’s BADLANDS, the similarities were impossible to ignore.  Tarantino has built a career out of paying homage to his influences, but TRUE ROMANCE is just different enough from BADLANDS to barely escape plagiarism.

For instance, the score, composed by Hans Zimmer, sounds almost exactly like the theme for BADLANDS.   It uses the same instrumentation and tempo, but the notes are inverted, as if this film were BADLANDS’ mirror opposite.  The film also opens with a voiceover spoken by Arquette, which apes the manner of speaking heard in Sissy Spacek’s voiceover.   Instead of idyllic midcentury suburban images of Americana, the voiceover is played out over a contemporary, post-industrial Detroit whose buildings are rapidly crumbling from neglect and abandonment.

Despite the similar storyline, Scott imbues the film with enough of his signature that it stands strongly on its own two legs.  Reteaming with cinematographer Jeffrey Kimball, Scott brands the frame with his particular aesthetic: Anarmorphic aspect ratio, high contrast, deep saturation, dramatic skies, overblown light through venetian blinds, and a color balance favoring warm orange tones (even in the cold Detroit environments).

Camerawork is similar to Scott’s work of the era, with a locked-off camera limited to pans, zooms, and dollies in terms of movement.

As an LA resident, it’s fun to catch all the little easter eggs in regards to where the film is shot.  For instance, the Detroit theatre where Clarence and Alabama meet is the Vista Theatre, a small arthouse cinema near my apartment in Silverlake.  The Safari Inn in Burbank serves as the seedy motel where the lovers shack up when they arrive in LA.  But interestingly enough, the geography of the film insinuates that its located off of Sunset Blvd in Hollywood, not out in the Valley.

Once in a while, lightning strikes, and all the elements come together to create a truly memorable film. With incredible performances, sharp writing from a voice that became the zeitgeist of 90’s pop culture, and stylish, effective direction, TRUE ROMANCE deserves its place in Scott’s canon as one of his best works.


CRIMSON TIDE (1995)

By 1995, the Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheimer brand of movies had become firmly ensconced within the American film industry.  These films were heavily patriotic, bombastic, and flashy– but more often than not, had skillfully told stories at their centers.  In 1995, Tony Scott again collaborated with these producing titans to create CRIMSON TIDE, an action film about the struggle of power in a nuclear-armed submarine.

In the grand picture of Scott’s filmography, I would consider it a minor work– however, it’s an exciting, well-crafted story about male power struggles in a time of conflict.  And most notably, for our purposes here, CRIMSON TIDE marks the first movement in a major stylistic shift that would Scott would adopt for the remainder of his work.

By the mid 90’s, the Cold War was history, but the lingering residue continued to fuel the entertainment industry like it had in the decades prior.  CRIMSON TIDE tells the story of Captain Frank Ramsey (Gene Hackman), the commander of a nuclear missile submarine.  He subscribes to a simple mantra: there are three truly powerful men in the world: The US President, the President of Russia, and the Commander of a US nuclear submarine.

Naturally, this is going to be a story about the struggle of power.  The opposition comes in the form of Ramsey’s new XO, Lt. Commander Ron Hunter (Denzel Washington, in the first of many collaborations with Scott).  When a transmission implying the launch of Russian nuclear missiles is cut off during an attack on their submarine, Hunter and Ramsey spar over whether to initiate a missile response when there’s a reasonable doubt over the transmissions’ accuracy.

The performances in this film are full of pure testosterone.  In fact, I don’t recall a single female in the entire cast.  Hackman and Washington are captivating as the two leads,  whose opposing ideologies (guts vs. reason, action vs. caution) provide enough fodder to pad out the film’s running time without losing our attention.

Viggo Mortenson (who would later go on to star in 1999’s G.I. JANE for Scott’s brother, Ridley) plays the officer unfortunately caught between his loyalty to his friend and to his commander.  Scott also utilizes TRUE ROMANCE’s James Gandolfini as Hackman’s thuggish enforcer.  There’s a lot of bravado, angry barking, and swearing between these men, but the claustrophobic confines of the sub and the life-or-death stakes of their actions makes it riveting instead of grating.

I had never seen CRIMSON TIDE before, and truth be told, I would frequently confuse it with THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER (they’re both submarine movies with shades of red in their titles, get off my back!).  Now that my ocular organs have ingested it, I’m sure it’ll be much harder to get the two confused.  Since the film is seventeen years old, I expected it to be a little dated (especially because the Cold War hasn’t been relevant for about half of my lifetime), but I was surprised to see how well it holds up on a technical level.

Scott trades in his previous collaborations to work with a new Director of Photography, Dariusz Wolski.  While the established Scott aesthetic continues here (Anamorphic aspect ratios, high contrast, dramatic skies, warm orange tones in exterior shots), Wolski seems to encourage Scott to refresh certain components of his style.

As a result, this is the first film in Scott’s canon where the tone of his late-career work would come into play.  Wolski subdues orange colors, favoring the clinical blues, greens, and even reds of the claustrophobic submarine setting.  Wolski even uses dramatic color blocking to light scenes, where one half of an actor’s face might be lit entirely in red, while the other side is lit entirely blue  It’s a more diverse, slightly colder color palette that suits the machinery of the military/industrial complex.

Scott even starts mixing up his tried-and-true camerawork.  While keeping true to his preferences for a locked-down, stable camera and wide compositions, he plays around with the film’s unique setting.  With CRIMSON TIDE, he begins to introduce handheld camera shots, lens flares, dynamic close-up shots, canted angles, etc.

All of it gels together in a quick, punchy editing style influenced by music video cutting (most noticeably in the opening credits, which is a quick compilation of news footage bringing us up to speed on the state of current affairs).

Being a Simpson/Bruckheimer production, Hans Zimmer naturally provides his services on the score.  It’s a loud, brassy score, but iconic and memorable.  I had heard the theme years before just by virtue of being a Zimmer fan, but it works incredibly well in the context of the film.  My only complaint is that it supports the tone a little too well, as it tends to cross over into the realm of propaganda from time to time.

One of the cool things about ingesting a director’s entire work in chronological order is that I’ve begun to notice small referential things, like little in-jokes.  For instance, Hackman’s character carries around a Jack Russel terrier throughout the film, which just so happens to be brother Ridley’s favorite dog breed.  The man is as enthusiastic about them as I am with pugs.

Scott also references his debut film THE HUNGER (1983) by playing the classical music from that film in Captain Ramsey’s quarters.  Ramsey even dons a red baseball cap similar to the weathered-pink one that Scott infamously sported throughout his career.

Ultimately, CRIMSON TIDE is a compelling post-Cold War film that turns the focus of the conflict inward.  No one is truly a bad guy– each is acting in what he perceives to be the best interests of the United States.  The story stresses the need for pause and double-checking oneself, even in the most stressful and dire of circumstances.

It’s all reverential and highly ceremonial, much like the military itself, but the performances make the whole thing come alive.  While it’s not a wholly unforgettable film, CRIMSON TIDE’s value in cinematic history is only diluted by the strength of other Scott works like TRUE ROMANCE and MAN ON FIRE.


THE FAN (1996)

By the mid-90’s, Tony Scott had firmly established himself in the pantheon of Hollywood’s most bankable action directors.  His 1996 effort, THE FAN, continues his streak of high concept, big budget action films with compelling stories at their centers.

Stories about psychotic stalkers and their celebrity obsessions abound in pop culture, and while THE FAN has mostly been forgotten in the years since its release, it holds up quite well as an effective thriller. Robert DeNiro stars as Gil Renard, a San Francisco Giants superfan whose preoccupations with all-star Bobby Rayburn (Wesley Snipes) spiral downwards into psychosis.

This was my first time seeing THE FAN, and I was struck at how tempered Scott’s depiction of DeNiro’s madman initially was.  We see his complete transformation, from schlubby knife salesman who can’t even be a good father without screwing up (despite his best efforts), to completely unhinged psychopath holding Rayburn’s son as a hostage.

DeNiro does a fantastic job of generating a fair amount of sympathy for his character early on.  He’s just a regular guy that loves his Giants and his kid– sometimes these two loves butt heads up against each other, but who hasn’t been there, right?  He’s disorganized and is treated horribly by his boss.  For much of the film, we’re rooting with him to overcome these difficulties.  It’s a nuanced, intricate performance where the shift to total psycho is a gradual, believable one.

Wesley Snipes also turns in arguably one of his career-best performances here as new Giants teammate and MVP Bobby Rayburn.  He’s fast-talking and cocky, like other African-American protagonists in previous Scott films (Eddie Murphy and Damon Wayans come to mind), but when he must assume the moral high ground in the second half, he compellingly delivers the desperation of a man whose son is in mortal danger.

The supporting characters are comprised of notable faces.  John Leguizamo, in his second appearance in a Scott film (and his first English-speaking role in one), plays Rayburn’s manager as an energetic, street-wise businessman.  Benicio Del Toro shows up, albeit with ridiculously ugly red hair, as a rival Giants player who’s stolen Rayburn’s lucky number.

It’s a small but pivotal role, as he is the catalyst in Renard taking his first steps into madness.  A pre-fame Jack Black even shows up in one scene towards the beginning, as a radio show employee.

Right off the bat (…pun intended?) it’s apparent that Scott is trying to emulate the tone of a Martin Scorsese film, albeit while keeping his traditional aesthetic intact.  He collaborates once again with Dariusz Wolski to create an image that’s high in contrast, deeply saturated, and favors warm orange tones during exteriors and cold greenish hues under fluorescent lights.

Skies are dramatic, and overblown light through venetian blinds abound.  However, everything else points to a heavy Scorsese influence: the introduction of handheld camerawork, punchy editing and breakneck pacing in the vein of a music video, experimental cuts (like a deep red tint dominating the image during Benicio’s murder), and the strategic use of slow-motion.

Even the casting of DeNiro is a dead give-away to Scott’s intentions.  While initially coming off as an emulation however, it’s important to note that it’s leading Scott to further cement a new directorial aesthetic– one which would become inarguably his own.

The Scorsese-fest continues in the music arena.  While Scott retains the services of Hans Zimmer for a traditional score, he also peppers the film with an eclectic (if maybe misguided) mix of pop and rock songs. He leans heavily on The Rolling Stones to establish a certain tone, but falters in his choices of tracks. Namely, he simply copies the Scorsese catalog of their greatest hits (and the ones most over-used in films): “Sympathy For the Devil” and “Gimme Shelter”.  While it’s unoriginal, it fits the aesthetic of baseball as a sport in a way that I can’t quite put my finger on.

Scott also uses a curious mix of Carlos Santana and Nine Inch Nails songs, the latter of which are meant to convey the inner psychosis of Renard.  Although, it gets a little Jerry Sandusky when Trent Reznor’s lyrics “I wanna fuck you” can be heard over and over while DeNiro holds Snipes’ son hostage.  While the soundtrack is probably an accurate reflection of what was popular sixteen years ago, it is the only element that really dates the film.

Having just seen The Giants play at Dodger Stadium a few days prior to watching THE FAN, it was really interesting to see how passionate their fans truly are, even a decade and a half later.  I witnessed the zeal and bravery with which the small number of Giants fans cheered their team on, amidst the veritable sea of Dodger lovers– so DeNiro’s leap into psychotic obsession wasn’t too big of one to believe.

It’s a very interesting backdrop for a film that plays with the inherent obsessiveness of being a diehard baseball fan, while daring to cross the line into dark territory.  THE FAN is a moody, stylish thriller that perhaps has been unjustly forgotten by time, but holds a special place in the hearts of its dedicated super-fans.


THE HUNGER: THE SWORDS EPISODE (1997)

In the mid-90’s, for reasons completely unknown, Showtime created a television anthology series loosely adapted from Tony Scott’s debut feature, THE HUNGER (1983).  It lasted for two seasons, and as far as I’m aware, didn’t make much of a splash in pop culture.  While undoubtedly serving as one of the guiding hands behind the whole production, Scott himself only directed two episodes.

“THE SWORDS” (1997) was the pilot episode, and effectively captures the tone and spirit of Scott’s feature, while introducing an entirely new setting and cast of characters.

After the heavily experimental, slightly schizo opening credits (most likely influenced by the opening titles for David Fincher’s SE7EN (1995)), Terence Stamp appears as a sort of Master of Ceremonies.  Wearing Scott’s famed pink baseball cap and strutting around a baroque mansion, he briefly sets up the story and bows out.  It’s not unlike the opening segments to similar horror anthologies like TALES FROM THE CRYPT.

The story of “THE SWORDS” concerns a young American man who comes to London to study acting.  Along the way, he becomes involved with the denizens of an underground punk club, who introduce him to a supernatural stage show called “The Swords”.  During the show, a beautiful young woman has her abdomen impaled by a sword, only for her to be completely unharmed when it’s withdrawn.

The young man becomes obsessed with the show, and with the girl.  They begin a passionate affair, whereby the woman is impaled by a decidedly different kind of sword.  It all ends tragically when the trance of love trumps the trance that allows her to survive her nightly impalement.

I have to applaud the producers and Scott for creating a show based off a vampire movie, and having the gall to not make the pilot episode about vampires.  It sets up the notion that the grounded mysticism in the original feature will remain intact, but a multitude of other supernatural stories will be explored.  Scott recreates the tone of THE HUNGER with the same kind mix of baroque London settings, classical music, and underground punk clubs.

Director of Photography John Mathieson frames the action in a television-ready 4:3 aspect ratio.  The image is classical Scott: high contrast, deep saturation, blinding light through curtains and venetian blinds, and moments of extreme color manipulation (mostly in the hosting segments with Terence Stamp).  Colors veer towards the warm side of the spectrum, only to switch to a cold, almost inhospitable blue in exterior scenes.

The camera stays locked-off, and mostly limits its movement to pans and zooms.  Scott also shows draws on some experimental, playful techniques, seen here in the form of canted angles and spinning the camera in a corkscrew fashion.

Besides the inclusion of his trademark pink baseball cap, Scott throws in a couple of other nods to his career.  For instance, Hans Zimmer’s theme for TRUE ROMANCE (1993) shows up when the young man and the showgirl first begin their affair.

On a completely unrelated note, there’s also just a lot of general weird British-ness on full display.  Watch it and you’ll see what I mean.

THE SWORDS” finds Scott returning to the medium of television, as well as to his roots as a director.  It’s a small-scale story that he tells effectively within it’s half-hour running time.  He doesn’t let the boundaries of a smaller screen constrain his imagination, and as a result, he undergoes a creative refreshing that will propel him onward as the millennium comes to a close.


ENEMY OF THE STATE (1998)

After a brief stint in television, Tony Scott returned to features and his longtime producing team, Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer.  Their collaboration resulted in ENEMY OF THE STATE (1998), a frenetic thriller that capitalized on an increasing public paranoia over government surveillance capabilities in the internet age.

While dealing with its potent themes in a typically ham-handed fashion, the film has proved over time to be eerily prescient on the government’s tendency to abuse this significant power.

I remember seeing the trailer for ENEMY OF THE STATE when it was released, but mainly because at twelve years old, I was becoming cognizant of movies as a business as well as an art form.  I had only started making films myself a year earlier, and as such was beginning to pay attention to films as something more than just entertainment.

However, since it was rated R, there was no way in hell I was going to see it anytime soon.  As it turned out, my first viewing ENEMY OF THE STATE was only a few days ago, nearly fifteen years after its release.

The film concerns Robert Clayton Dean (Will Smith), a DC labor lawyer who finds himself on the run from the NSA when he comes into possession of a videotape recording the murder of a prominent statesman. Initially clueless as to why he’s the target of the secretive organization, his attempts to find the truth make him more aware of the extent of their surveillance operations.  It’s a high-concept, big budget idea that’s perfectly suited to Scott’s sensibilities.  Furthermore, ENEMY OF THE STATE is the first film that embodies Scott’s post-90’s aesthetic– one that deals in extreme color manipulation, frenetic camerawork and rapid-fire pacing.

The performances in the film, while not terribly memorable, are solid enough to hold their own against Scott’s aggressive direction.  ENEMY OF THE STATE was released as Will Smith was becoming a major film star, but he wisely plays down his comedic roots for a more grounded and subdued performance.

While it’s not as accomplished as some of his later, more serious work (such as Michael Mann’s ALI (2001)), it’s a great example of his capability to believably achieve that range.  Jon Voight plays the NSA executive who carries out the central murder, and who then must cover up his tracks as the truth leaks out.  He’s cold, relentless and methodical– believable both as someone who would be trusted to head the most secretive surveillance agency in the world, and as the main antagonist.

The supporting cast is made up of familiar faces, who were still breaking through at the time of its release. Barry Pepper plays Voight’s right-hand man with a palpable degree of menace and competency.  Tom Sizemore makes his second appearance in a Scott film, showing up here as a thuggish business owner (and not some gruff war junkie like he’s known for).

Scott Caan is memorable only for the fact that he’s made a name for himself recently on ENTOURAGE and HAWAII-FIVE-O.  The film also has some fun with the hacker subculture, personified here by Seth Green and Jamie Kennedy working in full-on geek mode.

Jason Lee plays a small, yet central role as a documentarian who inadvertently discovers that his footage of duck migration patterns has also captured a murder.  Since his big moment is a large chase sequence, the role has some pretty large physical demands.  Thankfully, as a professional skateboarder, Lee is more than capable.  (I also found it pretty funny that he has a University of Oregon mug in his apartment).

Other players include Jack Black, appearing in a much larger capacity than he did in Scott’s THE FAN (1996), as well as small cameos by Phillip Baker Hall and Gabriel Byrne.  And last, but not least, Gene Hackman plays a large role as the reluctant mentor to Smith when he’s in over his head.

I found his inclusion to be inspired casting, not only because of his successful collaboration with Scott in CRIMSON TIDE (1995), but also because its nod to his infamous performance in Francis Ford Coppola’s THE CONVERSATION (1974) as a man besieged by surveillance paranoia.

With ENEMY OF THE STATE, Scott makes a huge break from many of his key technical collaborators. Newcomer Dan Mindel serves as the Director of Photography, enabling Scott to crystallize a new visual style that he would bring to the remainder of his work.  Shooting on an Anamorphic aspect ratio, the image is high in contrast, with saturated colors and warm tones despite the wintery DC setting.

Dramatic skies abound, as do his signature “light-through-the-blinds” shots.  Camera-work is mostly steady and locked-down, favoring composition rather than movement.  However, when the action kicks in, Scott has no qualms about going completely handheld and frenetic.  Establishing shots gets an epic punch, usually shot from a helicopter circling its subject.  Scott also designs many shots from an overhead perspective to mimic the surveillance themes of the story.

Scott also foregoes another collaboration with Hans Zimmer, choosing instead to work this time around with Trevor Rabin and Harry Gregson-Williams.  It’s an electronic, string-heavy score that’s fairly typical of its time and of it subject matter.  Nothing too memorable.

As time has gone on, it’s fairly easy to poke fun at the film’s heavy-handed approach to government surveillance.  It’s presented as an omniscient eye on every little activity, and even then it’s clear the technology was made up by the writers (a fairly dubious 3-D rotating program for surveillance cameras comes to mind).

A recurring shot features a fairly shoddy CGI satellite whipping around the world and feeding information to the NSA.  Even the opening credits are built around surveillance footage, much like his brother Ridley would do a few years later in BLACK HAWK DOWN (2001).  However, in the fifteen years since its release, the Patriot Act and its fallout have certainly lent the film the proper justification for its paranoid atmosphere.

Even though it’s made with a palpable pre-9/11 innocence in regards to surveillance and terrorism, it’s eerily prescient today.  (Also, am I the only one that noticed that Voight’s character is shown to have his birthday on September 11th, an eerie coincidence given what would happen on that day three years later?)

Ultimately, it’s pretty easy to chalk ENEMY OF THE STATE up to typical, blockbuster/Bruckheimer silliness. Sure, there are moments of blatant studio ham-handedness (there’s definitely a scene where downtown LA tries to pass for Maryland.  The use of the reflective 2nd Street Tunnel isn’t fooling anybody).

But its prescience can’t be denied, even if it is just popcorn entertainment intended for mass consumption. In Scott’s canon, ENEMY OF THE STATE is an important work, mainly because its his first, full embrace of a new directorial style that would have an overwhelming effect on his legacy.


THE HUNGER: SANCTUARY EPISODE (1999)

In 1999, Showtime greenlit another season of Tony Scott’s television adaptation of his own film, THE HUNGER (1983).  Tony Scott returned to direct “SANCTUARY”, the second season’s first episode, and takes full advantage of the new resources bestowed on the production from the success of the first season.

Full disclosure: I haven’t watched any other episodes of this series besides the ones that Scott has directed, but with SANCTUARY, it seems Scott radically tinkers with the show’s format.  He dispenses with Terence Stamp as the de facto Master of Ceremonies, choosing instead to place the original film’s star, David Bowie, in the spotlight.

What’s interesting though, is that Bowie seems to have been worked into the narrative itself– not just as a host, but as a main character.  He plays a long-haired, eccentric artist-turned recluse who nurses the wounds from a recent scandal within the stone walls of his converted prison estate.

Giovanni Ribisi appears as the story’s other main character– a young man seeking the guidance and mentorship of Bowie’s artist.  However, he’s nursing a gunshot wound and harboring secrets of his own.  Overall, the performances are remarkably strong, making the most of admittedly pulpy genre material.

Bernard Couture serves as the Director of Photography in his first collaboration with Scott.  He frames the action in the television-standard 4:3 aspect ratio, while mainly keeping in line with Scott’s signature aesthetic: high contrast, even colors that favor the blue/green end of the spectrum, light through curtains, etc.  The camerawork is much more frenetic, keeping pace with Scott’s evolving techniques.

He makes use of wild pans, trucks zooms, spins, time-ramps, etc.  When he doesn’t cover the action in a standard medium-to-wide shots, he cuts in for extreme close-ups of lips, eyes, hands, etc… all of which lend an air of mystery to the piece.  The second season no doubt received a much bigger budget than the first, and it’s on full display here with the camera trickery and production design.

Scott’s adoption of music-video editing techniques continues, beginning with the same SE7EN-inspired opening credits as the first season.  He also builds on ENEMY OF THE STATE’s (1998) surveillance imagery, and introduces a new signature technique:  abruptly freeze-framing the action with a timestamp, effectively turning it into a black and white snapshot.  It’s an incredibly literal way to depict the time-honored cinematic notion of “the ticking clock”, but it works well enough within his style.

Scott re-teams with Harry Gregson-Williams for a hard rock-inspired musical score that’s appropriate enough for the setting.  It’s fairly generic and unremarkable, but it’s effective in capturing the tone and sustaining our interest.

SANCTUARY paints a disturbing portrait of a psychotic artist’s downfall.  Bowie’s character desperately wants to create a work of lasting art that will bestow upon him immortality– but the price he has to pay will be higher than he ever imagined.  With its macabre twist ending, it’s easy to see why this story would be included in an anthology series like “THE HUNGER”.

The imagery is provocative, gory, and oftentimes over-the-top (a naked woman on a crucifix comes to mind).  There’s plenty of nods to the original film as well, with a flashback to a nightclub-esque art show that recalls the punk stylings of the original film, as well as the overtly homosexual imagery (Ribisi is seen performing oral sex on a man).

There’s even references to Scott’s other work, such as mentions of Elvis that bring to mind Christian Slater’s preoccupation with him in TRUE ROMANCE (1993).

With SANCTUARY, Scott finds ample opportunity to experiment with the limits of his newfound aesthetic. It’s a far, far cry from his early works like LOVING MEMORY (1971), but the development of Scott’s unique style is palpable and easily traced.  By this point in his career, Scott was already 55 years old, but his work has the energy and attention-span of a man half his age.

This flashy style would serve him well in his upcoming commercial ventures, as well as allow him to carve out a comfortable little niche of his own within the action genre.


COMMERCIAL WORK (2000)

As the world turned the corner into the new millennium, Tony Scott found himself in-between feature films.  During the year 2000, he directed (to my knowledge) three commercials:

BARCLAYS BANK: “BIG”

The first spot, from banking giant Barclays, finds Scott directing Anthony Hopkins as a satirical, exaggerated version of himself.  In a spot appropriate for a large banking conglomerate, the theme of the spot is “Big”.  Hopkins addresses the camera directly, expounding upon his affinity for all things “big”.  He’s seen in his opulent mansion, then as he’s driven in a luxury towncar down the tony streets of Beverly Hills.

Knowing what’s happened to the global economy as a direct result of Big Banking’s actions in the last five years, this spot would be incredibly tone-deaf if it were to come out today.  It’s laughable now to buy into the idea that huge banking conglomerates are actually good for us.

But I digress.  Getting back to the craft elements of the spot, Scott frames for the 4:3 television-standard aspect ratio.  He imbues the image with a more conservative aesthetic that’s still recognizably his: high contrast, with its desaturated colors tint-ing slightly towards the cold green end of the spectrum.  His camerawork is steady and locked-down, save for a few strategic dolly shots.

A pulsing, cinematic score gives the spot a softly-buzzing energy that supports the tone.  Stylistically speaking, it’s an effective and well-constructed ad.  Too bad it’s an ad promoting an organization run by a bunch of assholes.

BARCLAYS BANK: “BIG” is available in its entirety on Youtube, via the embed above.

TELECOM ITALIA: “BRANDO”

In 2000, Telecom Italia created a campaign promoting its services via the appearance of a small armada of Hollywood heavyweights.  Scott directed two of these spots, the first of which was “BRANDO”.

In the spot, Marlon Brando (in what’s probably one of his last filmed appearances ever) sits on top of a huge canyon, ruminating on how quickly technology has upended the world he’s lived in for so long, and how it might be of benefit to his legacy.

The spot allows for Scott to essentially go crazy with his signature style.  The footage is edited heavily, almost within inches of its life.  We cut from sweeping helicopter-bound vista shots to extreme close-ups of Brando’s craggy, weathered face within milliseconds of each other.  The image is super saturated in an almost duo-tone fashion, with shadows running unnaturally blue.

There’s also black and white flash frames accompanied by text that punctuates Brando’s dialogue. Exposure slides up and down with reckless abandon, as if it were a strobe light.  Part of me thinks that even Brando himself couldn’t have stomached this rambling, incoherent mess.

It’s more of a brand awareness spot than actively advertising a service or product.  It’s an instance of Scott’s enthusiasm for style trumping the substance. Personally, I think it does a great disservice to a figure that’s as towering as Brando.  Scott should’ve toned down his bombastic style and let Brando’s words speak for themselves.

TELECOM ITALIA: “WOODY ALLEN”

Scott’s other ad for Telecom Italia starred Woody Allen doing what he does best: paranoid rants.  Thankfully, Scott’s style is incredibly restrained here.  He chooses to ape the style of his subject, taking full advantage of Allen’s mannerisms to create a quirky, wonderful spot.

With WOODY ALLEN, Scott eschews his personal style and goes for an even-colored, low-contrast visual palette.  He shoots from overhead and street-level, making effective use of zooms and tracking shots.

The framing is reserved, showing Allen in full for most of the spot.  The quick cutting is the only element that tips us off to Scott’s involvement.

Unlike BRANDO, this is a fantastic ad that melds the subject and message together quite well.  It’s a comedic take on the potential neuroses that stem from an expanded life expectancy that only a man like Allen can deliver.  The light-hearted, SEINFELD-esque music over the visuals is the icing on the cake.


SPY GAME (2001)

SPY GAME (2001) was director Tony Scott’s first feature film of the twenty-first century, but its focus is very much on the American Century that preceded it (and how it continues to shape the world stage today).  It’s one of Scott’s best films, and my personal favorite of his.

I’m unsure of how my original DVD copy of SPY GAME came into my possession.  One day, it just appeared on the bookshelf nestled in between the others.  I was at the age where I began voraciously consuming films, not just for entertainment, but to study the craft I aimed to pursue as a career (a decision I had made only a few years prior).  As such, SPY GAME became the first Tony Scott film I ever watched, right around the time I became aware of his brother, Ridley.

SPY GAME plays like an intense romp through the various theatres of the Cold War, from the perspective of two CIA agents.  The action is framed by a story set in the present-day, and almost entirely within the labyrinthine confines of CIA headquarters.

It’s Nathan Muir’s (Robert Redford) last day on the job before his retirement, and he’s been called into a meeting with CIA bureaucrats to divulge his knowledge on the exploits of his old apprentice, Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt), who’s been captured during a failed rescue mission at a Chinese prison.

Muir recounts his relationship with Bishop, from their meeting in Vietnam to their collaboration and subsequent conflict in mid-80’s Beirut.  All the while, he clandestinely uses CIA resources at his disposal to plan a raid that will rescue Bishop.

It’s an incredibly intricate and involving story that allows Scott to work at his highest level as a director.  The extended flashbacks to Vietnam, West Germany, and Beirut aren’t just a way to visualize Muir’s stories on-screen, they inform the present-day narrative and give a justified context to his actions.  We see Muir utilize the tricks he’s accumulated over his entire career, almost like a student taking a final on the last day of school.  It’s a subtle, interesting way to frame a story that spans decades.

The performances are incredibly strong, especially from the two leads.  This was the first time I had ever seen a performance by Redford, and it informs all subsequent viewings of his work for me.  He’s stoic, paternal and incredibly sly.  It’s easy to see why Pitt’s Bishop is so successful under his mentorship.  Muir’s friendly, affable demeanor is disarming– and he knows exactly how to use that to his advantage.

By contrast, Pitt is young, brash, and hotheaded.  The character as written has a tendency to veer into cliche, but Pitt gives a captivating performance that makes the character come alive.  It’s funny that the two men almost resemble each other in appearance, but it does go a long way in establishing a completely believable friendship.

SPY GAME is arguably the best fusion of story, subject matter, and Scott’s personal style.  Scott keeps his aesthetic restrained just enough so it’s not distracting, but allows for a unique punch to the pacing and visuals.  He re-teams with ENEMY OF THE STATE’s cinematographer Dan Mindel, who imbues the Anamorphic frame with deep contrast and stylized colors.

 Due to the globetrotting nature of the film, Scott gives the images a different color palette depending on the location and time period.  Vietnam is extremely high in contrast, incredibly grainy, slightly overexposed and heavily saturated with a golden tint that borders on duo-tone.  Scenes that take place in West Germany are more blue and desaturated (while Hong Kong/China is shown to be blue and heavily saturated).

Beirut has saturated, even colors with a slight overexposure.  And finally, the present-day sequences set in DC are evenly-colored and saturated for a pseudo-neutral look.

Other elements that make up Scott’s style present themselves aggressively throughout the story.  There’s the always-reliable “overblown light through curtains” trope, timestamped black-and-white freeze frames, time-ramped establishing shots filmed from a helicopter, as well as a constantly moving, restless camera, among others.

Scott’s preoccupation with surveillance imagery is ripe for exploitation in a story about the CIA, and he finds ample opportunity to include mixed media and found surveillance footage.

Scott continues his collaboration with Harry Gregson-Williams for the film’s score, which actually results in a surprisingly memorable set of tracks.  Gregson-Williams infuses the picture with a crunchy, technopop theme composed of pulsing electronic elements and soaring, cinematic strings.  There’s also the presence of a haunting male vocalist during the Beirut sequences that works incredibly well.

I’m such a fan of the score that I’ve used bits and pieces of SPY GAME’s score as temporary backing tracks to some of my own early works (which we will never, ever discuss).  Frankly, I think it’s some of Gregson-Williams’ best work, and elevates the film itself to an entirely new level.

It’s easy to see why Scott decided to direct SPY GAME.  The themes are potent for exploration, nevermind the fact that they are well within his wheelhouse.  It’s funny to see the paranoia within the CIA, and how information is kept from one’s allies – not just one’s enemies.  In the world of SPY GAME, knowledge is a commodity more precious than gold, and Muir knows it well.

His ability to stay one-step ahead of his superiors is what allows him to orchestrate a full-scale military operation under their noses.  SPY GAME is an effective survey of the Cold War, a thrilling meditation on information as currency and power, but ultimately, it’s a riveting film about a “father” risking everything to rescue his “son” from certain death.

When he’s working with good, original material, Scott shines brighter than any other director in his league. SPY GAME, an extremely underrated gem of a film, is a testament to that fact.  There’s a reason that, even after watching the majority of his output, this film is still my favorite of his.  It may not be his greatest work in the eyes of the public, but it deserves to be seen, and it rests comfortably in that little nostalgic corner of my memory.  In the twelve years since I’ve seen it, it’s only gotten better with age.


THE HIRE: BEAT THE DEVIL (2002)

In 2002, the world of branded content was still in its infancy.  Advertisers were well aware of the power of the internet, but they didn’t quite know how to harness it.  While today’s branded content is more stealthy and subtle, advertisers in the early 2000’s essentially created longer-form versions of traditional commercials.

BMW was just such a company, creating a campaign comprised of a series of action-oriented short films, with the intent to show off their cars in a bombastic cinematic fashion.  Naturally, Tony Scott became involved, and their collaboration resulted in “BEAT THE DEVIL”, one segment in the viral video series “THE HIRE”.

In wanting to create a big frame for a small canvas, BMW certainly didn’t skip on the details.  Clive Owen stars as a driver of little words, whose character recurs throughout the various segments.  BEAT THE DEVIL also stars the legendary James Brown (appearing as a highly fictionalized version of himself), who sold his soul to the Devil years ago for success and wants to strike up a new deal.

Owen’s driver transports Brown to a meeting with the Devil, who turns out to be an effeminate cross-dresser (Gary Oldman), and their meeting culminates in a drag race that will settle who gets to keep Brown’s soul once and for all.

This is an incredibly strange short film.  While appropriate for a commercial, Scott’s heavy stylization and overcooking of the visuals doesn’t mesh with the short film format.  The result is a jumbled, incoherent mess of a narrative.  Truth be told, I only know the synopsis because I had to look it up on IMDB. With his Director of Photography Paul Cameron, Scott seems to be using the format to test the limits of his aesthetic.

The image has an extreme amount of contrast and saturation, as if it’s been left to cook in the desert sun for a hundred years.  There’s a heavy orange tint to the colors, and Scott oftentimes rolls the exposure up and down, superimposing shots on top of each other and burning them together.  He continues his affinity for extreme close-ups of lips, eyes, hands, etc., as well as the time-stamp over the black-and-white freezeframe.  Camerawork is all the over place, veering from locked-off, steady shots to canted angles and rack zooms.

Scott also introduces a few new visual elements to his style, as well.  He incorporates flares of light into the shot, as if light leaked into the camera during shooting and burned the film.  He also incorporates sound design at an overly-dynamic level, creating sound effects for every camera movement and running the dialogue and sound effects through heavy sonic filtering.  He also starts adding English subtitles on top of the visuals as a way to punctuate the dialogue and highlight important words and phrases.

There’s some interesting performances here, not all of it good.  Clive Owen isn’t given much to do as the lead character.  He gets to drive the BMW and make it look good, sure, but he’s more of a periphery character in the narrative.  James Brown is a better actor than I imagined him to be, and his arc is a nice nod to his roots.  However, he mumbles so hard that its often difficult to understand what he’s saying.

Gary Oldman is by far the best performance, channeling his psycho pimp character in TRUE ROMANCE (1993) and going full-glam for his role as the effete Devil.  He’s nearly unrecognizable, and bursts at the seams with energy.  It’s incredibly foreign, coming from the recent memory of his performance as Commissioner Gordon in Christopher Nolan’s THE DARK KNIGHT TRILOGY.

Danny Trejo also appears as the Devil’s bodyguard.  And in perhaps the most surprising twist, Marilyn Manson shows up in a brief, bizarre cameo that has him earnestly reading the Bible.  Weird stuff.

BMW obviously hired Scott because they wanted him to bring his signature style to their project, but the end result is way too hyperactive for its own good.  It’s full of interesting imagery, but narratively, it’s pure chaos.  In regards to Scott’s development, it’s clear by this point that he has no intention of abandoning his newfound style– and that he plans to keep building on to it until the whole thing collapses under its own weight.


COMMERCIAL WORK (2002-2003)

As he prepared for his next feature film, MAN OF FIRE (2004), Tony Scott embarked on (to my knowledge) two commercials that would allow him to further develop his style.

US ARMY: “SPECIAL FORCES- ICE SOLDIER” (2002)

Putting Scott and the US Army together for a spot is a no-brainer.  Who better than one of our most accomplished action directors to craft a spot about our real-life heroes? The content is fairly typical for an army recruiting commercial– epic backdrops, helicopters, camouflaged soldiers with impressive weapons and gadgetry, etc.

Basically it looks like the coolest session of CALL OF DUTYyou could ever play.  Visually, Scott’s style is a good mesh with the Army’s own aesthetic.  The extreme contrast and warm color tones complement the gritty action.  The handheld camerawork and rapid-fire editing reinforce the urgency of armed combat.

Scott even finds ample opportunity to indulge in his affinity for surveillance imagery.  The whole thing is wrapped up in a slightly cheesy rock score that’s reminiscent of Scott’s TOP GUN(1986).  All in all, a fairly effective, if not entirely memorable, ad.  “ICE SOLDIERS” is currently available in its entirety on Youtube via the embed above.

MARLBORO: “ONE MAN, ONE LAND” (2003)

In 2003, Marlboro contracted Scott to dip his English toe into the world of American cowboys.  Channeling his work on Telecom Italia’s “BRANDO”spot, Scott creates a veritable storm of images that are anything but the typical idea of cowboys out on the hot desert range.  The visuals oscillate wildly in color temperature, running the gamut to cold, warm, and completely desaturated.

Contrast is extremely high, creating a stark, dreary look.  The skies roil with ominous clouds, threatening the cowboys’ way of life.  Scott also continues to experiment with the visual notion of a “light leak”– letting bands of overexposed film smear the image.  He dials the exposure up and down rapidly, as if it were some rodeo strobe light show.

Composition shifts between close-range and afar so jarringly that it’s oftentimes hard to tell what you’re looking at.  Ultimately, the experimental techniques Scott uses result in another incomprehensible mess of a spot.  It quite simply doesn’t convey its message, and whatever message we can glean comes out jumbled and fragmented.

The fact that the audio is squeezed through several heavy sonic filters doesn’t help the clarity very much.  Much like the “BRANDO” spot, “ONE MAN, ONE LAND” contains several visually arresting images, but it smacks of overindulgence on Scott’s part.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad that he was using the commercial medium to push the boundaries of style and aesthetics, but I strongly feel that it’s an extreme mismatch with Marlboro, a brand that is well-known for its stoic and conservative ads.


MAN ON FIRE (2004)

Tony Scott’s MAN ON FIRE (2004) is often mentioned in the same breath as some of his strongest films.  To be sure, it’s certainly a polarizing film given its subject matter and Scott’s hyper-aggressive aesthetic.  I tend to agree with those in the favorable camp, in that Scott backs up his flashy visuals with a real emotional connection between its two leads that lies at the center of the story.

MAN ON FIRE tackles a subject and a world that is unfamiliar to most Americans.  In present-day Mexico City, wealthy citizens are faced with the sober reality of having to hire bodyguards for their children due to the regularity with which they are kidnapped and held for ransom by thieves looking to make a nice, easy payday.

Enter Creasy (Denzel Washington), an alcholic, schlubby ex-serviceman who is hired to provide protection for Pita ( Dakota Fanning), the young daughter of wealthy expat parents.  Over time, Pita’s charm causes Creasy to let his guard down and, subsequently, the two become close friends.

When Pita is inevitably kidnapped and presumed killed in a handoff gone awry, Creasy bypasses the incompetent, possibly corrupt police to find her captors.  However, his attempts at finding out the truth uncovers a wider conspiracy with shocking revelations and tragic consequences.

Like SPY GAME (2001) before it, there’s something about Scott’s direction that just fits. Mexico City is a seedy, dangerous place, and Scott goes to great lengths to capture the ugliness of its underbelly.  It also doesn’t hurt that many members of the cast turn in strong performances.

Like his turn in Antoine Fuqua’s TRAINING DAY (2001) or Spike Lee’s MALCOM X (1992), Washington turns in a damaged, career-highlight performance as the burnt-out Creasy.  It’s a difficult role that requires the audience to sympathize with him as the protagonist, even when he’s brutally torturing Pita’s captors.

Fanning’s Pita is equally important to the success of the film, and a poor performance could derail the entire story.  Thankfully, Fanning is more than capable– pulling off an astoundingly nuanced, believable performance beyond her years.  Her love for Creasy feels palpable and realistic, and we can’t help but fall in love with her too.

Fanning ably avoids all the traps of child acting (overacting, mugging, being annoying, etc.), and delivers a subtle performance that deals in gestures and the light in her eyes, rather than her words.  Scott takes his time in developing her relationship with Creasy, so when the abduction finally comes, an hour into the film, it’s positively heart-wrenching.

The supporting cast is also effective, filled out by recognizable character actors.  Christopher Walken, in his first appearance in a Scott film since 1993’s TRUE ROMANCE, plays Rayburn, an American expat living in Mexico City and Creasy’s closest friend.

By 2004, Walken was in the throes of his “kooky/possibly insane old man” image in pop culture- but here, he delivers a nuanced, toned-down performance that perfectly fits our idea of someone who would leave the country and go live in Mexico City.  His sunken eyes are an asset, suggesting a haunted past that he’s trying to escape from.

Mickey Rourke, who was also enjoying a career renaissance at the time, plays the wealthy family’s trusted lawyer, Jordan.  It’s a reserved performance that sees Rourke with short, cropped hair and impeccably tailored suits, in stark contrast to his wild, rock-and-roll persona in reality.

The character of Jordan is a snake in the grass, who might know more about Pita’s disappearance than he lets on, and Rourke portrays that duplicity with his trademark flair.  Rounding out the cast is an effective, if not entirely memorable Marc Anthony as Pita’s successful, slightly effete father, Radha Mitchell as the mother who finds the limits of her compassion tested, and CASINO ROYALE’S (2006) Giancarlo Giannini in Latino makeup as Manzano, the only uncorrupted member of Mexico City’s police force.

Now firmly within his new aesthetic, Scott takes the opportunity to test the limits of the style like had done in previous commercials.  In his first feature collaboration with Director of Photography Paul Cameron, he incorporates all the mainstays of the “Scott Look”: extremely high contrast, and severely saturated colors that favor the green and blue spectrum of light.

Overblown light billows through curtains, and the hard sun roasts the vibrant Mexico City setting.  Scott’s affinity for dramatic skies continues– even normal blue skies have brilliant cloud formations.  He also ramps up the energy with his music-video editing techniques, incorporating a whole host of processing tricks on top of the visuals– double exposures, flash frames, rolling/strobing exposures, generally overcooked colors, etc.

The camerawork is hyper frenetic, ranging between locked-down and handheld, with the constant being that it’s always moving.  Scott even finds room for 360 degree circling shots (a technique that I personally am not a fan of).  On top of all this, Scott implements incredibly dynamic subtitles that animate across the screen, sometimes  replicating the english dialogue for punctuation and emphasis.

With MAN ON FIRE, Scott completely owns the look and effectively uses it to convey the chaos of its subject matter and setting.  Scott continues his collaboration with Harry Gregson-Williams on the score, which implements the Spanish guitar as a key musical component.

What’s interesting is that the eclectic mix of score and pre-recorded source music is layered into the sound design in a surreal, experimental way.  It’s filtered through a gauntlet of processors and sometimes even used as sound effects– quite an interesting approach.  A stand-out musical moment finds Washington descending upon a hellish nightclub to extract some answers and up his body count.

Scott features a feverish, techno rendering of Clint Mansell’s iconic theme for REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (2000) that echoes Washington’s chilly, unpredictable state of mind.  Another moment finds Lisa Gerrard, the female vocalist who provided her haunting voice for Ridley Scott’s 2000 film GLADIATOR, performing a choral coda during the film’s climactic trading sequence.

MAN ON FIRE is a tough story, because it requires the audience to sympathize with the slightly evil, yet justified, actions of a man lusting for retribution.  One of the film’s standout sequences involves Creasy extracting information from a gangster whose hands are tied to the steering wheel of his car.

When the thug is unable to come up with an answer to Creasy’s questions, Creasy brutally saws one finger off at a time and cauterizes the wound with a car cigarette lighter.  It’s a squirm-inducing sequence that is certainly cold-blooded, but it’s also very timely from a socio-political perspective.

MAN ON FIRE was released during the height of the Iraq War, when the United States was forced to examine its conscience in light of reports about the horrible torture methods government officials used to extract information from our perceived enemies in the war on terror.  These shocking leaks forced Americans to ask themselves: how can we root for ourselves when we’re just as beastly as those we’re fighting against?

MAN ON FIRE intelligently adds that ambiguous morality into its themes and subtext, and as a result, makes the story that much stronger.  If you ask me, that’s why it’s so highly regarded amidst Scott’s canon.  It’s a pulpy thriller that isn’t afraid to ask its audience some hard questions.

Of course, it stands to reason that the cliched explosions and gunplay dilute that message and keep a good movie from being great, but Scott has crafted a fine piece of mass entertainment with a relevant message. Its standing in the hearts and minds of cinemaphiles has grown over time, and will most likely go down as Scott’s late-career masterpiece.


AGENT ORANGE (2004)

In the mid-2000’s, branded content was beginning to take off as a viable alternative to traditional advertising.  As such, it became embraced by companies with unconventional origins and attitudes, namely those who came of age in the dotcom bubble.

Amazon.com is just such a company, and in 2004, it contracted Tony Scott to direct AGENT ORANGE, an experimental short film about finding your soulmate amidst the clutter and congestion of daily life.  The story is pretty simple: boy takes the subway everyday.

The boy is always dressed in orange, in stark contrast with the green world around him.  One day, he spots a girl also clad from head to toe in orange.  He catches only a glimpse of her before the subway doors close, but he’s immediately struck by her.  He spends his days afterwards looking feverishly for this girl, hoping to be reunited with her and get their love story started.

Scott works with new Director of Photography Stephen St. John, but his visual aesthetic doesn’t change one iota.  The image drips with heavy contrast, and extremely saturated colors that favor the green and orange spectrum of light.  Seeing as they are complementary colors, the juxtaposition works incredibly well, and the orange pops vividly against the sea of green.

The camerawork is frenetic, pulling in close for detailed shots of faces, hands, objects, etc.  The stylized editing also throws in double exposures, light streaks, and flash frames.  The result is a hyper-active, ADD-laden acid trip of a love story.  I think it works fine within the context of the narrative and its themes, but its very easy to see how it could turn a lot of people off.

Scott is a big proponent of experimental sound design, evident even in his earliest work, ONE OF THE MISSING (1969).  Here, he creates a surreal sound bed that utilizes traditional coal-powered train sounds in place of the electronic whine of modern subway cars.  The recurring train horn is abrasive, but so is Scott’s style in general, so it’s somewhat trivial to criticize it.

My personal impression of the film is that it was dated even on the day of its release.  By this point, Scott was an old man, and the production design very much betrays the sense of what an old man might consider stylish and edgy.  It rang false to me, and resembled more of an out-of-touch student film than a work by one of cinema’s inarguably edgy directors.

Even that name, AGENT ORANGE… it’s so self-aware and lazy, yet desperate to seem to hip and contemporary.  As you might be able to surmise, I’m not the most ardent supporter of this film.  AGENT ORANGE is another negative notch in a wildly uneven filmography.

I don’t fault Scott for shooting it in his trademark style, but funnily enough, it’s also complacent and tired. It’s as if Scott didn’t feel the need to challenge himself at all.  If anything, AGENT ORANGE is the result of Scott simply treading water between feature films.


DOMINO (2005)

We all have guilty pleasures.  Movies we secretly like even though we know we’d catch holy hell from our friends if they ever found out.  For me, Tony Scott’s DOMINO (2005) is just that- a guilty pleasure.   An immensely guilty one.

DOMINO is different from most biopics in that Domino Harvey lived her life as a tough-as-nails, badass bounty hunter, but the plot of the movie chronicling her life is almost entirely fictionalized.  Domino tragically died a few months before the film’s release from a drug overdose, but this cinematic monument foregoes factual accuracy in a bid to capture her inimitable spirit and zeal for life.

All throughout her life, Domino (Keira Knightley) has felt different than the other girls.  She was more into playing with knives and guns, instead of dolls and boys.  She falls in with Ed (Mickey Rourke) and Choco (Edgar Ramirez), two bounty hunters who teach her the tricks of the trade.

Swiftly realizing her gift for bounty hunting, she becomes an invaluable addition to the team and eventually attracts the attention of an eccentric reality TV producer.  Now faced with having to perform their jobs in front of a cadre of television cameras, the trio find themselves in the middle of a larger conspiracy involving the mafia and the DMV.

It all builds to a psychotic showdown in Las Vegas where Domino’s mettle will be tested and her destiny will be met.  The cast is well aware of the inherent insanity of the plot, and to their credit, they bring an unmitigated zeal to the proceedings.  Keira Knightley completely shreds her prim and proper persona to become a razor-sharp, super-tough, emotionally damaged hellcat of a bounty hunter.

She uses her words, her guns, and her sexuality equally as weapons of mass destruction.  She singes the screen with a dangerous charisma that’s undeniable.  It’s undoubtedly my favorite performance of hers. Mickey Rourke, fresh off his collaboration with Scott in 2004’s MAN ON FIRE, shows up as Domino’s mentor, Ed.

Ed is a tough old bastard who’s seen his fair share of battles, and I really can’t imagine anyone else but Rourke in the role.  He clearly is enjoying himself and the character, which makes his portrayal that much more likeable.  As Choco, Edgar Ramirez is a strong, almost silent presence.

He lets his dark, highly expressive eyes do most of the talking for him, and when he does speak, it’s in a mumbled Spanish.  He’s a wild, unpredictable personality who bubbles at the brim with internal demons and restlessness.

The supporting cast is up-to-snuff, as well.  Lucy Liu plays an FBI interrogator, in a recurring and bookending sequence that frames the story and allows Domino to recount her life events in a dramatic fashion.  Liu remains a stoic, emotionless presence who approaches her exchange with Domino as a kind of chess game.

The role doesn’t allow her to emote very much, but she does a lot with very little.  Christopher Walken, in his third collaboration with Scott, plays the eccentric reality TV producer with a manic energy.  He fully embraces his kooky public image and savors every sleazy aspect of his character, even down to the blond highlights.

Mena Suvari plays Walken’s assistant, who complements his quirkiness with a bookish, anxious charm that holds its own against his aggressive characterization.  Other notable appearances include Delroy Lindo as Domino’s bail bondsman boss, Mo’Nique and Macy Gray as a full-on-ghetto pair of DMV employees/thieves, Brian Austin Green and Ian Ziering (the BEVERLY HILLS 90210 guys) playing fictionalized, douchebag versions of themselves,  and Tom Waits as a feverish desert prophet.

The whole cast is dedicated to carrying out Scott’s zany vision, and the result is nothing short of pure chaos.  It could be argued that Scott reaches the zenith of his filmmaking style with DOMINO.  He’s subsequently built on his style with each work, and I don’t see how he could possibly top DOMINO’s distinct blend of anarchy.

Working again with Director of Photography Dan Mindel, Scott crafts an image that’s akin to being left out to cook in the desert sun for years.  The contrast is obscenely high, colors are saturated to the point of oblivion, and the overall image veers towards a stylized super-green and orange tint.

It’s not just the mid-tones either– black shadows are rendered in a deep green, highlights are blown out and border on yellow or blue, depending on the mood being called for in a given scene.  Film grain is slathered on the image like a liberal heap of butter on bread, while various color elements bleed off the frame like they’ve been processed to death.

In essence, DOMINO looks like a two-hour long music video, complete with double-exposures, strobing lights, reverse, fast, and slow motion ramps, and other tricks.  The film is very much a product of its time, in that its unique style is made possible only because of the rise of digital, nonlinear editing systems that surpass the physical boundaries of traditional cut-and-paste film editing.

What would normally have to be accomplished via a time-intensive date with an optical printer can be done in two seconds with the click of a mouse, all without any degradation of the image.  Camerawork is mostly handheld and anarchic, favoring extreme close-ups.  Scott also finds ample opportunity to throw in dynamic, animated subtitles that appear in different fonts and punctuate the dialogue.

Harry Gregson-Williams returns to the score the film, bringing a heavy metal sound that’s appropriate to the proceedings.  The rest of the soundtrack is populated by an eclectic mix of source music, ranging from gangster rap to Tom Jones covering Three Dog Night’s “Mama Told Me Not To Come”.

Scott even finds an opportunity to include the rave remix of Clint Mansell’s REQUIEM FOR A DREAM score, which he previously used in MAN ON FIREDOMINO is consistent within Scott’s particular brand of storytelling.  He finds moments to incorporate surveillance imagery, as well as over-stylized action.

The screenplay, written by Richard Kelly of DONNIE DARKO fame, allows for maximum indulgence on Scott’s part.  One of the most potent themes of DOMINO, however, is the satirical aspect of reality television.  Sure, it’s broadly sketched, at times approaching SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE levels of parody, but it is a great counterpoint to Domino’s anti-establishment spirit.

Despite the grim, brutal acts of violence that abound, Scott always approaches the proceedings with a wry sense of gallows humor.  By taking itself way too seriously, the whole thing might have sunk under its own weight.  So why do I like this movie?  Admittedly, I know I shouldn’t.

I’ve railed before at how I sometimes find Scott’s style to be abrasive and of no extra value to the story itself, and by all expectations, DOMINO should fall into that category.  Honestly, I can’t quite put my finger on it.  Perhaps it’s the desert setting, or the casting.

Or that, like 2001’s SPY GAME, I first saw the film in the theatre when I was in college, and it now resides in a nostalgic little corner of my memory.  Or maybe it’s an instance of Scott finding the perfect marriage between style and subject.  Whatever it is, it appeals to me on a bewildering level.  It’s far from Scott’s greatest work, but goddamn if it isn’t entertaining as all hell.


DEJA VU (2006)

In 2006, Tony Scott re-teamed with Jerry Bruckheimer in what would ultimately be their last filmmaking project together.  That film was DEJA VU, and was released to mixed reviews and middling box office success.  It was a far cry from the box office phenomenon of their first collaboration, TOP GUN (1986), but their last team-up has beared underrated, yet highly flawed, fruit.

DEJA VU is an action thriller about time travel, one of many in a long line of science fiction films.  However, to its credit, the premise is incredibly novel (if slightly unrealistic), and generates a strong amount of narrative currency.  Denzel Washington plays Doug Carlin, a seasoned Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms agency veteran who’s been called in to investigate a terrorist attack on American soil.

In New Orleans, a ferry becomes a waterborne-bomb responsible for the deaths of 500 men, women and children.  In the aftermath, Carlin is teamed up with FBI agent Paul Pryzwarra (Val Kilmer), who introduces him to an incredible new technology, code-named “Snow White”.

In essence, Snow White harnesses all the digital surveillance tools at their disposal to create an omniscient view of the past– specifically, four days into the past.  They can only visit one spot at a time, and it can only be viewed once before being gone forever, but it allows the user to assume God-like levels of surveillance and observation.

When Carlin begins to suspect this amazing new device is really a time machine, he orchestrates a plan to travel back in time himself to prevent the bombing of the ferry, and the death of the woman at the center of it all.  I had never seen DEJA VU before, and had passively avoided it in theatres when I heard the middling reviews.

To be honest, I had incredibly low expectations coming into this film.  Imagine my surprise when I found myself thinking- “Hey.  You know?  This movie is actually kinda good!”.  Don’t get me wrong, those looking for high art and deep questions will find their hunger in-satiated, but if you’re looking for an entertaining ride with a hint of depth, then you can do a lot worse than DEJA VU.

This is first and foremost a Tony Scott film, which means that the actors will bring high levels of energy and zeal to their roles.  Everyone here turns in some great performances.  Denzel Washington, who has since become DeNiro to Scott’s Scorsese, depicts a quiet, focused, and dedicated servant of justice.

He’s somewhat of a generic hero, but Washington’s undeniable charm generates the appropriate amounts of sympathy for his character.  Val Kilmer, by contrast, has become somewhat of a pop-culture punching bag lately.  Known for his Brando-esque ballooning in size and questionable role choices, he does a great job as a bookish FBI agent burdened by the implications of his great machine’s existence.

It’s a subdued, layered performance that will make you rethink your punchlines about him.  Paula Patton plays Claire Kuchever, the girl at the center of the story.  Initially presumed killed in the ferry blast when her body washes up on shore, her autopsy reveals several chronological inconsistencies that rivet Carlin’s attention.

As he uses Snow White’s eye to zero in on her life building up to the blast, he finds himself falling for her. Thankfully, Patton’s charming smile and sensitive demeanor make it all too easy to buy into.  While the character descends into stock damsel-in-distress territory in the last two acts, Patton does her best with which she’s given.

The supporting cast is nicely rounded out by some recognizable faces.  As the terrorist mastermind behind the bombing, Jim Caviezel channels the cold, sinister nature of Timothy McVeigh and his twisted take on patriotism.  He’s unrelenting in his focus, personified by a soul-piercing, icy stares.  Caviezel makes for a curious villain, especially after his turn as turn-the-other-cheek Jesus in that infamous Mel Gibson torture porno.

Veteran character actor Bruce Greenwood appears as the mandatory bureaucrat hack that jeopardizes Carlin’s mission, and Adam Goldberg fills the mandatory “sarcastic techno-geek” role that’s as standard in science fiction as cup holders in a new car.  Despite their somewhat-cliched roles, each brings a unique layer of characterization to his performance and makes it his own.

Visually, Scott tones his aesthetic way down to more conventional-levels of style.  Working again with Director of Photography Paul Cameron, Scott eschews the frenetic chaos that had become his trademark to create an image that’s subdued and even.  Some of Scott’s visual quirks persist: high contrast, heavily saturated colors favoring a yellow/orange tint with shadows that take on a blue/green tone.

However, the camera is much more steady and even, covering the action in traditional wide and close-up shots.  He also makes use of slow-motion ramping, and employs 360 degree circling dolly in multiple instances.  The Anamorphic aspect ratio adds a considerable amount of punch to the frame, especially in Scott’s helicopter-circling establishing shots.

And of course, this wouldn’t be a Scott film without overblown light shining through curtains and blinds.  Scott also continues his collaboration with Harry Gregson-Williams for the score, which takes on a conventional cinematic tone with soaring strings against a pulsing electronic beat.

It’s effective and brings a large degree of emotion to the action, but let’s just say you won’t find yourself humming these songs anytime soon.  There’s a lot of good going for this film.  The setting is New Orleans whose wounds from Hurricane Katrina are still raw and open.

In fact, there’s even footage of the devastated Lower Ninth Ward, where Caviezel has his hideout.  The story goes that the film was originally supposed to take place in Long Island, but New Orleans serves as a much more memorable and unique locale.

Another strong point of the story is the technological time-warping device at the center of it all.  While it requires a huge leap of the imagination in order to buy it as a viable machine, the way it works and its explanation within the film is incredibly novel.

The machine itself strongly resembles a miniature version of the Large Hadron Collider, and much like the LHC, “Snow White” is very bold and experimental in its wiring.  It is initially presented as a massively detailed composite image of the world as it was four days ago, stitched together from the wealth of digital data afforded by satellites, cell phones, and surveillance cameras.

Omnisciently, it can even go into private residences and spy intimately on anyone they choose.  There’s a catch, however– due to the amount of time needed to render this composite, they can only view what’s exactly four days in the past, and cannot rewind or fast-forward.

It’s a very crucial caveat to a machine that bestows God-like powers upon its user, making him or her choose the subject of surveillance wisely.  The applications of this technology is where the film finds its strongest moments.  The whole thing has a MINORITY REPORT-esque “pre-crime” bent, albeit with primitive, clunky tech that’s much more realistic.

The tech also allows for an incredibly novel spin on that old action film classic scene: the car chase.  Because of the real-time, localized nature of the machine,  Washington’s Carlin finds himself behind the wheel in pursuit of Cavaziel, who is actually leading the chase from four days in the past.

That dynamic makes for an incredibly inventive and, frankly, brilliant scene that finds Carlin switching his focus from the present to the past instantaneously like he’s chasing a ghost.  DEJA VU doesn’t skimp on depth, either.  Any film that concerns itself with time travel is going to have to at one point address those nagging paradoxical questions.

Scott takes a simplistic tack, comparing the flow of time to the flow of a river, and if the flow finds itself diverted from its original course, it simply follows a different, yet parallel track.  This is dramatized via a series of clues left behind in Claire’s apartment, the most chilling of which finds Carlin listening to a voicemail that he left for her a few days ago, which is strange considering he just found out about her existence earlier that day.

While that little thread unfortunately is never capitalized upon by the film’s denouement, the rest of the clues in Claire’s apartment are explained in fascinating detail when Carlin travels back in time to save her.  A lesser director would get entangled in all the minutiae and logic paradoxes, but Scott juggles the disparate elements with grace (although, to be fair, he does drop the ball here and there).

DEJA VU is important to highlight in the context of Scott’s career, as it shows a dramatic scaling back of bold style in order to balance it better with the story.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s a great film, but it is certainly underrated and deserves better than its current reputation.


NUMB3RS: “TRUST METRIC” EPISODE (2007)

In 2007, Tony Scott returned to the medium of television to direct the season 4 opener of Scott Free’s series NUMB3RS.  The episode, “TRUST METRIC” finds the main characters trying to track down a former colleague, who’s escaped imprisonment after being branded as a spy for the Chinese.

The overall bend of the show is that complex math is used to solve big crimes, and generally how math can be applicable to seemingly-unrelated fields. I had never seen an episode of this show prior to watching TRUST METRIC, and honestly, I don’t plan on watching any more.

That’s not to say it’s a well-crafted show– it’s just that police procedural television isn’t exactly my cup of tea, regardless of whether math is involved or not.  However, I’m not here to talk about the show itself; my focus is on Scott’s performance as a director.  So, without further adieu…

Television is a tricky medium for directors, because they have to conform to a pre-established look decided upon by the show’s producer or creator (unless they are directing the pilot episode).  Hiring a director like Scott with a highly-developed personal style is an even tricker proposition.

However, Scott manages to re-tool his unique aesthetic in a way that conforms to the existing tone. Utilizing Director Of Photography Bing Sokolsky, Scott imbues the image with high contrast, as well as colors that skew towards a steel blue/green bias.

As is typical with framing for television, Scott covers the action fairly close-up, punching in for tight shots of hands, feets, lips, etc.  Camerawork is mostly handheld, and Scott employs rack zooms and 360 degree tracking shots to add punch to his more-traditional compositions.

The actors are competent, as is to be expected from a middle-of-the-road TV show.  The series stars Dave Krumholtz, a hard-working character actor who has worked for everyone from Judd Apatow to Aaron Sorkin.  NUMB3RS provides a welcome starring role for Krumholtz, and it’s satisfying to see him excel in the role of a mathematical genius who uses complex equations and algorithms to solve crimes.

Val Kilmer, puzzingly, also shows up as the episode’s antagonist– a bespectacled evil doctor proficient in interrogation and torture tactics.  Why a high-profile film actor like Kilmer is in a series like NUMB3RS is most likely attributable to the assumption that he and Scott forged a friendly working relationship on the set of DEJA VU (2006).

As for the episode itself, there’s some interesting moments.  While the story falls into the familiar television trope of overly expositional dialogue, its action is well-executed (a harrowing subway escape sequence comes to mind), and Scott juggles the fractured narrative with a steady, competent hand.

Besides my general impression that the show is to be commended for making math compelling enough for primetime TV, my other impressions were a little more scattered:  “Hey!  There’s the bad guy from GHOSTBUSTERS 2!“  “Oh look, they’re scrawling complicated math equations on a glass wall!”

A spooky observation:  the episode’s climactic battle takes place on a yacht in San Pedro Harbor, which is where Scott would leap to his death five years later from the Vincent Thomas Bridge.  The bridge itself is visible in the background of some shots.

Overall, Scott’s particular aesthetic transfers over into the realm of television without any significant compromise.  The pace is lightning quick, which suits Scott’s sensibilities quite nicely.  It’s still a step back from the chaotic heights of his style’s development, but it’s consistent with the general paring-down of sensibilities he was undergoing at that stage in his career.


 DODGE: “LAUNCH” COMMERCIAL (2008)

tsdodge

In 2008, Tony Scott created a high-octane action commercial for Dodge entitled, “LAUNCH”, which kicked off a campaign showcasing the new Dodge Ram truck.  The spot is classic Scott, through and through.  The image is high in contrast, with saturated colors that skew warm.  The camerawork is handheld, or mounted to helicopters for some truly epic framing.

This is a spot that knows its target audience.  Featuring regular guys wearing t-shirts with traditionally-male professions emblazoned across their chests (cowboy, fireman, etc.), these dudes bomb down treacherous hills and blast through structures with reckless abandon.

Set that to some heavy rock music and top it all off with a massive explosion, and you’ve got the ultimate guys’ commercial.  And whose sensibilities are better suited explicitly to guys’ tastes than the guy who directed TOP GUN and  CRIMSON TIDE?

It’s easy to argue that Scott took the job as a quick way to make some money doing what he does best, but it’s hard to deny that this commercial must have been an absolute blast to shoot.  It’s a fun embodiment of Dodge as a brand, directed by one of the best action directors in history.  Win win.


THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123 (2009)

THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123 (2009) is a contemporary update on the 1974 film of the same name.  While largely a forgettable film, it’s notable within Tony Scott’s canon as his only remake.

Not having seen the original, I can’t speak for the remake’s quality in regards to its parent’s, but I can say that Scott’s film was produced at the height of the (still-ongoing) remake craze that gripped much of contemporary studio filmmaking in the late aughts.  Like others of its ilk, it’s a mediocre affair made distinctive only by Scott’s personal aesthetic.

I had incredibly low expectations of this film going into my first viewing of it a few days ago, and while I wasn’t blown away by the end result, it was more entertaining than I was willing to give it credit for.  The film follows a fast-talking terrorist (unfortunately) named Ryder (John Travolta), who hijacks a NYC subway train and holds its passengers for ransom.

It all comes down to Walter Garber (Denzel Washington), an MTA traffic operator reluctantly drawn into the crisis, who must negotiate with the wildly unpredictable Ryder for the hostages’ safe return.  Despite the formulaic script, the actors make the best of the scenario and commit fully to Scott’s vision.

In his fourth collaboration with Scott, Washington eschews his handsome leading-man aura to play a schlubby, unconfident guy caught in a high stress situation.  Thankfully, he is given a morally murky backstory of his own, which comes to light during the course of the movie, and makes the character of Garber much more compelling.

Washington disappears into the role, which is about as good a compliment as you can give an actor. Conversely…..John Travolta.  Man, what is up with that facial hair?  Whoever is to blame for that monstrosity needs to have their thinking privileges revoked.  His performance fares slightly better, channeling the high energy, manic whackjob character he played in John Woo’s FACE/OFF (1997).

Like Garber, Ryder is given some depth in the form of a twisted code of honor, but he ultimately falls prey to the same tired villain cliches (“I’ll die before I go back to prison!”).  The supporting cast is filled out with some interesting faces.  PT Anderson company performer Luis Guzman shows up as a disgraced MTA conductor and the brain of Ryder’s operation (which we later get to see sprayed against the subway walls).

Despite hiding behind a thick nose bandage and yellow sunglasses, he is essentially playing himself.  John Turturro gives a subdued, buttoned-up performance as a hostage negotiator for the NYPD who has to impotently coach Garber in negotiation tactics when Ryder demands to speak only to him.

James Gandolfini, in his third Scott film appearance, channels Rudy Giuliani in his incarnation of NYC’s Mayor.  It’s a strong performance that’s a mix between Tony Soprano, Giuliani, and New Jersey governor Chris Christie.  In a nice touch of humor, he’s shown not to be a fan of The Yankees, his city’s biggest baseball team.  Perhaps he’s a Mets guy?

Scott continues the general toning-down of his aesthetic, allowing the story to dictate the images.  Working with Director of Photography Tobias Schlesinger, Scott maintains an image that’s high in contrast, with saturated colors.

Together, they use a color palette that changes for each key location- warm tones for exterior city shots, cold blu-ish/neutral tones in the MTA operations center, and steel-green under the fluorescent lights of the subway car.  Scott’s usual camera moves are all present- rack zooms, helicopter-based establishing shots, circular dollies, punchy close-ups, etc.

Camera work ranges between handheld and locked-down, favoring traditional, stabilized compositions. Scott even finds opportunities to throw in visual tricks like dynamic subtitles and timestamp freeze-frames. Scott’s love for surveillance imagery is incorporated via a live video chat subplot involving a girl watching her boyfriend’s captivity on her laptop.

(It’s a little implausible that one can get an internet signal down there, but whatever.  HOLLYWOOD!)  A few new visual tricks are introduced, beginning with the slow expansion of the studio logos to fill the entire frame, as well a Google-Earth like map of NYC that whooshes the story from one place to the next.

The editing, whenever possible, reflects the relentless onslaught of an incoming subway train.  Other visual elements, like a lens flare or a rack zoom, are accompanied by a dramatic sound effect (usually the sounds of the subway).  What little flash the movie does have going for it is evident mainly in Scott’s visual rendering.

Harry Gregson-Williams continues his collaboration with Scott on the score, creating yet another work in a string of wholly unmemorable soundtracks.  To be sure, the score is effective in the context of the film, and helps sell the stakes, but  I literally can’t remember a single note from it.  What I do remember, however, is Scott’s use of a (heavily chopped and edited) Jay-Z track during the opening credits.

“99 Problems” blares as the city of New York rushes by and spotlights Ryder walking purposefully through the crowds.  Is it the best use of Jay Z’s song?  No.  Does it fit with the tone Scott is trying to convey?  Sure. Does it set the stage for a high-energy crime flick?  You bet.

As Scott’s penultimate feature film, THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123 is a minor entry in an impressive, yet scattershot oeuvre.  It’s an effective action film, but nothing more.  Another case of style over substance, if you will.  While Scott’s legacy won’t soon be forgotten, I’m afraid I can’t say the same for this film.


UNSTOPPABLE (2010)

UNSTOPPABLE, released in 2010, was Tony Scott’s last feature film before he took his life in August of 2012.  By turning in one of his finer directorial efforts, Scott goes out on a high note, with a genuinely solid capstone to an incredibly scattershot body of work.

Most directors never have the luxury of knowing what their final film will be.  If they do, the project is usually very sentimental, nostalgic, and bittersweet.  However, the vast majority of them read like business as usual, secure in the confidence that there’ll always be a next project.

With Scott, it’s tough to gauge where UNSTOPPABLE stands on that spectrum, as the circumstances surrounding his suicide are so mysterious.  We’ll never know whether or not Scott was actively aware that he was making his last feature film.

It’s especially eerie when you take into account that Scott filmed scenes of UNSTOPPABLE under the Vincent Thomas Bridge in San Pedro, where he would later jump to his death two years later.

UNSTOPPABLE takes place among the rural Alleghenies of Pennsylvania, where rough-and-tumble blue-collar trainmen spend their days manning smoke-spewing steel snakes.  The rails are a way of life for these people, fueling their economy and feeding their families.  In terms of setting, it’s the most fully realized of all of Scott’s films.  The atmosphere has a palpable grit that makes the film really work.

The story begins when a half-mile long train carrying city-leveling amounts of flammable chemicals gets away from its conductor and begins barreling at top speed towards a large population area.  As various efforts to slow it down fail, the task falls to two wise-cracking trainmen (Denzel Washington and Chris Pine) to attach themselves to the back of the runaway train and halt it themselves.

Scott is at his best when he collaborates with Denzel Washington, an observation that certainly applies here.  As a veteran train-man on the verge of retirement, Washington’s Frank is grizzled and gruff.  It’s somewhat fitting that Scott’s key career collaborator is shown in his last Scott film appearance as a man looking back on his life and career.

Frank is a member of the old guard, dispensing a wearied sage advice only when a young gun earns his respect (which isn’t often).  Like his character in THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123(2009), he has a few skeletons in his closet, which add depth to his character and make him more soulful.

Conversely, Chris Pine wisely eschews the trappings of his star-making turn as Captain Kirk in JJ Abrams’ STAR TREK (2009), to play Will, a brash young father who’s trying to clean up the mess he’s made of his life.  Will carries a chip on his shoulder due to coming from money in a historically-poor part of the country, and his anger problems have led to marital strife and a series of odd jobs that never last.

He knows he has to prove himself, and he’s frustrated because it seems no one wants to give him a chance.  Together, Pine and Washington’s on-screen chemistry crackles with energy and the ball-busting humorous dynamic you would expect from two regular guys in a blue collar profession.

The supporting cast is also effective, headed by the ever-reliable Rosario Dawson as Connie, a local trainyard operator for the runaway train’s corporation, AWBR.  Mostly confined to her microphone in the operations room, her role is similar to that of Washington’s in THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123, orchestrating and coordinating the rescue effort from afar.

She excels in a boundary-pushing role that only falters at the end when her character is shoehorned into becoming a love interest for Washington.  Perennial human punching bag Ethan Suplee plays Dewey, the hapless conductor who lets his train get away from him and instigates the potential for massive catastrophe (way to go, man).

Despite having all kinds of shit heaped onto him by the other characters throughout the film, he takes it on the chin like a good sport and comes out somewhat likable.  A typecast Lew Temple plays AWBR’s man on the ground, racing alongside the speeding train in his truck.

He’s all manic energy and country drawl in his second collaboration with Tony Scott (his first being a bit part in 2005’s DOMINO).  As Oscar Galvin, the stuffy executive charged with looking out for the interests of AWBR, character actor Kevin Dunn serves as the main obstruction to Will and Frank’s efforts.

Galvin is the film’s pseudo-antagonist: a driven, stubborn man who, despite his intelligence and competence, can’t see the forest through the trees.  I spent a long time trying to place where I had seen Dunn before, before I realized that he was my favorite cast member in Michael Mann’s pilot for LUCK (2011).

Kevin Corrigan, an immediately recognizable character actor and frequent performer for Martin Scorsese, channels a young Christopher Walken in his depiction of an FRA inspector who finds himself thrust into the rescue effort.  Scott accomplishes something truly special with UNSTOPPABLE, in that he brings in a real lived-in sensibility to the visuals.

He eschews the sleek, flashy sheen of his previous films for a wet, gritty, and cold look.  Despite the story occurring in that space between the end of Autumn and the first snow, he draws a vivid beauty from the rural surroundings and smoky industrial landscape.

Setting-wise, Scott is coming full circle with his boyhood in the industrial fringes of England, as well as the gritty environs of his first films, ONE OF THE MISSING (1969) and LOVING MEMORY (1971).  The setting also allows him to add an element that, until now, hadn’t been present in his films: subtle social commentary.

At the time of its release, America was in the throes of the Great Recession’s death grip, with industrial/rural areas hit the hardest.  Whole towns, entire ways of life were on the line, not to mention the heated conflicts between unions and their corporate employers.

It’s all reflected in the film, albeit in a very overt, action-movie way.  But this subtext informs the characters and their motivations, and the result is a thematically rich film that’s also incredibly entertaining.

At the end of the day, UNSTOPPABLE is a Tony Scott film, and nowhere is it more evident than in the cinematography.  Working for the first time with Director of Photography Ben Seresin, Scott is up to his old tricks: high contrast, stylized color tones favoring the green/blue side of the spectrum, etc.

The overall color palette is mostly desaturated, except for reds and oranges, which punch loudly against the dreary blue mountains.  Skies and sunsets are still dramatic whenever possible (one would think it’s always sunset in Scott’s universe).  Camerawork is mostly locked-off, utilizing traditional framing that allows the setting to really soak into every frame.

Scott also continues to make frequent use of circular dolly shots, helicopter-based establishing shots, speed ramping.  The look is more subdued than films like MAN ON FIRE (2004) and DOMINO, which is consistent with a general paring-down of style in that stage of his career.  Even his famous dynamic subtitles are more subdued, crafted with a sensible, conservative font that animates rolls across the screen with little flourish.

Scott’s musical collaboration with Harry Gregson-Williams would come to an end with UNSTOPPABLE.  For his last Scott score, Gregson-Williams crafts a traditional cinematic-sounding work that sells the action and the high stakes, but once again fails to deliver anything memorable or transcendent.

However, it’s inarguably better than the source music that Scott chooses to end the film on.  It’s a screeching Crunk track that’s moronic and obscenely off-tone with the rest of the film.  Really, it’s an incredibly baffling choice.  My jaw literally dropped at how bad of a choice it was.

I honestly can’t envision what was going through Scott’s film when he threw the track over the credits, but it threatens to undo all the goodwill Scott generated in the preceding two hours.  Given that this is his last film, and thus the last statement he’ll ever make as a filmmaker, I can’t imagine a worse note to conclude a career on.  It’s really that bad.

(Another baffling musical choice: re-using the rave remix of Clint Mansell’s REQUIEM FOR A DREAM theme in a scene that takes place at Hooters.  Seriously.  Did Scott like the track that much?  Could you imagine trying to choke down wings with this blasting in your ears?)

My only big gripe with the film is the laziness in which the news footage is handled.  Scott strived for a heightened realism in all his films, but the treatment of the live news report, which makes up a large percentage of the film, seem like an afterthought.

I understand that the news organization should be that bastion of unbiased media, Fox News, (because Twentieth Century Fox produced the film) but there’s a lot that defies the reality that Scott works so hard to create.  For instance, a dude says “bitch” on live TV, without any kind of forethought or attempts by the news reporter to censor it.

When they show photos of Frank and Will on-screen within the news report, the photos are well lit, and of professional quality.  In other words, they look staged.  Something tells me that two blue-collar guys aren’t regularly posing for professional glamor shots.  More candid photography would have gone a long way towards credibility.

And speaking of photography, the news footage is simply filmed footage for the movie, with a TV-looking filter slapped over it.  Last time I checked, the news didn’t capture its footage with 35mm film.  It’s lame, it’s lazy, and it took me out of the movie repeatedly.

Ultimately, these are all minor complaints.  The fact is that UNSTOPPABLE is a solid film that also ranks as one of Scott’s finest.  He had been on a downward trajectory in quality after MAN ON FIRE, but he managed to squeak out a win at the last second.

Scott’s films tell us very little about the man himself, because he was a utilitarian filmmaker– an action-genre maestro that was always more interested in entertaining us than making us think.  But with UNSTOPPABLE, Scott lets the socioeconomic subtext sink deep into his story, and provides his fans with a dramatically-rich experience and a sense of closure to a high-octane career.

Scott’s train has been barreling forward at full speed for almost 45 years now, and now that it’s been stopped, we can pause to reflect on the ride.  And what a ride it’s been.


“LIVIN’ THE LIFE” COMMERCIAL (2012)

Perhaps it’s fitting that an unabashedly commercial filmmaker’s last work is… a commercial.  Shortly before his death, Tony Scott directed a commercial for Mountain Dew, entitled “LIVIN’ THE LIFE”.  The concept is comedic, dealing with a man fantasizing about a life of extreme luxury when billionaire Mark Cuban offers him a huge sum of money in exchange for the last can of Diet Mountain Dew.

It’s about as conventional as commercials get, in terms of the concept.  Mark Cuban has proved to be a great sport in lampooning his image in pop culture as an obscenely successful businessman (if not a very successful actor).  The story is cute, but one can’t deny how much of a cliche it is within the world of commercials.

The ad agency was really reaching for the stars on this one.  Visually, it’s a Scott work through and through.  The image is high in contrast and incredibly saturated with bright, warm colors.  Scott makes good use of his circular dolly, rack zooms, and Hollywood mega-budget playthings (helicopters, tigers, mansion fountains, etc.).

Basically, it’s a license for Scott to shoot whatever wild luxury scenario he can come up with him.  To say the scope of that imagination is limited is an understatement.  Overlaid with a terrible hip hop song, the spot is short, punchy and ends with the gag that, despite all these crazy riches, the protagonist would still rather have that last can of Diet Mountain Dew.

It’s somewhat sad for a director’s last work to be a commercial, as it suggests something of a career failure, or a fall from grace.  However, Scott dabbled in all mediums and made no bones about enjoying his craft, whatever the end product may be.  In this case, it’s Scott who has the last laugh.


A DEBRIEFING

DÉJÀ VU

The Director Series is at its most effective when I’m analyzing the careers of the deceased, as I can view their works in totality and make observations about the course of their full development.  For the living, obviously I’m tracking developing careers that are still evolving and changing.  From that perspective, I can only assess a living filmmaker’s development from that particular moment in time.

Prior to reviewing Scott’s work, I had always approached his films with a degree of caution.  In all honesty, I hadn’t planned on reviewing his films at all, but the outpouring of love and respect from collaborators and industry personnel in the wake of his death made me rethink my own judgement on his standing within the art form.

The first time I saw a Scott film (2001’s SPY GAME), I wasn’t even really aware of who he was.  Even when I did know who he was, I always held his work at arms-length, seeing him as an inferior, strictly commercial version of his older brother, Ridley.  In fact, I had always thought that perhaps Scott always felt he was working in Ridley’s massive shadow, and could never quite get out of it in his own right.

I was wrong to assume that.  Tony Scott and Ridley Scott, while brothers, are two entirely different people with entirely different interests and concepts about what a film is.  As it turns out, Tony was more interested in films as thrill rides, and while that’s not everyone’s cup of tea, it’s a completely legitimate pursuit.

The course of Scott’s development as a filmmaker shows a career that started from humble, foreign beginnings, and then took off into the stratosphere of the American pop cultural landscape with the release of TOP GUN in 1986.

For the remainder of his career, he remained in those lofty heights of mainstream filmmaking, weathering the occasional heavy turbulence, and touching back to Earth slightly battered, but more or less whole.  His films, while made for mass consumption, aren’t for everyone– but it can’t be denied that an overwhelming majority of his feature films were huge commercial hits.

He also accumulated his share of key collaborators– people who worked with him again and again because they admired his work ethic and the way he told stories.  Producers like Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson, actors like Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman, Directors of Photography like Dan Mindel and Paul Cameron, Musicians like Harry Gregson-Williams and Hans Zimmer.

All of them frequently turning in their best work under Scott’s direction.  Scott’s choices in film weren’t driven by any particular theme or story preoccupation.  Rather, he was a man inspired by the high-concept idea that promised thrilling action.  Competing fighter pilots jockeying for a place at the top of their class.

A power struggle inside a nuclear-class submarine.  A man left for dead and hellbent on revenge.  A female bounty hunter just as tough as the boys.  A runaway train.  Scott was a stylist that photographed the hell out of his subjects, and as a result, he cultivated a distinct look that influenced countless young filmmakers.

Scott wasn’t content to simply limit his craft to cinema either.  He dabbled in music videos, commercials, and television, and also took an active role in Ridley’s company Scott Free, where he became a producer for a variety of other projects.  In his early years, he aspired to be a painter, and he fully realized that dream by painting in light, color, action, and special effects.  His canvas was a largest one of all: the silver screen.

In terms of my own impression of his work, I may not have liked a good number of his films, but I respected them.  There’s a degree of intelligence at work in each of his films, which is more than I can say for counterparts like Michael Bay or Brett Ratner.  I found his work to be wildly uneven in terms of quality.

For example, I think his debut film, THE HUNGER (1983) deserves a spot in the Criterion Collection.  SPY GAME is my favorite film of his, but TRUE ROMANCE (193) and MAN ON FIRE (2004) will always grapple for best film overall.  DOMINO (2005) is a guilty pleasure.

I wouldn’t lose a night’s sleep over the thought of never seeing THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123 (2009) again.  At the end of the day, everyone is going to see something different in his films, and if that isn’t the definition of art, I don’t know what is.  Sure, he made his films in a bid to win the box office, but he made them in his own uncompromising way, and it’s clear that he loved all of his creations.

Scott made the kinds of movies he loved, and had little pretensions about his work.  His films may have never had the prestige of a major award or festival play, but you could always count on him to deliver a strong opening weekend.  He had a remarkable knack for capturing energy on film, frequently utilizing as many as four or six cameras to capture spontaneous moments.

Some of his films, like TOP GUN, are ingrained in the public consciousness as nostalgic archetypes.  And for a long while in the early 90’s, he was one of the premiere tastemakers in big-budget Hollywood filmmaking.  To ignore the contributions of this man on the medium would be like ignoring the influence of an entire film movement.

Scott’s films didn’t do much in the way of exposing personal aspects of the man himself.  Indeed, he was very quiet about his private life in general.  In that respect, the reasoning for his shocking suicide will never be known.  Reports of being diagnosed with a terminal illness turned out to be false, as did the notion that drugs might have played a part (the coroner found negligible amounts of anti-depressants in Scott’s system).

 


Author Cameron Beyl is the creator of The Directors Series and an award-winning filmmaker of narrative features, shorts, and music videos.  His work has screened at numerous film festivals and museums, in addition to being featured on tastemaking online media platforms like Vice Creators Project, Slate, Popular Mechanics and Indiewire. To see more of Cameron’s work – go to directorsseries.net.

THE DIRECTORS SERIES is an educational collection of video and text essays by filmmaker Cameron Beyl exploring the works of contemporary and classic film directors. ——>Watch the Directors Series Here <———

 

By all accounts, he had a successful career, his health, and a beautiful family.  He even had a full slate of exciting projects in development including TOP GUN 2 and a remake of THE WARRIORS.  So why end it all?

It’s not my goal to speculate.  What’s done is done, and what’s left behind is an admirable body of work that injected an explicit sense of style into mainstream filmmaking.   Tony Scott has bequeathed an aesthetic legacy that pushed boundaries and gave us new ways of looking at the world.  Quite a feat from a young boy in England who just wanted to be a painter.

Top Ten Best Screenplays Ever Written

If you want to be a screenwriter you have to read screenplays. There’s no better place to start than reading the masters of the craft. The Writers Guild of America (WGA) published this list of the top ten best screenplays ever written and I would have to agree.

My personal favorites on this list are Casablanca, Chinatown, and Annie Hall. Click on the links below and start reading. Happy Reading…then get to writing.

1. CASABLANCA
Screenplay by Julius J. & Philip G. Epstein and Howard Koch. Based on the play “Everybody Comes to Rick’s” by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison

2. THE GODFATHER
Screenplay by Mario Puzo and Francis Ford Coppola.

3. CHINATOWN
Written by Robert Towne

4. CITIZEN KANE
Written by Herman Mankiewicz and Orson Welles

5. ALL ABOUT EVE
Screenplay by Joseph L. Mankiewicz

6. ANNIE HALL
Written by Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman

7. SUNSET BLVD.
Written by Charles Brackett & Billy Wilder and D.M. Marshman, Jr.

8. NETWORK
Written by Paddy Chayefsky

9. SOME LIKE IT HOT
Screenplay by Billy Wilder & I.A.L. Diamond.

10. THE GODFATHER II
Screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola and Mario Puzo.

BONUS: SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION
Screenplay by Frank Darabont. I had to add this remarkable screenplay to the list.

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6 Filmmaking Techniques Alfred Hitchcock Used to Create Suspense

Although you may not have seen any of his movies (a situation which you seriously need to rectify), you’ve certainly heard the name, Alfred Hitchcock. He is recognized as one of the great minds of cinematographic history and is even hailed as the Master of Suspense.

Docu-series bringing the forgotten skills of Alfred Hitchcock to today’s pro filmmakers, film students, and the wannabe videographer. Experts examine each of the 20 episodes of television that Hitchcock himself directed.

WATCH Hitch20: Exploring Hitchcock’s 20 Works of TV on Indie Film Hustle TV

But what was it about this icon that made his movies such a huge success? What was the secret he used in creating suspense in his movies? How does Hitchcock manufacture suspense in his films?

In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the methods Hitchcock employed in creating shock and suspense in his movies.

Before we can start analyzing how Hitchcock created suspense in his movies, let us first look at the difference between shock and suspense. To quote the man himself, he once said

“It is indispensable that the public is made aware of all the facts involved. Otherwise, there is no suspense.”

This means that with suspense, you are aware of what’s going to happen, but the anticipation is what makes it so nerve-racking. Whereas with shock, there’s no expectation of what’s to happen. In order words, you’re caught pants down.

Without going on much longer, let’s look at some of the ways Alfred Hitchcock has created suspense in his movies.

1. Hitchcock Leading Ladies

One of the more interesting techniques to create suspense Hitchcock employed was in his leading ladies. Other they were mostly blonde, they all went against most of the female stereotypes popular in the 1940s up to the 1960s.

While the most famous blondes of that era never appeared in his movies, there is no denying that his female leads were sexy in their right. Like most female leads, they were sexy but in a subtle way that combined fashion with fetishism.

They were also capable of mesmerizing their male counterparts who were most times handicapped either physically or psychologically. However, the women in Hitchcock’s movies were not just decorative pieces on the arms of their male leads; they were true lead characters.

This dynamic nature of his female leads and their willingness to take action (Madeline jumping off the church tower in Vertigo easily springs to mind) is probably what created suspense.

You never know what to expect. One minute you’re being seduced by a blond bombshell on screen and the next you see them jumping off towers.

2. Making Use of Subjectivity

Hitchcock often made use of subjectivity for a lot of voyeuristic purposes. Hitchcock’s characters had the uncanny ability to mimic the movie audience by a basic instinct to ogle an unassuming subject.

But this technique is not one of Hitchcock’s creations and in fact named Lev Kuleshov as his inspiration. This technique is known as “The Kuleshov Effect.”

By rhythmically repeating this technique, Hitchcock was able to cultivate suspense in a lot of his movies. He periodically switched from the ogler to the ogled which led to building the action.

What resulted from this was a feeling and anticipation of utter helplessness as you watch the character observe a dangerous situation unfold and you see he or she proved incapable of preventing the spectacle.

In the movie Rear Window, Hitchcock can build the suspense the audience feels by building the one felt by the character. This way the audience feels like they are one with the character or are sharing something personal and intimate together.

3. Information to Create Suspense

Hitchcock believed that information and suspense went hand in hand, he believed in showing the audience what the character was unaware of. If something was going to harm your character in the future, show it at the beginning scene.

Then you let the scene play like there’s nothing wrong. From time to time, remind the audience of the looming danger. This way you continuously build up the suspense level. Remember, the character is unaware of the coming danger.

One method Hitchcock used in increasing the suspense level was by having the camera playfully roam around looking for something or someone suspicious. This way, the audience not only feels like they’re involved in solving the mystery, but they also feel like they’re one step ahead of the character.

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4. Montage

Another method Hitchcock applied was in dividing action into a series of close-ups that were then shown in succession. This is a basic technique in cinematography. However, you should not make the mistake of thinking it is the same as throwing random shots together as you would see in a fight sequence.

This is a more subtle approach. First, Alfred Hitchcock starts with a close-up of a hand, then an arm, then you’ll see a face, followed by a gun falling to the floor, all of which are tied together to tell a story.

This allowed him to portray an event by showing different pieces of it and gaining control over the timing. You can also use this method to hide parts of an event from the audience so that their mind is engaged.

5. Keeping the Story Simple

The confusing and overly complex story requires the audience to memorize quite a bit. It’s hard to squeeze out suspense from stories like that. The key to Hitchcock’s raw energy in his movies is the simplistic linear stories he adopts.

They are usually easy for the audience to follow and grasp. Your screenplay should be streamlined, so it offers the highest dramatic impact.

Abstract stories tend to bore audiences. This is why Hitchcock mostly used crime stories that were filled with a lot of spies, assassinations, and people constantly running from the police. Plots like these aren’t necessary for all movies, but they are the easiest to play on fear.

6. Avoiding Cliché Character When You Create Suspense

Clichés are boring and easy to predict. When you create suspense the best characters are those with hard to predict personalities, make decisions on a whim instead of what is expected from the previous buildup. Audiences tend to find such characters much more realistic which makes it easier for something to happen to them.

What is a MacGuffin?

Many of you might have heard of the term “MacGuffin” floating out there in the ether, but what the is it? The answer is not that straightforward. Legendary director Alfred Hitchcock coined the phrase back in the days of his film 39 Steps and used it throughout his career.

When asked what a MacGuffin was Hitchcock told this story:

A man asks, “Well, what is a MacGuffin?” You say, “It’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish highlands.” Man says, “But there are no lions in the Scottish highlands.” Then you say, “Then that’s no MacGuffin.”

According to Wikipedia:

In fiction, a MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin or maguffin) is a plot device in the form of some goal, desired object, or another motivator that the protagonist pursues, often with little or no narrative explanation. The specific nature of a McGuffin is typically unimportant to the overall plot. The most common type of McGuffin is a person, place, or thing (such as money or an object of value). Other more abstract types include victory, glory, survival, power, love, or some unexplained driving force.

Top 10 Acting Podcasts (Oscar® and Emmy® Winners)

Top 10 Acting podcasts. actor podcasts

Podcasts have been so important to me over the past few years. Indie Film Hustle entered into the podcast space in 2015 with the launch of its first original podcast series, The Indie Film Hustle Podcast.

The response to the podcast was so amazing that after a few short months the show became the #1 filmmaking podcast on Apple Podcasts & Spotify, and still maintain that honor. I’m truly humbled and thankful by the response.

The show is only as good as the filmmakers. screenwriters, actors and industry professionals who listen to it. Thank you all for the support.

As a bonus I have put together the Top 10 Actors Podcasts from the IFH archives. Many of these Oscar® and Emmy® Nominees are legendary! These episodes discuss not just the craft of acting but origin stories, the film business and so much more. This list will be updated every few months so keep checking back.

Click here to subscribe on Apple,  Spotify, & Youtube.

1. Billy Crystal 

There are performers that impact your life without you even knowing it and today’s guest fits that bill. On the show, we have comedic genius, multi-award-winning actor, writer, producer, director, and television host, Billy Crystal. We’ve seen Billy’s versatile work across all areas in the entertainment world, stand-up, improv, Broadway, behind and in front of the camera, feature films, television, live stages like SNL, and animated movies.

2. Thomas Jane

Thomas Jane is a prolific actor, director, and producer, with extensive credits including the series The Expanse and Hung, and the features The Punisher, 61, The Predator and Boogie Nights. Jane recently starred in in the hit thriller The Vanished, and his film Run Hide Fight world premiered at the 77th Venice Film Festival. Jane will next be seen in the anticipated drama series Troppo for IMDb TV/Amazon, based on the bestselling novel by Candice Fox, which he is also executive producing via his Renegade Entertainment banner.

3. John Leguizamo

Fast-talking and feisty-looking John Leguizamo has continued to impress movie audiences with his versatility: he can play sensitive and naïve young men, such as Johnny in Hangin’ with the Homeboys; cold-blooded killers like Benny Blanco in Carlito’s Way; a heroic Army Green Beret, stopping aerial terrorists in Executive Decision; and drag queen Chi-Chi Rodriguez in To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar.

4. Edward James Olmos

Our guest today is 80s star, multiple-awards film, and theater actor, and activist, Edward James Olmos. Olmos’s roles in films or TV shows like Stand and DeliverBattlestar Galactica, broadway musical and film Zoot SuitBlade Runner as detective Gaff, and many others are some of the most memorable of all time and he’s still dominating our screens. While I could not resist talking about his iconic roles over several decades, we mainly discussed Olmos’ new must-see film, Chasing Wonders.

5. Eva Longoria

Eva Longoria has long established herself as one of the most sought after television directors in Hollywood. Named by Variety as one of their most anticipated directors of 2021, Longoria continues to hone her craft, seek new projects, and expand opportunities for others by paving the way for future women and minority producers, directors and industry leaders in Hollywood and beyond.

Her strong work ethic coupled with her passion for storytelling has led to a pivotal moment as she prepares for the release of her feature film directorial debut with Flamin’ Hot. She recently wrapped production for the highly anticipated Searchlight biopic about the story of Richard Montañez and the spicy Flamin’ Hot Cheetos snack for which she beat out multiple high profile film directors vying for the job.

Eva became well known worldwide thanks to Desperate Housewives, where she played a main character, Gabrielle Solis.

6. Guy Pearce

Guy Edward Pearce was born 5 October, 1967 in Cambridgeshire, England, UK to Margaret Anne and Stuart Graham Pearce. His father was born in Auckland, New Zealand, to English and Scottish parents, while Guy’s mother is English. Pearce and his family initially traveled to Australia for two years, after his father was offered the position of Chief test pilot for the Australian Government. Guy was just 3-years-old. After deciding to stay in Australia and settling in the Victorian city of Geelong, Guy’s father was killed 5 years later in an aircraft test flight, leaving Guy’s mother, a schoolteacher, to care for him and his older sister, Tracy.

Most recently, he has amazed film critics and audiences, alike, with his magnificent performances in L.A. Confidential (1997), Memento (2000), The Proposition (2005), Factory Girl (2006), The Hurt Locker (2008), The King’s Speech (2010) and the HBO mini-series, Mildred Pierce (2011). Next to acting, Guy has had a life-long passion for music and songwriting.

7. Kyra Sedgwick

Kyra Sedgwick is an award-winning actress, producer and director. She is best known for her Emmy and Golden Globe-winning role as Deputy Chief Brenda Leigh Johnson on the TNT crime drama “The Closer” and most recently starred on the ABC comedy “Call Your Mother.” She recently directed the feature film SPACE ODDITY, which stars Kyle Allen and Alexandra Shipp.

Her film roles include THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN, THE POSSESSION, THE GAME PLAN, SECONDHAND LIONS, WHAT’S COOKING, PHENOMENON, HEART AND SOULS, SOMETHING TO TALK ABOUT, BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY and SINGLES.

8. Lance Henriksen

Lance has been in over 300 films through-out his remarkable career.He’s mentored Tarzan, Evel Knievel and the Antichrist, and fought Terminators, Aliens, Predators, Pumpkinhead, Pinhead, Bigfoot, Superman, the Autobots, Mr. T, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal.

He’s worked with directors James Cameron, Steven Spielberg, Kathryn Bigelow, Sidney Lumet, Francois Truffaut, John Huston, Walter Hill, David Fincher, John Woo, Jim Jarmusch and Sam Raimi, but this is just skimming the surface.

9. Robert Forster

This week we are joined by legendary actor Robert Forster. Robert has been a working actor for decades, appearing in a classic film like Medium Cool, the iconic John Huston’s Reflections in a Golden Eye80’s action classic Delta Force (love me a good 80’s action flixand Disney’s The Black Hole (one of my favorite films growing up).

He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1997 for Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, which he credits with reviving his career. Since then Robert has been on fire in the second half of his career, appearing in The DescendantsLike MikeMulholland Drive; Me, Myself, & IreneLucky Number Slevin and Firewall, just to name a few.

10. Edward Burns

Many of you might have heard of the Sundance Film Festival-winning film called The Brothers McMullen, his iconic first film that tells the story of three Irish Catholic brothers from Long Island who struggle to deal with love, marriage, and infidelity. His Cinderella story of making the film, getting into Sundance, and launching his career is the stuff of legend.

The Brothers McMullen was sold to Fox Searchlight and went on to make over $10 million at the box office on a $27,000 budget, making it one of the most successful indie films of the decade.

Ed went off to star in huge films like Saving Private Ryan for Steven Spielberg and direct studio films like the box office hit She’s The One. The films about the love life of two brothers, Mickey and Francis, interconnect as Francis cheats on his wife with Mickey’s ex-girlfriend, while Mickey impulsively marries a stranger.

Even after his mainstream success as an actor, writer, and director he still never forgot his indie roots. He continued to quietly produce completely independent feature films on really low budgets. How low, how about $9000. As with any smart filmmaker, Ed has continued to not only produce films but to consider new methods of getting his projects to the world.

BONUS: Adrian Martinez

Being yourself in any situation in life is hard for many people. Actors do make a living playing other people but the art of being comfortable in your own skin is a lesson we can all learn. I invited on the show Adrian Martinez, an actor, writer, producer, and soon-to-be-director, with nearly 100 film and TV credits.

Adrian’s career began as a high school track star on NBC’s “Unsolved Mysteries“. Some in casting have called Adrian, “the sidekick to the stars,” as evidenced by his recent sidekick trifecta– Will Smith’s sidekick in Warner Bros’ “Focus,” Ben Stiller’s sidekick in his Fox remake of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” Will Ferrell’s sidekick in Lionsgate’s “Casa de mi Padre,” to name a few.

 

Ultimate Guide To Ridley Scott And His Directing Techniques

BOY & BICYCLE (1965)

ridley-scott-featured

This being a film journal about contemporary and classic film directors, I often invoke the term “auteur” to describe a filmmaker who brings a singular identity to bear on any given work.

There are many different kinds of auteurs– there are those, like Sofia Coppola or David Fincher, who are revered for a consistent artistic style, while others like Terrence Malick or Paul Thomas Anderson tend to dwell on a variation of the same set of ideological themes over the course of their work.  Still others, like celebrated British director Sir Ridley Scott, routinely defy such easy compartmentalization.

Scott’s artistic character isn’t necessarily marked by a recurring set of themes or a specific visual style, although his filmography evidences plenty of examples for both.  The projects he takes on suggest more of a journeyman’s attitude to the craft rather than an artistic display of self-expression.

Indeed, Scott is one of the hardest-working filmmakers in the business– 2017 alone will see the release of no less than two of his features, and the man just turned eighty years old.  The latter of these features, the upcoming ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD, has been in the news recently because of Scott’s decision to remove Kevin Spacey from the finished film in the wake of the star’s sexual harassment scandal, replacing him with Christopher Plummer with only a scant few weeks to go before the film’s release.

Simply put, Scott is a beast, and his work ethic is unparalleled.  The same can be said of his artistic legacy, which encompasses a deep body of work– some of them among the most influential films of all time. ALIEN (1979), BLADE RUNNER (1982), THELMA & LOUISE (1991), GLADIATOR (2000), BLACK HAWK DOWN (2001)…. the list goes on and on.

The three-time Oscar nominee brings a highly visual approach to fully-formed cinematic worlds, each successive film existing within its own contained universe (or sharing an existing universe in the case of his three films in the ALIEN franchise).  Even as he enters his eighth decade of life, Scott remains a vital force in contemporary mainstream filmmaking, churning out a new film seemingly year after year with no end in sight.

Scott was born on November 30th, 1937 in South Shields, County Durham, in northeastern England.  His father, Colonel Francis Percy Scott, was largely absent throughout much of Ridley’s early childhood due to his being an officer in the Royal Engineers during World War II.

His older brother, Frank, was much older, also unable to serve as a father figure to young Ridley because of his duties to the British Merchant Navy.  This left Ridley and his younger brother, Tony, in the sole care of their mother Elizabeth Williams, and many film scholars trace the director’s flair with strong female characters all the way back to her singular influence.

After the war, the Scotts settled along Greens Beck Road in Hartburn– the smoky industrial vistas of which would famously sear themselves into the mind of the young director as a formative influence for BLADE RUNNER’s dystopian vision of Los Angeles circa 2019.

Scott’s interest in filmmaking came about by way of a passion for design, which he formally studied at the West Hartlepool College of Art.  After graduating in 1958, he moved to London to attend the Royal College of Art, where he was instrumental in establishing the school’s film department.

1961 saw the production of his very first film, an experimental short called BOY & BICYCLE.  The film was initially financed by RCA to the tune of 65 pounds, and shot in the director’s home turf of West Hartlepool as well as Seaton Carew.

An intensely personal work, BOY & BICYCLE features a young Tony Scott in the title role, playing a curious rascal who aimlessly rides his bike through the empty industrial landscapes of the British Steel North Works and pretends he’s the last person on earth.  Shot on black and white 16mm film on RCA’s standard-issue Bolex, BOY & BICYCLE’s narrative structure is a natural product of shooting without sound, but it also highlights Scott’s inherent proclivity for pictorial storytelling.

What little dialogue Scott employs was dubbed after the fact, favoring handheld cinema-verite style images strung together by a rambling voiceover delivered by Tony in a thick accent that, admittedly, renders the whole thing nearly unintelligible.  BOY & BICYCLE moves along at a brisk clip thanks to the propulsive energy availed by Scott’s shooting handheld and out of the back and sides of a moving vehicle.

John Baker’s music complements the fleet-footed tone, a credit he shares with renowned composer John Barry, who was reportedly so impressed by Scott’s cinematic eye that he recorded a new version of his track, “Onward Christian Spacemen”, for exclusive use in the film.

In shooting the film entirely by himself, Scott’s inherent talent for the medium becomes clear.  His later reputation as a visual stylist takes firm root here, boasting compelling compositions and a deft, naturalistic touch with lighting.  It’s also fitting that the fascination with world-building that would shape most of his films starts here with the natural world around him.

BOY & BICYCLE’s sense of place is very clear, with nearly every shot composed to favor the moody, polluted landscape or the quaint structures of an old seaside town.  While shot in 1961, BOY & BICYCLE wouldn’t actually be finished until 1965, after receiving a 250 pound grant by the British Film Institute’s experimental film fund.

BOY & BICYCLE may not quite resemble the artistic voice that has since become iconic in contemporary cinema, but it is nevertheless a milestone work in Scott’s career, serving as a calling card for the burgeoning young director to launch himself out of the minor leagues of amateur student filmmaking.


TELEVISION WORK (1965-1969)

When we think of feature film directors who successfully made the jump from the television realm, the first person to come to mind is usually Steven Spielberg, who famously broke into the industry when his peers were still laboring through their undergraduate thesis projects.

We think of him as a trailblazer in this regard, but few are aware that he was actually following a path paved by others like director Ridley Scott.  Although his stint on the small screen was relatively short, spanning from 1965 to 1969, Scott used this time efficiently and built up a commendable body of TV work that would establish the foundation of his career.

Following his graduation from the Royal College of Art in 1963, Scott found work in the BBC’s Art Department, a gig that indulged and developed the natural inclinations towards design and mise-en-scene that would later form one of the cornerstones of his own directorial aesthetic.  1965 saw the completion of his first film, BOY & BICYCLE, the warm reception to which led to his very first professional credit: directing an episode of the British show, Z CARS, titled “ERROR OF JUDGMENT”.

Scott followed that in 1966 with another show, THIRTY MINUTE THEATRE, shooting an episode called “THE HARD WORD”.

ADAM ADAMANT LIVES! “THE LEAGUE OF UNCHARITABLE LADIES (1966)

Scott’s next third credited gig in the television realm is the only one that’s publicly available, so for our purposes it must serve not just on its own merits, but as a representative sample of his TV directing work as a whole.  In 1966, Scott was brought in by producer Verity Lambert to direct an episode of the popular British TV show ADAM ADAMANT LIVES!, in what would be the first of ultimately three entries.

The show features Gerald Harper as the titular Adam Adamant, a secret agent of sorts and a somewhat-prudish relic of the Edwardian era.  I say “relic” -literally, as in he became frozen in a block of ice in 1902 and subsequently thawed out into a world he could have never imagined: London during the swinging 60’s.

This seems to be the central conceit of the show, suggesting itself as as key influence for the plot to AUSTIN POWERS: INTERNATIONAL MAN OF MYSTERY (1997).

This first episode, titled “THE LEAGUE OF UNCHARITABLE LADIES”, finds Adamant infiltrating a secret cabal of female assassins masquerading as a club of rich socialites, and subsequently trying to extricate his co-star Julie Harper’s Georgina Jones from their clutches.

The episode’s visual presentation evidences the context of its making– black and white film, presented in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio as appropriate to television’s square screens at the time, and somewhat scrappy production values stemming from what is almost certainly a meager budget.

 Scott respects the formalistic conventions of the era, for the most part; this being the 1960’s after all, he’s given ample leeway to bring an expressionistic flair to the proceedings.  TV shows of the time weren’t exactly known for their visual finesse, which makes Scott’s work here all the more noteworthy– his restless camera is always on the move, meshing formalist dolly moves with newer, flashier techniques like rack zooms, lens flares, and experimental compositions.

Throughout the episode, Scott evidences a visceral sense of place, shooting from a moving vehicle like he did on BOY & BICYCLE to capture the fleeting rhythms of London’s street life.  He also lavishes precious screen-time on setups that are fairly nonconsequential from a plot standpoint, but serve to evoke a mood– case in point, a driving sequence that lingers on the glossy hood of a car as it glows with the neon of passing signage.

It’s safe to say that the disparate elements of Scott’s trademark visual aesthetic have yet to blend together into a cohesive entity, but “THE LEAGUE OF UNCHARITABLE LADIES” shows that they are nevertheless there in a primitive fashion, just waiting to be developed further.

At thirty years old, Scott had established himself as a successful director of television.  He’d follow his stint on ADAM ADAMANT LIVES! with two more episodes of the show’s second season, titled “DEATH BEGINS AT SEVENTY” and “THE RESURRECTIONISTS”.

This, naturally, begat more work: an episode for HALF HOUR STORY titled “ROBERT”, and two episodes of THE INFORMER titled “NO FURTHER QUESTIONS” and “YOUR SECRETS ARE SAFE WITH US, MR. LAMBERT”. His final credit in television would go to a 1969 episode of MOGUL titled “IF HE HOLLERS, LET HIM GO”.

While this particular phase of his career was relatively short, it was nonetheless a vital one that established a respectable creative pedigree in the industry– one he’d leverage in 1968 to establish RSA, a commercial production company that remains to this day as one of the most prominent forces in the world of advertising.


HOVIS COMMERCIAL: “BIKE ROUND” (1973)

In 1968, director Ridley Scott co-founded RSA with his younger brother and fellow director, the late Tony Scott. Short for Ridley Scott Associates, the company would grow to become one of the most prominent commercial houses in the advertising industry, claiming some of the most distinguished filmmakers in the world among its roster.

As for Scott himself, he would eventually direct upwards of over 2000 commercials.  Naturally, this makes it a unwieldy, near-impossible task to generate a comprehensive analysis of his entire body of work– there sheer volume of Scott’s commercial output is so staggeringly large I couldn’t find anything in the way of even a comprehensive list.

As such, the best course of action appears to be a focus on only his most influential and enduring commercial works, of which there are still many.    The earliest of these is a classic spot for Hovis bread, titled “BIKE ROUND”.

Shot in 1973, the spot has gone one to become a beloved piece of British pop culture.  The concept is relatively simple, with a nostalgic storyline that finds a young boy having to walk his bike up a long, steep hill every day to buy a loaf of bread, only to have a fun ride back down the hill waiting for him as his reward.

Where the piece stands out is in its stately cinematography, which employs a high-contrast, cinematic touch that favors composition and atmosphere over dialogue.  A sense of place is quite palpable here, with Scott’s framing emphasizing the quaint British town that serves as the spot’s backdrop.

The piece feels authentic and well-lived in, and one gets the impression that this very might well be a memory of Scott’s own from somewhere in his childhood.  Scott’s aesthetic proves ideally-suited for the commercial space, given his ability to quickly convey an atmosphere and storyline in a visual way that’s both economical and full of detail.

Indeed, one would think he’s been doing this for quite some time. Commercials, by their nature, are transient and impermanent– meant for quick consumption of a timely message and then best forgotten. This is even more true of spots from “BIKE ROUND”’s era, which tended to eschew flashy narrative in favor of utilitarian messaging.

That Scott’s work here has endured after forty-plus years and amidst the noise of veritable millions of subsequent advertisements is all the more remarkable, and points to his future innovations within the format as well as his cinematic legacy at large.


THE DUELLISTS (1977)

I’ll never forget the one time I saw director Ridley Scott in person.  Like a frame from one of his movies, it has been seared into my mind.  It was the spring of 2008, and I was interning on the Warner Brothers lot.  I think I might’ve been on a coffee run for my bosses, or perhaps making my way to the commissary for lunch, and I noticed a large movement of people storming down the New York brownstone section of the backlot.

At the head of the pack was Sir Ridley himself, chomping on a huge cigar as he famously does both on set and in interviews, commanding his aides and colleagues with a militaristic precision.  In that moment, he was the very picture of the classical Hollywood director as visionary tyrant– for a young grunt like me, it was akin to seeing General Patton take the battlefield.

I’d be forgiven for thinking that he was simply born this way, having glimpsed him in a moment of his most-realized self in action– it’s very easy to forget that, many decades ago, he too had been the young (ish) man waiting on the sidelines; hungrily searching for his opportunity to prove himself.

Unless you’ve got a famous last name, nobody’s going to simply “give” you the chance to make your film– you have to fight for it at every conceivable juncture, because no one else is going to.  Scott learned this lesson the hard way, having spent many years cultivating an impressive body of commercial work that he hoped would attract the eye of Hollywood.

But here he was, already forty years old and responsible for some of the most beloved commercials in British advertising history without having ever made a feature film.  We tend to stigmatize commercial directors in relation to Hollywood filmmakers, having been conditioned over the years to regard advertising as a lesser form of moving image.

One can only imagine, then, how much more defined that separation must have been in the 1970’s when Scott– a director with hundreds, if not one-thousand plus commercials to his credit– could only make the jump to features by sheer force of will.  After four false starts and unproduced screenplays, Scott finally gained traction with an adaptation of a short story by Joseph Conrad titled “The Duel”.

Not being much of a writer himself, Scott turned to Gerald Vaughan-Jones, a screenwriter whom he had collaborated with twenty years earlier on an unproduced script titled “The Gunpowder Plot”.  Together, they fleshed out Conrad’s short story about the decades-long rivalry between two French officers and the contemptuous bond they forge through a series of duels, delivering the blueprint for what would become Scott’s first feature film: THE DUELLISTS (1977).

Despite its aspirations as an opulent and sweeping period piece, THE DUELLISTS is nevertheless a scrappy independent production– indeed, Scott was compelled to forego his own salary in order to make the most of the production’s relatively meager budget.  Scott and company shot entirely on location, making full use of the picturesque backdrops and natural, diffused sunlight that surrounded them.

Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel headline the film as the eponymous duellists, d’Hubert and Feraud.  The characters are well-suited towards simmering acrimony: d’Hubert is a rakish aristocrat who seems to effortlessly rise through the ranks by sheer charisma and the grace afforded him by his caste, while Feraud is an intensely stubborn and highly-skilled swordsman from a working class background.

What begins as a minor tiff over d’Hubert’s delivery of bad news from the front grows over the years into a series of encounters driven by Feraud’s obsessive quest to see his humiliated honor satisfied.  No matter how much d’Hubert tries to distance himself from this feud and set himself up for a leisurely life in post-Napoleonic France, he can’t help but repeatedly get drawn back into the fray by Feraud, a die-hard Bonapartist who sees his rival’s Royalist inclinations as the stuff of high treason.

Scott stretches his limited budget by focusing almost entirely on his two leads, exaggerating the scope of their interior drama to compensate for the shortage of visual spectacle.  However, the decades-spanning narrative provides ample opportunity for supporting performances by actors like Albert Finney, a young & undiscovered Pete Postlethwaite, and Gay Hamilton and Alan Webb of BARRY LYNDON (1975) fame.

Indeed, the influence of Stanley Kubrick’s BARRY LYNDON hangs over the proceedings like a shadow or a spectre– a palpable presence that lingers in the corners of every frame.  Similar artistic choices populate both films– lingering zooms, a stately orchestral score, and even an omniscient narrator (played here by American actor Stacy Keach).

This being said, THE DUELLISTS stands on its own merits in regards to its cinematography– a testament more so to Scott’s eye as a visual stylist rather than first-time feature cinematographer Frank Tidy, whose performance Scott reportedly found to be so unsatisfactory that he handled camera operating duties himself for large swaths of the production.

Originating on 35mm film in the 1.85:1, THE DUELLISTScinematography uses BARRY LYNDON’s romantic images as a jumping-off point while infusing a visceral grit that shows the era as the sweaty, bloody, and filthy time that it really was.

Scott’s considered compositions and earthy, tobacco color palette give the picture an identity all its own– one that points to the later hallmarks of Scott’s visual aesthetic with abundant instances of stylish silhouettes, handheld camerawork, blinding lens flares, and soft, romantically-gauzy highlights.

THE DUELLISTS, like BARRY LYNDON, is also notable for its evocative use of natural light, especially in interior sequences that utilize a large key source like a window while foregoing any fill, letting the frame fall beautifully off into absolute darkness.  This, of course, is how interiors would have naturally looked at the time, before the magic of electricity cast its widespread glow.

While THE DUELLISTS’ inherent technical scrappiness is a product of its meager budget, Scott nevertheless turns this into an asset that gives his first film a street-level immediacy entirely different from BARRY LYNDON’s birds-eye view.

As a director prized primarily for his aesthetic flourishes, Scott admittedly possesses a limited set of thematic fascinations– only a few of which make an appearance in THE DUELLISTS.  The film begins his career-long attraction to the armed forces and the spectacle of battle, a conceit that pops up again and again in films like GI JANE (1997), GLADIATOR (2000), BLACK HAWK DOWN (2001), and KINGDOM OF HEAVEN (2005).

His affection for atmospheric, self-contained worldbuilding, owing to his background as an art director and designer, is by far the most dominant signature at play in THE DUELLISTS, with Scott fleshing out this bygone era with every scene while building to an appropriately-cinematic climax amidst the striking ruins of a castle.

Another aspect of Scott’s artistic signature at play here is his approach to filmmaking as a family affair.  He had already been successful in turning his younger brother Tony onto the profession via their joint venture with RSA, and THE DUELLISTS finds Scott installing that same love within his own sons, who were exposed to the craft by virtue of their cameos as d’Hubert’s cherubic children.

Scott’s efforts here very much favor the technical over the thematic, but the result is a remarkably assured debut that would go on to win the award for Best First Film at Cannes in the wake of a glowing critical reception.  With the success of THE DUELLISTS, Scott’s career in feature filmmaking was officially off to the races, placing him at the forefront of directors to watch– a position he would cement with his very next feature effort only two years later.


ALIEN (1979)

“In space, nobody can hear you scream”.  It’s one of the most iconic taglines in cinema history— an exercise in pulpy brilliance that perfectly encapsulates the movie it accompanies.  That movie is, of course, the 1979 science fiction classic ALIEN.  ALIEN needs little more introduction than that, having since become the foundation of a high-profile film franchise that actively pumps out new installments to this day (the latest, ALIEN: COVENANT was released in mid-2017).

Both were directed by Sir Ridley Scott, a development notable for its sheer rarity; very few filmmakers would make a return to the franchise they helped create several decades ago… especially one that had been essentially left for dead like the ALIEN franchise had been, withering on life support after a slew of poorly-received sequels.

Of course, ALIEN: COVENANT had more than its fair share of detractors too, but something about the world of ALIEN still beckoned to Scott, long after the initial film’s success kicked his career into overdrive and turned him into one of the biggest filmmakers in the world.  He’s returned twice, actually, (2012’s PROMETHEUS endeavored to reboot the franchise with a new spin on its mythology), and is even promising/threatening to make more.

All of this is to say that Scott is clearly fascinated by the cinematic possibilities of the ALIEN universe, and those that might be inclined to cynically ask “why” need only look at the 1979 original: a minimalist suspense picture with a sweeping mythology that ably evokes the unspeakable horrors waiting for us out there in the Great Unknown.

Upon first watch of the film, one might be inclined to ask: “what kind of sick, twisted person would ever dream this up?”.  The answer is screenwriter Dan O’Bannon, an eccentric character to say the least.  He had been unhappy with his previous stab at the science fiction genre— his screenplay, DARK STAR, had been made as a comedy by director John Carpenter (four years before his own breakout, HALLOWEEN), and notoriously featured a spray-painted beach ball as an antagonistic alien (1).

He longed to combine science fiction with the horror genre, with an otherworldly monster that would actually terrify audiences rather than induce them to laughter.  Working in collaboration with Ron Shussett, O’Bannon subsequently reworked the plot and tone of DARK STAR into what would become the first draft of the ALIEN screenplay.

Even at this earliest of stages, the moments that would make the finished film so iconic were already in place— the “truckers in space” attitude of the characters, the horrifying reproduction methods of the alien creature, and, of course, the show-stopping chestburster scene.

While producers found O’Bannon’s screenplay to be of poor quality from a craft perspective, they nevertheless couldn’t deny the horrific power of these moments, and subsequently snapped up the rights in good faith that a proper rewrite would patch up the problem areas.

For quite some time, director Walter Hill was attached to helm the project, but after catching Scott’s THE DUELLISTS in the wake of its impressive debut at the 1977 Cannes Film Festival, he and fellow producers Gordon Carroll & David Giler collectively agreed that Scott had the proper directorial chops to elevate ALIEN beyond its schlocky b-movie trappings.

It’s easy to forget that, despite landmark science fiction works like Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY in 1968 and Andrei Tarkovsky’s SOLARIS in 1972, the genre was regarded rather distastefully by studios in those decades.  It wasn’t until the seismic, runaway success of George Lucas’ STAR WARS in 1977 that the tide began to turn.

Anxious to capitalize off audiences’ newfound appreciation for sci-fi, executives at Twentieth Century Fox turned to ALIEN, the only genre-appropriate script they had on their desk at the time.  Indeed, the success of STAR WARS can be seen as directly responsible for Fox’s subsequent greenlighting of ALIEN,  despite the radical differences in story & tone.

Walter, Carroll & Giler’s gut feelings about Scott’s abilities proved fruitful before production even began, when the director’s detailed storyboards (affectionately referred to by his collaborators as “Ridleygrams”) impressed Fox so much that their initial $4 million budget was doubled.

This anecdote illustrates a key aspect of Scott’s artistic identity, one that is directly responsible for his continued relevancy and success within the industry.  The importance of proper prep work before shooting is hammered into the mindsets of all directors, but surprisingly, few actually take the sentiment to heart.

Scott’s productivity and the relatively consistent quality of the product itself is due in no small part to the importance he places on prep and pre-production.  One needs only to look at any one of his countless number of signature Ridleygrams to see that the man views prep work as equal to, if not more important than, the work of shooting itself.

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STAR WARS may have pioneered the idea of a “worn & dirty” future, but even then its story is concerned with governmental bureaucracies and elite class systems—empires, princesses, Jedi “knights”, and so on. ALIEN endeavors to democratize the realm of science fiction with characters that Middle America can relate to, basing the foundation of its characters off the conceit of “truckers in space”.

As such, the story concerns the small, tight-knit crew of the Nostromo, the space age equivalent of a massive commercial freighter truck, who have just been awakened from cryosleep long before they were scheduled to.  The ship’s onboard computer, M.U.T.H.U.R., has detected a distress signal coming from the nearby, unexplored planet of LV-426, and company protocol dictates that any distress signals detected in deep space must be adequately investigated.

Despite their own internal misgivings, the crew, headed up by their even-keel captain, Dallas (played by Tom Skerritt) lands on the windswept, stormy planet and discover the wreckage of a massive alien ship containing a room full of living eggs.  This being a horror film too, we know the score— one of the crew members is going to ignore all common sense and get a little too close to those eggs.

This honor befalls executive officer Kane, played memorably by the late, beloved character actor Sir John Hurt.  When he tries to get a closer look at one of the eggs, a hideous palm-shaped creature leaps up from it and attaches itself to his face.

The crew members bring the comatose Kane back onboard (with the facehugger still attached) and jet back off into space, where the meat of ALIEN’s story truly lies.  Kane eventually wakes up, even feeling perfectly healthy— that is, until a phallus-shaped baby xenomoprh erupts from his chest in a gruesome fountain of blood during an otherwise uneventful dinner.

With the rapidly-growing alien now loose aboard the ship, the crew fights to survive as they’re picked off one by one.  The story structure affords each performer their own moment to shine, whether its Harry Dean Stanton’s weary engineer, Brett, Veronica Cartwright’s meek audience-avatar, Lambert, Yaphet Kotto’s money-obsessed chief engineer, Parker, or Ian Holm’s coldly clinical science officer, Ash.

Of course, ALIEN’s true showcase performance lies in Sigourney Weaver, then a relative unknown whose tough, resilient femininity as the now-iconic character of Ripley made her a star.  The memorable performances provided by Scott’s cast add significant value to what otherwise could have easily been a schlocky B-movie, with a disposable set of cardboard-cutout characters offered up as sacrifice to a hungry, attention-sucking beast.

THE DUELLISTS established Scott as a supremely gifted visualist, but it’s admittedly easy to make the rolling French countryside, castle ruins, and golden sunlight look beautiful on film.  ALIEN possesses a stark, horrific beauty all its own, cementing Scott’s reputation as a visual storyteller even as he endeavors to repulse us with cramped, rundown spaceships and slimy, jet-black extraterrestrials.

Working with cinematographer Derek Vanlint, Scott shoots ALIEN on 35mm film in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio— an expected, conventional choice on its face, but one that becomes rather intriguing when considering that Scott is using a wide aspect ratio typically employed for expansive vistas to frame a claustrophobic labyrinth of corridors and dark corners.

Indeed, the 2.35:1 aspect ratio works counter to its conventional intentions so as to heighten our sense of tension and dread, evoking the Nostromo’s low ceilings by compressing the vertical axis of the frame.  Scott and Vanlint give ALIEN a metallic, industrial color palette accentuated by cold tones and grungy textures, while large, impenetrable shadows and silhouettes add a foreboding depth indicative of ALIEN’s aspirations as a work of horror.

An emphasis on atmospheric lighting is one of the hallmarks of Scott’s aesthetic, established in THE DUELLISTS with his evocative use of natural light to portray a pre-industrial, pre-electrified society. ALIEN builds on this aspect of Scott’s artistry by swinging the pendulum in the opposite direction, employing a wide mix of artificial light sources like overhead fluorescents, strobes, halogen lens flares, and even lasers that simultaneously blend and clash; the effect is a frigid, oscillating color temperature that bolsters ALIEN’s striking sense of isolation and remoteness.

Scott’s camerawork favors a mix of objective and subjective perspectives, employing classical dolly moves and pans at the outset only to give way to the controlled chaos of handheld camerawork as the claustrophobic tension mounts.

Having previously served as Scott’s sound editor on THE DUELLISTS, Terry Rawlings returns here as the head of the entire editorial department, reinforcing Vanlint’s probing cinematography with a patient, calculating pace that knows exactly when to draw out the suspense and when to strike with flashes of otherworldly horror.

Having been trained as an art director himself, Scott naturally places the utmost value on his films’ production design (arguably more so than most of his contemporaries).  And rightly so—  ALIEN’s cinematography and editing, terrifyingly effective as they are, would be nothing without compelling content within the frame itself.

For that reason alone, one can make the argument that Michael Seymour’s Oscar-nominated production design is second only to Scott’s confident direction when taking stock of the film’s legacy.  From an art design standpoint, ALIEN hinges on the interplay of industrial and organic textures to better reinforce the clash between Man and Xenomorph.

The “truckers in space” conceit dominates the design of the Nostromo and the crew’s costumes & equipment, conjuring a grimy, utilitarian future where a given vessel’s ability to sustain human life is an afterthought; a distant second to its commercial value.

One need only look at the design of the Nostromo itself, which Scott showcases lovingly throughout the film in lingering shots cleverly framed to imbue huge scale in what is actually an extremely detailed miniature.  There’s no sleek or aerodynamic design to the ship— rather, it is bulky and squat, with huge exhaust vents for an engine that no doubts needs to work overtime as it tugs a massive, city-sized refinery complex through deep space.

The interiors of the Nostromo echo the exterior design, featuring a vast underbelly of labyrinthine maintenance tunnels that open up into large, cathedral-like rooms for oversized mechanic equipment, while the ship’s living quarters are cramped, spartan, and colorless.

Naturally, all of this stands in stark contrast to the organic elements at play, which subverts this industrial, spacefaring future with an emphasis on designs that speak to our primal, unconscious need to eat and reproduce.  Swiss artist H.R. Giger bears chief responsibility for the overall design of the Xenomorph and its surrounding elements, drawing from his own nightmares to create an iconic alien design that’s simultaneously repulsive yet elegant; even beautiful.

Giger’s work is famous for blending the organic with the industrial, imbuing everything with a weird sexual energy that works on an unconscious level.  Indeed, part of what makes the Xenomorph so terrifying to us is how it evokes deeply-seated sexual fears and fascinations: the alien’s head resembles a phallus, while its starships beckon us inside their dark, damp corridors with vaginal portals.

Its reproduction cycle is designed to evoke the horror of rape, in that a facehugger “impregnates” its host by forcefully penetrating it and planting its seed.  ALIEN’s focus on primal, organic designs with highly sexual connotations speaks to universal, timeless fears that need no translation or existing phobias to be communicated.

Jerry Goldsmith’s score subtly reinforces ALIEN’s core dynamic, delivering a multi-faceted suite of cues that are at once both lush and unexpectedly romantic in an old-school Hollywood way, yet bolstered by eerie ambient textures that drum up tension.  Scott’s subsequent handling of Goldsmith’s score brings validation to some collaborators’ claims that he is difficult to work for— coldly pragmatic at best, tyrannical at worst.

In the wake of the film’s release, Goldsmith criticized the manner in which his work was used, claiming Scott had butchered his score by using several cues from the composer’s prior projects instead of the original tracks he provided.  Regardless of the bad blood between them, ALIEN’s score is rightfully celebrated as one of the key aspects of the film’s lasting appeal.

ALIEN establishes a key theme that pops up again throughout Scott’s filmography, especially within his three entries in the franchise: the philosophical quandaries of artificial intelligence.  The whole of the Nostromo is governed not by human hands, but by a seemingly omniscient computer system named M.U.T.H.U.R.

By relinquishing control of large swaths of the ship to computational autonomy, the crew is able to focus better on the work at hand— the tradeoff, however, is an increased vulnerability in critical scenarios.  The film’s subplot with Ian Holm’s’ Ash character also touches on this topic, with the stunning midpoint revelation that he is actually a sentient android.

Scott cleverly stages the surprise to shock us as much as it does the crew— with Yaphet Kotto bashing Holm’s head clean off, spewing forth a milky substance and mechanical parts instead of blood and viscera. The most experienced member of the cast at the time, Holm sells the deception with a subtle nuance that evidences just how advanced the androids of the ALIEN universe are.

Scott’s overall treatment of the character suggests a wariness, or discerning caution, towards machine sentience; indeed, the whole film serves as something of a cautionary tale about the dangers of unchecked scientific curiosity, and how easily mankind can unleash something so devastating to its very existence without fully understanding the danger it poses.

As his first big Hollywood film, ALIEN provided Scott with the platform to reach a wide audience and make his name as a feature filmmaker— and reach them he did, if firsthand accounts of people running, screaming, passing out, and barfing are to be believed.

Even smaller reactions, like people moving from the front row to the in order to distance themselves from the screen itself, prove that ALIEN’s efforts to probe mankind’s most unconscious fears and desires was almost too effective.

These stories, of course, are the stuff of box office gold, and the film’s performance suggests a macabre crossover appeal that attracted audiences who weren’t particularly predisposed to sci-fi or horror but nonetheless wanted to take part in the pop culture conversation around it.

It would take time for the critical reviews to match up with the numbers— initial notices were indicative of the genre’s poor regard with critics, but critical appreciation grew steadily over the ensuing years as ALIEN’s timeless qualities emerged.  Indeed, the passing of time hasn’t dulled ALIEN’s bite; it’s still as shocking and horrific as it was in 1979.

The Library of Congress inducted the film into its national registry in 2002, deeming ALIEN’s artistic and cultural merits worthy of historical preservation.  The following year, Fox collaborated with Scott on the assembly of an alternate “Director’s Cut” of the film.

It should be noted that Scott has always been happy with the 1979 theatrical cut, but agreed to tinker with the film for marketing purposes — and even managed to shave off a minute from the overall runtime, whereas most director’s cuts tend to run longer.

The two cuts are, for all intents and purposes, the same, with the only notable difference being the inclusion of a previously-deleted scene towards the end where Ripley obliges a dying Dallas’ request to finish him off with her blowtorch.  Today, ALIEN isn’t just remembered as the foundation of a sprawling pop culture franchise, although it most certainly is— it’s widely regarded as a bonafide classic, an unimpeachable touchstone of both the science fiction and horror genres, and the first salvo in Scott’s campaign to conquer the film industry and remake it in his image.


CHANEL NO. 5 COMMERCIAL: “SHARE THE FANTASY” (1979)

Until the 1979 release of ALIEN elevated him to the realm of major feature film directors, director Sir Ridley Scott had made the commercial segment of the entertainment industry his bread and butter.  Of course, now that he had successfully made the leap to Hollywood studio features, his advertising skills were in demand now more than ever.

While he searched for and prepped his follow-up to ALIEN, he used commercial work as opportunities to keep his skills sharp.  Of the untold number of spots he may have helmed in the years immediately following ALIEN, one stands as an exemplar of Scott’s craft and ability to shape pop culture– his 1979 spot for Chanel No. 5 titled “SHARE THE FANTASY”.

The piece occupies a comfortable place amongst his most iconic advertising work, having achieved an impact on pop culture whereby those around to see it live on TV remember it fondly and quite vividly. While the spot may seem fairly archaic to those who can only see it as a fuzzy VHS rip on YouTube, “SHARE THE FANTASY” has managed to endure over the subsequent decades as the marketing industry’s equivalent of a golden classic.

The spot finds a beautiful, statuesque woman expounding upon the everlasting quality of her beauty while she watches some random hunky dude swim in her pool.  Scott imbues the image with saturated blue and green tones, juxtaposing them against the hot orange of the actors’ skin.

A loaded sexual charge courses through the piece, be it in the symmetrical framing of the pool that’s bisected/penetrated by the shadow of a plane flying overhead, or the deliberate way in which the man emerges from the pool in such a way that he appears to come up from between the woman’s legs.

“SHARE THE FANTASY”’’s heightened, assured visual style is perhaps the clearest indicator of Scott’s touch, but his ability to convey a mood and detailed world in thirty seconds or less gives “SHARE THE FANTASY” its lasting appeal.


BLADE RUNNER (1982)

As I sit here writing this essay, it is the year 2018, in the city of Los Angeles, California.  It’s a sunny, slightly chilly morning.  When I look out my window, I see the stubby trees, freshly-watered green lawns, and the stately bungalows of Larchmont— a sleepy residential neighborhood just south of Hollywood.

With a few notable exceptions, the surrounding area probably looks just as it did several decades ago, or as it did in 1982— when an ambitious science fiction film named BLADE RUNNER dared to imagine a very different future for Los Angeles.  One of the most influential films of all time, BLADE RUNNER is famously set in the year 2019.

Imposing monolithic structures dominate a dark landscape awash in surging neon, soaking acid rain, and flying cars.  The tree-lined streets and Craftsman dwellings of my neighborhood have long since been paved over and forgotten about, falling into decay if the structures still even stand at all.  We are now just one year removed from the dystopian cyber-punk future that BLADE RUNNER envisioned, and it has thankfully failed to materialize.

However, one needs only drive through the packed streets of Koreatown at night, or look to downtown’s rapidly growing skyline to see that our steady march to a BLADE RUNNER-styled future is all but inevitable. In some ways, my personal journey with director Ridley’s Scott’s iconic masterpiece mirrors its long, hard-fought journey to attain its said-masterpiece status amongst the cinematic community.

In other words, each successive viewing of BLADE RUNNER functioned almost like an archeological dig— with every new pass, another layer of obscuring dirt and grit was stripped away to increasingly reveal the treasure underneath.  My very first experience with the film was on a well-worn videocassette borrowed from my high school library, and it was underwhelming, to say the least.

I didn’t really know what I was watching, because the tape was so degraded that the picture was a muddy smear of various browns and blacks.  It was enough to put me off the film for several years.  I was only able to first see BLADE RUNNER so clearly in 2007, when it received a lavish DVD release complete with a new cut of the film dubbed “The Final Cut”.

In the years since, I’ve revisited BLADE RUNNER several times as each successive home video format brings an added clarity and resolution, with the recent 4K UHD release being nothing short of a full-blown revelation.  In the lead-up to the writing of this essay, I devoured everything there is to see on BLADE RUNNER— each of the five official cuts, the sprawling making-of-documentary, Scott’s audio commentary, and the exhaustive supply of bonus content made available on the official multi-disc home video release.

Despite all this however, much of BLADE RUNNER manages to remain elusive— there is always something new to see, some little story bit or profound insight that decides to finally make itself known.  This is a large part of BLADE RUNNER’s enduring appeal: for all the mysteries we like to file away as “solved”, there’s untold more just waiting to discovered.

Blade Runner (1982) Director Ridley Scott and Harrison Ford on the set

As the 1970’s gave way to the 80’s, Scott was riding high on on the success of his breakout second feature, ALIEN (1979).  His inspired blend of sci-fi and horror proved to be an instant classic with audiences, and catapulted him to the forefront of the American studio system.

He quickly attached himself to DUNE, another sci-fi property that styled itself as “STAR WARS for adults”.  It was around this time, when Scott was finishing up his sound mix for ALIEN, that a producer named Michael Deeley approached him with the script for BLADE RUNNER, written by Hampton Fancher.

Adapted from the 1968 novel “Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep?”, by venerated science fiction author Philip K. Dick, BLADE RUNNER told the story of an ex-cop in the futuristic cityscape of 2019 Los Angeles, tasked with hunting and exterminating illegal, artificially-created humanoids named replicants.

Even Scott had to admit the project sounded interesting, but with DUNE already on his plate, he declined Deeley’s offer.  Sometime thereafter, in 1980, Scott’s older brother, Frank, passed away from skin cancer. The loss of his brother sent Scott into a deep, depressed state that compelled him to drop out of directing DUNE— but it also had the curious side effect of opening him up again to the notion of making BLADE RUNNER.

Fancher‘s moody, somber tone must’ve seemed an appropriate match for Scott’s mental state, and upon agreeing to make the film, Scott subsequently enlisted the services of David Peoples to deepen the hard-edged noir grooves of Fancher’s screenplay.

In this light, Scott’s approach to BLADE RUNNER serves as something of a grieving process for his late brother— an intensely personal work that reflects some of the director’s most intimate thoughts & memories; a technical triumph and cultural touchstone that transcends its pulpy genre trappings to become a heartfelt meditation on creation, death & loss— the beauty of life as defined by its ephemerality.

The world of BLADE RUNNER, despite the appeal of its flying cars and fizzy blooms of neon, is a future that humankind very much would like to avoid— in this version of 2019, the world is a polluted wasteland of super dense, cramped urban infrastructure bathed in a perpetual shower of acid rain.

Animals have long since gone extinct, replaced by replicant versions affordable only to the super rich.  Like so much dystopian futuristic fiction, Los Angeles has become an omnipresent police state, and many have left Earth entirely to live in the off-world colonies— much like Europeans sailing towards The New World to begin again in what they believe is an untouched paradise.

Bioengineered humans called replicants, or “skinjobs” by those less inclined towards politeness, exist only as a disposable slave workforce— cursed with an extremely limited lifespan of four years.  After a violent slave uprising, replicants have been deemed illegal, and specialized bounty hunters called Blade Runners have been commissioned to track them down for early “retirement”.

Amidst this brutal cityscape, the camera finds Rick Deckard: a burned-out ex-cop ripped straight out of the hard boiled-noir tradition (right down to the trench coat).  Harrison Ford’s portrayal of Deckard may not have reached the same kind of cultural penetration that Han Solo or Indiana Jones did, but his performance here is iconic nonetheless.

It’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role— even those who the creative team initially considered, like Robert Mitchum (whom Fancher envisioned during his writing) or Dustin Hoffman (who got far enough in casting talks that the storyboards bear his face).  Deckard’s long, hard-fought career has made him weary, cynical… even a bit damaged.

On top of all this, he’s dogged by a lingering suspicion that he might just be one and the same with the “skinjobs” he’s hired to exterminate.  Like so many retired ex-cops in this genre, Deckard is inevitably pulled back into service by his old boss at the LAPD, tasked with tracking down a dangerous replicant posse headed by Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty— a combat-model creation looking to break the lock on his expiration date so he can live forever.

Hauer proves an inspired casting choice, with his Aryan looks subtly evoking the eugenic pursuits of the Third Reich, and his channeling of a certain kind of restrained nuttiness (for lack of a better word) resulting in an aura of dangerous unpredictability.  His barbed liveliness stands in stark contrast to Deckard’s somber, muted nature; in several instances, one could be forgiven for thinking that Deckard is the artificial one.

Indeed, Batty’s internal awakening to the nature of his own creation, as well as its limits, arguably makes him the most human character in the entire film— a truly sympathetic antagonist who somehow manages to philosophically enrich Deckard’s life even as he attempts to end it.

For all this talk of engineered creation and artificiality, BLADE RUNNER possesses a real, throbbing heart, evidenced in Deckard’s burgeoning romance with Sean Young’s Rachael.  Emotionally unavailable in true femme fatale fashion, Rachael is an employee of the Tyrell Corporation as well as an unwitting replicant herself.  Hers is a journey of self-discovery; of learning how to become truly alive and fill oneself with passion.

The whole of BLADE RUNNER hinges on Deckard’s relationship to Rachael; together, they are the key to their own emotional salvations.  Joe Turkel, perhaps best remembered today as the ghostly bartender with a Cheshire Cat grin in Stanley Kubrick’s THE SHINING (1980), plays the creator of the replicants and the owner of the eponymous Tyrell Corporation.

A meek, frail man saddled with huge coke-bottle glasses, Tyrell lives atop a towering ziggurat, like some kind of Anglo-Aztec god.  His is a quiet, determined menace wrought from a perverted sense of parental pride and creative authorship that will be his ultimate undoing.

Daryl Hannah and Edward James Olmos round out Scott’s cast of note: Hannah as Pris, a super-agile and unexpectedly dangerous member of Batty’s skinjob posse, and Olmos as the spiffily-dressed Gaff, a fellow Blade Runner who spouts cryptic messages in a vernacular called “gutter talk”— a mishmash of several disparate languages that point to a hyper-globalized, borderless future.

One of the chief critiques lobbed at the film upon its release was the impression that the human element could be warmer, or more intimate.  Indeed, there is a slight degree of remove to the cast’s collective performance— arguably an appropriate choice for a film that explores what it truly means to be human.

BLADE RUNNER’s technical elements, however, are beyond reproach— Scott’s reputation as one of the foremost visual stylists working in cinema today transforms the film into an immersive three-dimensional experience unlike anything audiences had ever seen before.  BLADE RUNNER may be classified as a science fiction film, but the conventions and aesthetic concerns of the noir genre inform the visuals at a fundamental level.

The late Jordan Cronenweth is remembered today as a legendary cinematographer, and BLADE RUNNER is a major component of his legacy.  The film’s unique aesthetic has become a visual shorthand for a particular style of dystopian futurism, and traces of its DNA can be found in everything from other films, to TV, music videos, video games, and even commercials.

Indeed, it’s become so pervasive in contemporary culture that it’s easy to forget how truly groundbreaking BLADE RUNNER’s unique look was when it first appeared on cinema screens in 1982.  The 2.39:1 frame is soaked in the lighting conceits of neo-noir: punchy silhouettes, evocative beams of cold, concentrated light, buzzing blooms of neon color, and a perpetual bath of rain.

Shadows take on a cobalt tinge, further reinforcing the cold future of a nuclear winter, or runaway climate change.  Scott and Cronenweth blend formal compositions and camera movements with inspired, experimental visual cues, like the liquid-like shimmering and refracting of light within the cavernous chambers of Tyrell headquarters, or the infamous reflection of a dim red light in the pupils of the replicants (one of the key clues that support the argument of Deckard being an artificial creation himself).

Indeed, the red eye-light is part of a larger visual motif concerning eyes and vision that conveys their psychological significance as “windows into the soul”.  One of the very first shots is an extreme close-up of the human eye, every blood vessel visible as it reflects a massive explosion in its pupil.

A manufacturer of synthetic eyes for replicants becomes a crucial source of information for bringing Batty and his posse to Tyrell, and when Tyrell finally meets his fate at their hands, the method of death is the gouging of his eyes until they burst.  BLADE RUNNER’s heightened emphasis on the eyes is a particularly salient visual conceit, directly evoking related narrative themes like creation and the existence of a soul, while anticipating psychological concepts that had yet to enter the cultural lexicon like “the uncanny valley”.

Indeed, one of the telltale signs that an otherwise-realistic looking human character is an artificial creation is the lack of an elusively-intangible sense of “life” to the eyes.  BLADE RUNNER would come full circle in this regard, with Denis Villeneuve’s 2017 sequel, BLADE RUNNER 2049, digitally recreating a young Rachael that would’ve passed for the real thing if not for the distinct “deadness” in her eyes.

For all its various technical accomplishments, BLADE RUNNER’s production design has easily proven the most resonant in terms of cultural impact.  While the contributions of the film’s credited production designer, Lawrence G. Paul, should not be discounted or belittled, his work is still very much in service to Scott’s sprawling vision of a richly layered dystopia.

BLADE RUNNER’s urban industrial hellscape is first seen as an endless field of towering refineries belching massive balls of fire from their stacks— an image that calls back to Scott’s own background amidst a similar environment in England.  The Los Angeles of BLADE RUNNER is a hyperdense, over-polluted megalopolis ensconced in a cocoon of perpetual darkness and acid rain.

A distinct Asian character serves as one of the design’s most prescient touches, initially inspired by Scott’s travels in China and his desire to make 2019 LA feel like “Hong Kong on a bad day”.

Indeed, a nighttime drive through LA’s neon-soaked Koreatown neighborhood only reinforces the notion that our contemporary landscape is increasingly resembling BLADE RUNNER’s— a multicultural blend of Mandarin, Japanese, and Korean typographic characters and gigantic video billboards of smiling geishas that have accurately predicted Asia’s rise to world prominence in the wake of globalization.

Scott realizes BLADE RUNNER’s expansive, awe-inspiring vision of Los Angeles through a precise, meticulously-constructed blend of cutting-edge practical effects, miniatures, and models that give the film a visceral tangibility and weight that CGI has yet to completely match.

BLADE RUNNER’s mishmash of incongruous cultural aesthetics extends to the retro futuristic treatment of its interior sets, drawing influence from a sprawling set of ancient Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Aztec design references and blending it with the fantastical urbanism of Fritz Lang’s silent classic, METROPOLIS (1927).

The elegant antiquity of Tyrell’s pyramid-shaped headquarters or the distinct geometric tiling of Deckard’s cramped apartment evidence Scott’s multi-layered, almost four-dimensional design approach; one gets the distinct impression that the 21st century had sustained a revitalized Art Deco movement akin to the 1920’s that flamed out in a brief burst of passion.

For a film that’s so celebrated for a progressive and radically-conceived design approach, BLADE RUNNER nevertheless can’t help being a product of its time.

Scott rightly predicts a world dominated by corporate signage and logos, but the brands that BLADE RUNNER chooses to enshrine in towering neon nevertheless points to the limitations of a contemporaneous perspective: PanAm, Atari, RCA, TDK…. all giants of their respective industries in the early 1980’s, only to see their profiles significantly reduced as we approach 2019 in the real world — that is, if they still even exist at all.

The original score, created by celebrated composer Vangelis fresh off his Oscar win for CHARIOTS OF FIRE (1981), has since gone on to become one of the major cornerstones of BLADE RUNNER’s legacy.  The synth sound that has come to define 80’s pop music serves as the foundation for Vangelis’ iconic suite of cues, but Vangelis finds every opportunity to exploit the sound in an avant-garde context.

Majestic synth horns and heavy drums create an otherworldly atmosphere that’s at once both contemplative and foreboding, creating an uncertain future rooted in the musical conventions of the noir genre.  One of the score’s most interesting aspects, to my mind, is the inclusion of several pre-existing tracks from Vangelis like “Memories Of Green”.

The romantic, jazzy track uses a live saxophone that stands out by sheer virtue of the analog nature of its recording.  The sound is used in conjunction with a piano-based love theme, and appears only in sequences that concern the romance between Deckard and Rachael.

The effect is a subtle, yet evocative, reflection of the film’s internal struggle between the organic and the artificial, as well as a heightening of the idea that love, not the circumstances of their creation, is ultimately what makes them human.

With his third feature film, Scott’s artistic identity begins to exhibit recurring characteristics and thematic preoccupations.  One such theme is intelligence and self-awareness in artificial life-forms.  The replicants of BLADE RUNNER are not robots, like Ian Holm’s Ash was in ALIEN, but rather bioengineered humans designed with short lifespans for the express purpose of disposable slave labor.

While they are imbued with superhuman abilities like strength or agility, they are viewed by society at large as inferior life forms; less than human.  As such, they are oppressed, abused, and persecuted by their creators.  When they attempt to rise up and assert their humanity, they are deemed “illegal” on Earth and systematically hunted down for extermination.

Fully aware of their shortened lifespans, the replicants feel emotions with more passion and conviction than their conventionally-birthed counterparts.  They are driven by an internal conflict derived from the knowledge that, while their emotions are real, the memories that drive them are not— they are implanted, sourced from a manufactured set of pre-existent memories that delude them with the illusion of a life lived.

They want to break free of this cycle; to live long enough to make their own memories.  This is a very heavy, potent idea to explore— especially in the space of a single feature film.  As such, Scott explores this theme throughout several films, most notably in his three entries in the ALIEN franchise.

The nature of these explorations within ALIEN and BLADE RUNNER share such similar territory that they have somewhat conjoined into a larger shared universe where the androids of the former grew out of the replicants of the latter.

Indeed, an Easter egg found on the DVD for 2012’s PROMETHEUS establishes a concrete connection wherein Tyrell serves as a mentor to Peter Weyland, who’s name forms one half of the Weyland-Yutani corporation that employs the Nostromo crew in ALIEN (189).

While Scott isn’t necessarily a director known for his stylistic affectations outside of the purely visual, there are nonetheless aspects of his craft that he places an exaggerated emphasis on due to their personal resonance with him.  His background as a designer has engineered his directorial eye to favor the architecture of his surrounding environment, be it a pyramid-shaped set on a soundstage or the varying shapes of the real-world urban environment that surrounds him.

BLADE RUNNER uses several real-world locales that were chosen, in large part, because of their architectural and aesthetic value.  The film famously uses the symmetrical brick and iron labyrinth that is the Bradbury Building, but other LA design landmarks like the shimmering 2nd Street Tunnel or the stone-tiled Ennis-Brown House in Los Feliz work their way into BLADE RUNNER’s narrative as a striking covered roadway and the exterior of Deckard’s apartment, respectively.

Going back even further into Scott’s development: as a young boy who was raised almost exclusively by his mother for several years while his father was away fighting World War II, he gained an immense appreciation for strong, capable women that is reflected in his art.  

BLADE RUNNER is chock full of well-developed women characters who can be tough without sacrificing their femininity: Rachael, Pris, and even the female replicant who hides out from the authorities in plain sight as a snake-charming entertainer all actively drive BLADE RUNNER’s story with their decisions.  In a way, these characters are better-realized and developed than even Deckard himself.

Scott’s unflappable, tireless work ethic bears the responsibility for his continued productivity, but it also has earned him a reputation as a hard-ass director with a somewhat tyrannical attitude towards the collaborative aspects of filmmaking.

BLADE RUNNER’s long, famously-grueling shoot established this aspect of Scott’s reputation in earnest, with openly disdainful crew members wearing T-shirts that read “Yes, Guv’nor, My Ass!” and Scott responding in kind with a T-shirt of his own reading “Xenophobia Sucks”.

Indeed, Scott seemed to tangle with nearly every member of his crew and cast— including Ford.  It’s admittedly difficult to see the grand sweep of a filmmaker’s vision when one is laboring through the day-to-day logistics of production, and embattled accounts such as the ones that plagued the production of BLADE RUNNER point to just how pioneering that vision truly was.

In every way, at every stage of its development, BLADE RUNNER — as an idea as well as a film — was ahead of its time.  We now have the film as a visual landmark to reference, but BLADE RUNNER did not have that luxury because nothing like it had ever existed before.

The film’s mere existence is nothing short of a miracle, with nearly every artistic and financial decision right down to its title having undergone a bitter battle to the death (Fancher’s script went through a seemingly endless series of alternate titles like MECHANISMO and DANGEROUS DAYS before finally arriving at BLADE RUNNER).

At several points, the film came so close to never happening at all: one particular episode saw the filmmakers’ initial source of funding for their $28 million budget pulled away before the shoot, necessitating a last-minute hail-Mary deal orchestrated by Deeley between no less than three separate production entities.

For most films, the theatrical release is the end of the story, but in the case of BLADE RUNNER, the story was only just beginning.  One of the most enduring aspects of BLADE RUNNER’s appeal is the aura of mystery that envelopes the film itself, with no less than five officially-released cuts competing for attention.

The initial theatrical cut is dogged by a supremely shitty voiceover by Ford that sounds like he might be drugged— indeed, one account maintains Ford was contractually obligated to deliver the voiceover and actively sabotaged it so it wouldn’t get used (Ford denies this publicly).

This cut also ends with an ill-advised happy ending, which finds Deckard musing about his hopeful future with Rachael as he whisks her away to a rugged, mountainous landscape comprised of unused aerial footage shot for THE SHINING.

The summer of 1982 saw a wave of high-profile films like STAR TREK II, THE THING, and E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL dominate the box office, leaving very little air for a nihilistic sci-fi noir that critics had dragged for its sluggish pacing and hyper-dense intellectualism.

Despite landing with a whimper, BLADE RUNNER nonetheless found an audience, garnering enough critical regard to land Oscar nominations for Best Art Direction and Best Visual Effects that reinforced its reputation as a visual tour de force.

An International Cut containing added moments of graphic violence was also released in 1982, and for many years thereafter, this cut served as the definitive version of BLADE RUNNER on home video (most notably, the Laserdisc put out by the Criterion Collection).

The emerging home video market was arguably BLADE RUNNER’s saving grace, with the ability to rewatch and analyze the film at one’s own pace leading to a small cult following and several passionate academic essays praising the film’s richly-layered visuals and thematic complexity.

Many critics who originally trashed the film would come around later in life, adding BLADE RUNNER to their “best-of” lists for all-time, or at least the 80’s.  The BLADE RUNNER “renaissance” wouldn’t truly begin until the early 1990’s, when an alternate cut dubbed “The Workprint” emerged at sneak preview screenings around the country.

The Workprint, initially thought to be Scott’s preferred version of the film, was the first version of BLADE RUNNER to dramatically deviate from what came before— several minutes had been trimmed, the contentious “happy ending” was excised entirely, and the opening titles utilized a different design style that included a definition for replicants attributed to a fictional dictionary published in 2016.

Despite these improvements, the Workprint was still by no means an ideal way of viewing BLADE RUNNER: its status as a so-called “work print” meant that the picture quality was sourced from a rougher, low-quality telecine, possessing a totally different color timing that desaturated the vibrant colors (the blues, especially).

This cut also retained a temp track used during the climactic confrontation between Deckard and Batty, with the cue pulled from another film and clashing dramatically with the character of Vangelis’ score. Needless to say, a perfectionist like Scott was not happy with this “work-in-progress” version being circulated on such a mass scale, so he partnered with Warner Brothers to create an official Director’s Cut in 1992.

This fourth version — one that, when all was said and done, he was still not entirely happy with — was the first to delete Ford’s voiceover entirely, and the first to incorporate the appearance of Deckard’s unicorn dream, which exists to reinforce Scott’s conviction that Deckard himself might be a replicant.

The warm response to this cut finally brought BLADE RUNNER into the mainstream, its nihilistic sentiments now firmly in line with a time where grunge music dominated pop culture and the approaching turn of the millennium invited musings about fantastical, apocalyptic futures.

BLADE RUNNER was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry in 1993, but its influence and importance in pop culture was already well underway.  Descendant works like 1999’s THE MATRIX or the 2000 video game PERFECT DARK wore the profound influence of BLADE RUNNER on their sleeves, as do more recent works from this year like Duncan Jones’ MUTE and the Netflix series ALTERED CARBON.

At the same time, BLADE RUNNER also brought the larger body of Philip K. Dick’s literary work to Hollywood’s attention, kickstarting a long series of film adaptations that would make Stephen King slightly green with envy.  Naturally, BLADE RUNNER’s resounding influence would come full circle in 2018 with BLADE RUNNER 2049, a sequel executive produced by Scott and directed by emerging auteur Denis Villeneuve that would subsequently meet the same initial box office fate as its predecessor.

The Final Cut, released in 2007 with the film’s debut on the DVD market, further improves on Scott’s ultimate dissatisfaction of the Director’s Cut with minor nips and tucks as well as an improved picture quality thanks to a 4K scan of the original camera negative.

As is par for the course for BLADE RUNNER, the Final Cut ran into big troubles of its own, with the restoration work stalling out a year after its commission in 2001, only to start back up again in 2005.  This cut was arguably the most well-received version of BLADE RUNNER, aligning itself more closely to Scott’s initial vision than any previous cut had done.

“The Director’s Cut” is a relatively recent phenomenon in Hollywood filmmaking, having arisen either as a gimmicky marketing tool or a filmmaker’s genuine bid to retain some creative control in a post-auteur climate where the suits prioritize profits over art.

Scott’s filmography is littered with such Director’s Cuts for both reasons, BLADE RUNNER being the first to undergo a recut for the sake of its artistic salvation.  This is the beautiful irony of Scott’s legacy: his productivity and no-nonsense work ethic suggest the attitude of a journeyman filmmaker; a gun-for hire.

However, he has been instrumental in establishing the practice of Director’s Cuts as a way for audiences to rediscover “failed” films, and uncover the underlying artistry that they might have missed the first time around.  As the various layers of figurative grime have been wiped away from BLADE RUNNER’s iconic frames over the ensuing decades, the picture has increasingly resolved into focus as a portrait of a fully-formed filmmaker operating at the peak of his powers.

For all his later accomplishments in life, Scott will be remembered and cherished primarily because of BLADE RUNNER: a stunning tour-de-force of craft and imagination with a beautifully profound message at the heart of its story.  Gaff’s final line has echoed in the back of our heads for nearly forty years: “it’s too bad she won’t live… but then again, who does?”.

This, finally, is the beating heart of Scott’s neon-soaked masterpiece.  Our limited time on Earth (replicants doubly so) is what makes life itself so beautiful… and it’s what we do with that time that defines our humanity.


COMMERCIAL & MUSIC VIDEO WORK (1982-1984)

While the 1982 release of director Ridley Scott’s third feature film, BLADE RUNNER, was considered a box office disappointment, it could hardly be called a failure.  His next move would be a return to the commercial world that made his name— a capitalization off his surging cultural capital, rather than a retreat to a safe place where he could lick his wounds.

Indeed, the two works readily available from this period — a music video for Roxy Music’s “Avalon” and Apple’s “1984” Super Bowl ad — evidence the artistic growth of a director operating at the peak of his powers.

ROXY MUSIC: “AVALON” (1982)

Scott’s 1982 music video for “AVALON”, off of Roxy Music’s album of the same name, is made notable by virtue of its existence as the director’s only contribution to the music video medium.  The track is a lush, downbeat ballad that exudes material luxury, so Scott responds in kind with a series of decadent, sumptuously-shot tableaus of rich people caught up in the thrall of vacant boredom.

From a visual standpoint, the piece is immediately identifiable as Scott’s work, boasting expressive lighting, silhouettes, an ornate and highly-detailed backdrop, and confident camerawork that echoes the luxe mise-en-scene.  What’s less identifiable is his intent, as the tone that comes across is downright… creepy.

It’s as if an origin prequel for THE PURGE decided to ape Alain Resnais’ LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD (1961).  There’s a quietly unsettling, leering vibe to the whole thing— whatever the opposite of a voyeuristic experience is — and the more I think about it, the more I grow to like the concept of it.

The somber, bored rich people grow increasingly aware of our presence, looking at us directly with stares that feel exponentially confrontational… or maybe I’m just reading into it a little too much.  There’s also an owl thrown in there for good measure, which seems to serve little purpose other than nodding back to BLADE RUNNER.

Scott’s only music video injects a nuanced complexity into an otherwise simplistic 80’s hit, becoming something of a comment on the song itself rather than a visual echo of its lyrics or style.

APPLE: “1984” (1984)

At the risk of laying down some hot takes, there’s a strong argument to be made that Scott’s commercial career is even more successful than his filmography of theatrical features.  If one were to make such an argument, Exhibit A would undoubtedly be his 1984 spot for Apple, which has since gone on to become one of the most influential, recognizable and iconic commercials of all time.

The spot that introduced the Apple Macintosh computer to the world, “1984” paints a vivid picture of a dystopian future ruled over by a looming dictator seen only on a giant television screen while legions of identical followers obediently watch his fiery, droning speech.

Into this picture storms a virile Olympian who flings a giant sledgehammer into the screen, destroying the dictator’s face and freeing his followers from their hypnotic spell. The expressive lighting and highly-detailed production design point to Scott’s signature, while establishing the template for future commercial directors like David Fincher to follow.

Scott’s affection for strong heroines gives “1984” an added resonance— on a surface level, she stands out by virtue of being a vibrant, muscular and confidant woman in a sea of pale, atrophied, faceless men.  Her presence also points to a further sprawl of complex ideas, like democracy (as embodied by an Amazonian Lady Liberty) laying waste to fascism, or the sophistication of the feminine form reinforcing the evolved design ethos that would make Apple a computing giant.

That Scott is able to convey so much thematic subtext and world building in a mere 60 seconds is a testament to his innate understanding of the medium and his staggering power as a visual storyteller.

It sees strange, or perhaps even disingenuous, to talk of marketing campaigns as cultural touchstones, but truly inspired advertising has the ability to transcend its commercial, capitalistic ambitions and become Art. Scott’s “1984” spot is one of the rare few to resonate at this level, cementing itself as arguably the zenith of the director’s commercial filmography.


LEGEND (1985)

Given director Ridley Scott’s English background and his affection for highly-detailed and richly-developed world building, it was perhaps only a matter of time until he tackled the fantasy genre.  He would achieve such a feat with 1985’s LEGEND, his fourth feature film.

Released three years after the somewhat disappointing reception of BLADE RUNNER (1982), LEGEND’s genre trappings had beckoned to Scott ever since the production of his first feature, THE DUELLISTS (1977), where he conceived of an idea to do a cinematic adaptation of “Tristan & Isolde” (2).

That particular project fell apart after a brief development period, but through the ensuing years, he still nonetheless harbored a desire to make what he described as a “lean” fantasy picture— one that “didn’t get bogged down in too classical a format”.

In other words, he wished to apply the visual grammar of 80’s pop cinema to a genre usually regarded for its regal formalism and swashbuckling adventure. Before he commenced production on BLADE RUNNER, Scott worked for five weeks with screenwriter William Hjortsberg, hammering out over fifteen drafts of a screenplay while referencing Disney’s classic animated films SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS (1937), FANTASIA (1940), & PINOCCHIO (1940), as well as Jean Cocteau’s BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1946) (3).  Once the arduous shoot for BLADE RUNNER was over, Scott turned his attention to actively producing LEGEND, working with producer Arnon Milchan on a budget of $24.5 million.

The final product would prove divisive, becoming the first real failure of Scott’s feature career for a time before finding critical reappraisal in the wake of a Director’s Cut release decades later. For all the detail and attention he lavishes on its presentation, Scott doesn’t necessarily divulge a lot of information about the world of LEGEND.

We don’t even know the land’s name — we just know that it a lush, forested paradise where magical unicorns run free (an image that retroactively reminds one of a similar appearance in Scott’s Director’s Cut of BLADE RUNNER some years later).  We’re quickly introduced to a beautiful, virginal princess named Lili (played by Mia Sara), whose naive innocence begets a kind of stubborn greediness that kickstarts the story.

When she’s told by her friend, a Peter-Pan-like forest boy/creature named Jack (played by a baby-faced Tom Cruise), that she mustn’t touch the sacred unicorns —that no human has ever dared to make contact with the magical horned horse — she goes ahead and does it anyway.

Jack is the protector of this forest realm, which includes a guardianship over these rare unicorns — indeed, there’s only two left in the entire world, and their horns are regarded by some as a treasure onto themselves. Jack and Lili are unaware that said treasure is being aggressively sought after by none other than Darkness, the incarnation of earthly evil who rules over a massive, foreboding palace shrouded in perpetual shadow.

Tim Curry, nearly unrecognizable under pounds of heavy prosthetic makeup that reportedly took 5 ½ hours to apply every day, delivers one of the genre’s most iconic performances by relishing in his devilish character’s seductive charisma.

During a moment of weakness for Jack, which finds him forsaking his duty to dive for a ring that Lili has dropped into the lake, Darkness’ goblin lackeys strike— hacking off one of the unicorns’ horns and subsequently plunging this idyllic, sunny paradise into a dark, icy winter.

It’s only a matter of time until Lili and the last unicorn are captured, prompting Jack to team up with a band of dwarves led by a Puck-style nymph/boy thing named Gump (David Bennent) and venture forth into Darkness’ lair to quite literally deliver them from Evil incarnate.

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LEGEND retains the expressive cinematography that’s hereto marked Scott’s filmography— a blend of atmospheric lighting, silhouettes, dynamic camerawork, and bright, saturated color.  Having originally wanted to shoot on large format 70mm, Scott and cinematographer Alex Thomson settle for the standard 35mm gauge in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio.

The film’s fantastical theatricality affords Scott to further push the bounds of his aesthetic, evidenced in stylish flourishes like large shafts of concentrated light, impressionistic slow-motion, and even the use of black-light FX on Darkness’ makeup during the Theatrical Cut’s opening sequence.

These elements allow Scott to immediately put his stamp on the fantasy genre, as does the decision to avail himself of the total control of soundstage shooting. Shot on the legendary 007 soundstage at Pinewood Studios, LEGEND finds Scott and production designer Assheton Gorton building the film’s insanely detailed world from scratch.

The controlled conditions allow Scott to fully indulge in his signature worldbuilding, giving lush atmosphere to his artificial forest stages through fog, smoke, snow, and theatrical lighting.  It’s worth noting that only a few shots were captured outdoors, and the absolute seamlessness with which returning editor Terry Rawlings is able to cut these moments in with the soundstage environments stands as a testament to Scott’s unparalleled eye for detail and design.

Scott’s need for absolute control over every little detail speaks to his consummate professionalism and a strategic approach towards filmmaking that wouldn’t be out of place in the military.

When he wants to, the man can move mountains and achieve the seemingly-impossible— in a move that would anticipate his recent high-profile replacement of Kevin Spacey with Christopher Plummer a few short months before the release of 2017’s ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD, Scott found himself confronted with an extreme logistical challenge when, only ten days before wrapping, the 007 soundstage hosting LEGEND’s production burned down in a freak accident.

In the end, Scott’s urgent recalibrations and considered rebuilding efforts would avoid catastrophe, ultimately ending up just three days behind (3).   Like many of Scott’s films, LEGEND was not well-received upon its theatrical release, only gaining a reappraisal in the wake of an extended director’s cut some time later.

It rightfully received an Oscar nomination for Best Makeup, and would come to be regarded as a cult classic among fantasy enthusiasts (4). LEGEND is even said to have profoundly influenced Shigeru Miyamoto’s vision for the iconic video game series, LEGEND OF ZELDA.

The film’s mixed reaction speaks to its nature as a triumph of imagination; as a filmic experience, however, LEGEND is still arguably something of a mess, possessing little of the laser-like focus Scott applied to his previous work.  The director seems to have waffled in his vision at a crucial point in post-production, his internal conflict embodied in the last-minute switch of composers from Jerry Goldsmith to Tangerine Dream.

Goldsmith’s conventional orchestral score was removed after the initial series of test screenings, replaced by Tangerine Dream’s synth-heavy take: a cheesy relic of 80’s ambient pop comprised of squealing electric guitars and an artificial pan flute that provides only cheap mysticism.

The band’s cinematic collaborations with other directors like Michael Mann are well-regarded, but their work in LEGEND, at least to my mind, is a rare misfire.  The drastic change in tonal styles can be attributed to Scott’s last-minute change of heart, having lost interest in the story’s thematic and narrative complexities and wishing instead to deliver a brisk slice of gaudy 80’s escapism.

He proceeded to cut twenty minutes or so, creating an 89 minute edit that feels slight, rushed, and insubstantial. The Theatrical Cut’s unfavorable reviews support this impression.

As years passed, rumors persisted of the existence of Scott’s Director’s Cut, but it was thought to be long-since lost.  In 2002, an answer print of the Director’s Cut was discovered, deemed to be in sufficient enough a shape for an official release.

With those lost twenty minutes and Goldsmith’s original score restored, the Director’s Cut of LEGEND indeed feels like an entirely different picture.  The extra screentime gives the narrative’ s developments time to breathe, the orchestral nature of the score gives the proceedings more of a timeless aura, and Jack & Lili’s expanded quest reinforces its adventurous spirit with rich, complex thematic undercurrents about lust, greed, and vanity.

In essence, it feels like a completely different film. This version of LEGEND, which was the one initially screened for test audiences to positive scores, is arguably far superior to the Theatrical Cut— indeed, even Cruise himself disowned the initial release when the Director’s Cut was found.

Why Scott was compelled to disregard a positive test reaction and whittle LEGEND down to a trivial swashbuckler is anyone’s guess, although it can be said that this was a rare instance where the director’s trademark decisiveness, which has otherwise served him so well, completely backfired on him.

Today, LEGEND is still regarded somewhat as the minor Scott film that aspired to be major, its ultimate position only buoyed by the fortunate existence of the Director’s Cut.  At the time, however, the damage had already been done—- the initial, highly-regarded phase of his early feature career was over, having given way to a prolonged period of adequate journeyman works that would last for over a decade.


COMMERCIALS (1985-1986)

Many feature directors get their start in the commercial realm, but flee from it as soon as they achieve a degree of theatrical success.  To these filmmakers, commercials are an artistic ghetto; soulless places devoid of genuine meaning, ruled over by corporate fascists wielding the terrifying power of “final cut”.

Others, however, genuinely thrive in this environment, returning time and time again to dabble in these short-form expressions of commerce. To them, the commercial world is a place to keep their skills sharp; to experiment with new visual styles or techniques; or even as an enjoyable way to put their kids through college.

For director Ridley Scott, the commercial field represents all these things, but it also represents an opportunity to dictate the cultural zeitgeist to a captive audience. After all, moviegoers have to choose to buy a ticket, but television watchers have to watch commercials… even if they change the channel, there’ll only be more commercials waiting for them there too.

By the mid-80’s, Scott’s commercial repertoire was well-established, but two particular pieces from this period stand out — not just as exemplary displays of craft, but also as pop culture-defining works of commercial art.

PEPSI: “CHOICE OF A NEW GENERATION” (1985)

In 1985, Scott shot “CHOICE OF A NEW GENERATION”, Pepsi’s then-latest bid at capturing the youth demographic.  The piece is a museum-grade example of 80’s pop culture, profoundly influenced by Michael Mann’s mega-successful television series, MIAMI VICE, to the extent that Don Johnson himself appears (alongside Glenn Frey).

That said, the piece also anticipates Scott’s own urban neo-noir, BLACK RAIN, by four years… so one can’t help but wonder if it’s not necessarily MIAMI VICE, but also Scott himself, who was driving the decade’s pop aesthetic.  Set to a brooding rock composition, “CHOICE OF A NEW GENERATION” finds Johnson and Frey in a slick sports car, cruising the nocturnal urban landscape.

The piece is dripping with style— a blend of pink, purple and cobalt hues stemming from neon signage, evocative silhouettes and moody shadows.  Scott’s strengths as a world builder are on full display, creating a seductive, high-fashion environment where anything can happen.

Despite the dated cheesiness of it’s style, one can easily see how the spot’s visuals still influence contemporary advertising.  The spot works precisely because it’s not desperately trying to sell something; indeed, money can’t buy the elusive cool factor that the spot projects, but by connoting that vibe with Pepsi cola, this aspirational lifestyle suddenly becomes very tangible and accessible indeed.

WR GRACE: “DEFICIT TRIALS 2017” (1986)

A year later, Scott shot a memorable spot for American chemical conglomerate WR Grace, titled “DEFICIT TRIALS 2017”.  It’s clear from the outset that the marketing firm behind the spot tracked Scott down precisely because of his legendary Apple spot, “1984”, as “DEFICIT TRIALS 2017” creates a somewhat-similar dystopia wherein the old have been put on trial by the young for flagrant debts that they’ve saddled onto future generations.

In this post-Recession economic climate, that doesn’t necessarily seem like too bad of an idea, but network suits caught up in the booming thrall of the Reagan years found themselves so aghast at the notion that they refused to air it.  It would take an extraordinary intervention from a collective of independent television stations for the ad to finally see the light of day.

The influence of Scott’s 1982 classic, BLADE RUNNER, is unmistakable— futuristic touches like thin bands of neon light update the surrounding old-world architecture, creating an earthy black-and-brown color palette peppered with touches of electric blue.  Even the underlying soundtrack is notably similar to Vangelis’ iconic score.

Scott’s formalistic camera smoothly tracks and dollies through this evocative environment, rendered in the theatrical lighting that serves as yet another of his signatures.  Again, the piece benefits from Scott’s production design background, possessing an environment that conveys a rich backstory with a minimum of exposition, immediately dropping the viewer right into the action without having to catch him or her up to speed.

As a result of its diminished profile in the wake of the network ban, “DEFICIT TRIALS 2017” isn’t mentioned in the same breath as other classic Scott commercials like “1984” or Chanel No. 5’s “SHARE THE FANTASY” (1979), but thanks to its relatively newfound accessibility on YouTube, perhaps one day it will be.


SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME (1987)

Director Ridley Scott is rightfully celebrated for his ambitious achievements in cinematic worldbuilding. Milestone works like ALIEN (1979), BLADE RUNNER (1982), GLADIATOR (2000) and THE MARTIAN (2015) stand as testaments to his talent in creating immersive cinematic environments.

Indeed, this has become such a dominant component of his artistic profile that when he turns his eye towards stories set in a contemporaneous “real” world, they inevitably come to be regarded as minor curios.

Films like GI JANE (1998), AMERICAN GANGSTER (2007), A GOOD YEAR (2006) and THE COUNSELOR (2013) are very rarely mentioned in the same breath as the others I mentioned above— the absence of an imaginative backdrop arguably lending to impressions of a half-hearted effort on Scott’s part, despite each of these so-called “minor” films serving as a prime example of his elevated approach to genre and technical finesse.

But go back and watch these films again: yes, they might take place in a world that you recognize as your own, but can you truly deny that Scott’s rendering of our world isn’t as atmospheric and immersive as his marquee projects?

The fact of the matter is that Scott’s consummate dedication to his artistic values applies to every one of his projects, no matter the genre or story.  Even his “real-world” narratives pack a fantastical, cinematic punch, and there is arguably no better case study for this notion than Scott’s fifth feature film (and first foray into this arena), 1987’s SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME.

Taking its name from the iconic Gershwin track, SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME is a moody, seductive crime thriller set in modern-day New York City.  Writer Howard Franklin had been working on the script for quite some time— his first draft was delivered to Scott in 1982, but Scott’s attentions were tied up by the imminent production of both BLADE RUNNER and LEGEND (1985).

After four successive films dominated by high-concept worldbuilding, the 50 year-old filmmaker’s energy was understandably flagging, but not enough so to as to dial down his productivity.  The “lovers from two different worlds” trope is a well-worn convention of pop entertainment, but Tom Berenger’s and Mimi Rogers’ inspired characterizations help SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME to stand out from the pack.

Berenger plays Detective Mike Keegan, a tough protagonist molded in the vein of the typical 80’s-era hyper-masculine hero, albeit with a heart of gold.  Firmly entrenched within New York’s middle class, he has no ambitions for greatness— he’s content to do good police work and go home to his cramped house in Queens that he shares with his young son and his unpolished, feisty wife, Ellie (played by Lorraine Boracco of GOODFELLAS (1990) fame in her film debut).

His work is dangerous, but his life is stable— that is, until he’s assigned to guard Claire Gregory, a wealthy socialite who unwittingly witnessed a murder committed by a notorious gangster named Joey Venza.  Mimi Rogers gives the character of Claire a shaded complexity, at turns aloof and compassionate, all while revealing an intellectual depth that distinguishes her from her blue-blooded contemporaries.

The brutish Venza is played by Andreas Katsulas in a committed performance, although his antagonism is admittedly one-dimensional and offers nothing we haven’t necessarily seen before.  As Keegan and Claire spend more time together and reveal secret aspects of themselves to each other, they can’t help but fall in love… which naturally complicates their respective personal lives.

The stakes raise even higher when Venza himself learns of their secret affair, and subsequently sets about orchestrating his scheme to kill them both in order to get away with his crimes scott-free.  SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME serves as a major departure for Scott’s artistry on several fronts.

The project finds him working with all-new collaborators, each new department head bearing a fresh face. Harold Schneider, brother to Bert Schneider of BBS fame, serves as the film’s producer alongside Thierry De Ganay, a producer of several of Scott’s commercials making the jump to theatrical features.

Cinematographer Steven Poster works with Scott to build a slick, high-fashion aesthetic that easily incorporates many of the director’s visual hallmarks. This approach is most immediately evident in the film’s expressive lighting, which employs punches of neon, lens flares, shafts of concreted light, and silhouettes that turns contemporaneous New York City into a moody noir-scape.

Scott and Poster favor a cool color palette, rendering their 1.85:1 35mm frame with slate-grey midtones and punchy highlights that play with a blue / orange dichotomy. Scott’s usually-dynamic camera movement assumes more of a subdued kineticism here, combining time-honored, formalistic moves with relatively-newer techniques like handheld camerawork and creeping zooms.

Production designer James D. Bissell’s work hinges on the clash between Old Money Manhattan and blue-collar Queens— the elegance of marble chambers, immaculately appointed, versus the chaos of a cramped outer borough townhouse, cluttered with the cheap, mass-produced junk on offer to the middle class.

One of the more notable design conceits of the film is Bissell and Scott’s use of Art Deco stylings throughout— a natural byproduct of deliberately-chosen locales like the Queen Mary ocean liner in Long Beach, CA serving as a stand-in for several different locations within the story.

Other locations, like the iconic Guggenheim Museum, lend a modern touch, giving SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME a timeless aura while drenching every frame in conspicuous style.  The overall effect is that of an extremely-heightened version of the real world; an evocative, immersive urban landscape that’s rendered with the same meticulous attention to detail that marks Scott’s fantastical & fictitious worlds.

Composer Michael Kamen reinforces Scott’s sexy, brooding tone with a subdued, jazzy score that plays well with a collection of needle drops in a similar vein. Scott employs some choice classical and choral cues to signify.

Keegan’s awe at encountering the overwhelming, decadent sophistication of old-money Manhattan, but the film’s heart belongs to the musical conventions of the jazz genre— best evidenced by the opening credits’ use of Sting performing a downbeat, lounge-style cover of Gershwin’s eponymous torch classic, as well as the re-use of Vangelis “Memories of Green” from BLADE RUNNER (albeit stripped of its futuristic electronic orchestration).

Despite a generally-positive reception from critics, SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME bombed at the box office, ultimately leading to its current regard as a minor work within Scott’s larger canon.  In giving himself a break from the rigorous demands of elaborate worldbuilding, Scott deprives himself of arguably his greatest strength, and the end result is a flashy picture full of hollow beauty; heavy on style, light on substance.

That being said, Scott’s visual taste is killer, meaning that the beauty on display here is simply stunning. Indeed, watching SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME over thirty years after its release, the inescapable cheese of the Reagan’s era’s aesthetic zeitgeist doesn’t feel nearly as dated as its contemporaries.

In fact, it only adds to the film’s eccentric charm, with a palpable, retroactive nostalgia injecting some degree of substance to the picture where there had previously been very little.  The fact that SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME remains a key work of a particular subgenre — the elegant and sexy urban noir thrillers of the 80’s and 90’s; movies like BODY HEAT (1981), BASIC INSTINCT (1992), & FATAL ATTRACTION (1987) — suggests that perhaps the time is right for a critical re-evaluation of the film.

At the very least, a restoration or new transfer would bring out the full depth of Scott and Poster’s evocative cinematography for new generations to appreciate.  SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME represents a definite turning point in Scott’s career— yes, it departs from the imaginative cinematic worlds that had made his name, but it also establishes a template for the slick, contemporary genre pictures that defined mainstream cinema in the late 80’s and the 90’s.


BLACK RAIN (1989)

When the cinematic community talks about director Sir Ridley Scott in the context of influential filmmaking, they usually mention the hit singles: ALIEN (1979), BLADE RUNNER (1982), THELMA & LOUISE (1991), GLADIATOR (2000), to name a few.

Very rarely do they dive into the deep cuts, but it’s there where one can find some of the celebrated filmmaker’s biggest surprises and flamboyant displays of raw style.  BLACK RAIN, released in 1989, is just such a film— a minor work that exudes fearless style and impeccable craftsmanship.  Like many films within this middling tier, BLACK RAIN is both a product of its time while being ahead of its time.

The cheesy hyper-masculine theatrics of 80’s cop dramas threatens to slip over into satire at any given moment, yet it also anticipates the gritty, sun-flared fireworks of the blockbuster Don Siegel action films of the 90’s.

Having had a lifelong fascination with the aesthetic of Japanese culture (a fascination that clearly manifests in BLADE RUNNER), Scott was naturally attracted to Craig Bolotin and Warren Lewis’ script about an American cop tangling with the Yakuza in modern-day Osaka— a plot that, funnily enough, was supposed to be the original story for BEVERLY HILLS COP 2, which Scott’s brother, Tony, had directed two years prior.

Actor Michael Douglas was already attached, having developed the project as a starring vehicle with fellow producers Stanley R Jaffe and Sherry Lansing, and he greeted the prospect of Scott’s direction with an enthusiastic embrace.  A brooding crime thriller such as BLACK RAIN required the inspired touch of a deft visual stylist, and there was no better man to rise to the task than Sir Ridley Scott.

The action begins in modern-day New York City, where Michael Douglas’ morally ambiguous cop, Nick Conklin, is in the grips of something of a career crisis.  He’s under investigation for corruption and taking money, and despite his dated, hyper-masculine posturing, he knows they’ve got him dead to rights: he can barely keep his head above water with his paltry government salary and the excessive alimony demands from his ex-wife, so maybe he didn’t feel so bad about helping himself to a couple extra bucks along the way.

At least he’s able to blow off some steam partaking in illegal motorcycle races and cracking wise with his partner, a swaggering Italian stallion named Charlie Vincent (Andy Garcia, bringing unexpected comic relief and genuine heart to the film). When they become unexpectant witnesses to a brutal Yakuza murder in a Meatpacking District cafe, they hunt down and arrest the killer— a wild and unpredictable mobster named Sato.

Played to chilling effect by Yusaka Matsuda in his final performance before before succumbing to bladder cancer (indeed he was smiling through crippling pain for the duration of the shoot), Sato is not unlike a mute Joker— a savage, leering psychopath who happily cuts off his own pinkie as a symbolic gesture. Conklin and Vincent accompany their prisoner back to Osaka, Japan, where he’s naturally wanted by the local authorities there too.

Conklin and Vincent soon discover they are strangers in a strange land, easily duped when Sato makes a surprise getaway by having his henchman pose as the Osaka police that our heroes are expecting to hand him off to.

Finding themselves stranded in the land of the rising sun by bureaucratic red tape and an almost-stubborn commitment to justice, Conklin and Vincent set about trying to track down Sato once more— this time, on his own home turf and all while contending with an overbearing local police force that strips them of their firearms and jurisdictional power.

Luckily, Conklin and Vincent gain some allies along the way, most notably their handler, a reserved career cop and Conklin’s antithesis named Masahiro (Ken Takakura), and Kate Capshaw’s Joyce, a world-weary bartender at a local nightclub and a half-baked love interest for Conklin.

BLACK RAIN also boats cameos from the likes of Luis Guzman as a fellow street biker in NYC, and Stephen Root as an investigator busting Conklin’s chops while he roots out evidence of corruption.  All of this is rendered with a heavy layer of cheesy alpha-male theatrics and silly cop-movie cliches, which comes off as hilariously dated now even if it seemed cool and cutting edge back in the day.

That being said, the cheese factor isn’t enough to distract us entirely from the immediacy and flair of Scott’s storytelling, making for a highly enjoyable thriller with an exotic and evocative backdrop.

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Scott is no stranger to troubled productions, but the embattled process of making BLACK RAIN in Japan led the seasoned director to publicly declare he’d never shoot there again.  Indeed, the high logistical costs and stubborn bureaucratic red tape forced the movie to finish a large percentage of its remaining scenes back in Los Angeles.

The project’s first cinematographer, Howard Atherton, found himself so fed up with their host’s debilitating restrictions that he resigned halfway through the shoot.  Jan De Bont, who would later become known for directing in his own right with 1994’s SPEED, would replace Atherton and bring the film to completion.

Thankfully, the change in DP’s is seamless, with BLACK RAIN’s cinematography presenting itself as a unified exercise in style thanks to Scott’s expressive aesthetic.  Shot on Super 35mm film in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio, BLACK RAIN is undeniably a product of its director’s unique worldview.

The noir-styled crime narrative and exotic foreign backdrop allow Scott to do what he does best: create a visceral, immersive cinematic environment.  Towards this end, Scott employs all the tricks of his trade— gritty texture, evocative lighting, silhouettes, heavy layers of smoke, concentrated shafts of illumination, surging neon, and a mix of classical, aerial, and handheld camerawork that confidently strides through space.

The real-life Osaka was exciting enough of a backdrop that Scott and his team had to do very little in the way of location dressing, but production designer Norris Spencer more than pulls his weight in bringing the Far East stateside, ably replicating Osaka’s distinct look whether they were shooting on an enormous nightclub set on a soundstage, under a downtown LA overpass, or even a rustic vineyard in Napa.

This effortless blending of East and West photography extends to Tom Rolf’s editing, which posed the distinct challenge of matching the Los Angeles footage with Osaka’s— oftentimes within the same sequence.

The suspenseful chase sequence leading up to Vincent’s fateful showdown with a gang of Yakuza bikers is a prime example of this: the sequence begins with Conklin and Vincent walking along an isolated mall somewhere in Osaka, but the ensuing chase that occurs when a biker steals Vincent’s coat is comprised of footage shot mainly in downtown LA, in well-chosen locales with similar architecture that required only a small amount of set dressing in the way of Japanese signage.

BLACK RAIN is also notable for Scott’s collaboration with composer Hans Zimmer— the first of what would be several partnerships over the course of their filmographies.  Zimmer resists the temptation to evoke Osaka’s relative exoticism to American audiences with the cheap kind of musical shorthand one often finds in this scenario (a modern-day example would be the groan-inducing “scary Muslim prayer wailing” that pops up in pretty much any American film set in the Middle East— a phenomenon that even Scott himself would fall prey to in later works).

He threads the needle between cliche and originality by using traditional Japanese instruments (winds, Taiko drums, etc) to render decidedly-Western musical themes and ideas. A brooding guitar speaks to Conklin’s macho posturing as well as the film’s context as an entry in 80’s action cinema, while a throbbing synth character becomes something like a musical Pacific Ocean— working to bridge the gap between the eastern and western influences to create something rather striking.

Scott’s previous work, SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME (1987), illustrated that the director was just as capable working within contemporaneous real-world environments just as well as the fantastical, immersive worlds he quite literally built from scratch.  BLACK RAIN goes a step further, showing how Scott can leverage his unique visual style and thematic interests to make a real-world environment larger than life.

Careful composition, inspired locales, and immersive sound design work in concert to make BLACK RAIN’s buzzing urban backdrops feel alive and appropriately cinematic, be it the traffic-choked boulevards of New York or the neon-soaked plazas of Osaka.

BLACK RAIN affords Scott ample opportunity to indulge his interest in architecture, with the juxtaposition of East and West providing a wide range of design styles for him to play with.  Perhaps the most potent aspect of Scott’s artistry here is just how close his rendering of contemporaneous Osaka resembles BLADE RUNNER’s futurescape of Los Angeles circa 2019.

In a way, BLACK RAIN illustrates how Scott’s fantastical vision in BLADE RUNNER might look transposed to real life.  In many ways, his vision of the future had come to pass almost exactly like he imagined it— and not by 2019, but before the decade was even out.

Beyond the surface coincidence of both films sharing the same initials, BLACK RAIN contains several frames that could easily be spliced into BLADE RUNNER without skipping a beat.  Even scenes set outside downtown Osaka revel in this referential vibe, be it a set piece staged in a steel mill evoking BLADE RUNNER’s industrial hellscape of flame-belching refineries, or Scott’s re-use of the iconic Ennis house in LA for a Yakuza boss’ mansion (it had previously played the part of Deckard’s apartment seven years earlier).

Scott’s evocation of his earlier masterpiece throughout BLACK RAIN gives it an added resonance, elevating it above the middling genre fare typical of the decade.  In a way, BLADE RUNNER becomes even more compelling in the context of BLACK RAIN’s existence, proving that Scott’s radical vision of our urban future was more prophetic than we could have imagined.

Scott’s first cut of BLACK RAIN ran nearly three hours long, but the final version that was released to theaters was cut down to just over two.  A mixed critical reception couldn’t sway the film’s box office power, with BLACK RAIN’s strong performance propelling it to the #1 spot for two weeks straight (2).

The film even scored a couple Oscar nominations for its achievements in the Best Sound and Best Sound Editing categories.  Despite this relatively warm reception and modest set of accolades,  BLACK RAIN’s distinct character tends to become lost in the noise of Scott’s larger filmography.

That doesn’t mean that it isn’t an important entry in said canon— indeed, the film’s excellence has only become more apparent with age, even as it also becomes a self-contained time capsule to 80’s macho swagger.  BLACK RAIN is a gripping action thriller that somehow manages to find pockets of emotional resonance and profound expressions of thematic ideas like xenophobia and honor, serving as further testament to the penetrative influence and enduring appeal of Scott’s muscular artistry.


NISSAN: “TURBO DREAM” COMMERCIAL (1990)

As a filmmaker who works as prominently in the commercial world as he does in the theatrical narrative forum, director Sir Ridley Scott unsurprisingly boasts several Super Bowl spots to his name.  These supersized, lavishly-budgeted works of advertising represent something of a pinnacle for the form, enduring in the cultural conversation for far longer than the football game they were meant to supplement.

Commercials tend to be generally regarded as a relatively disposable form of entertainment— something to be skipped over, muted, or missed completely while one uses the bathroom. It’s a different story for Super Bowl commercials, and as such, the jobs tend to go to high-profile helmers like Scott.

In 1990, Scott was hired to direct a spot for Nissan called “TURBO DREAM”, meant to advertise the new Nissan 300ZX to a captive Super Bowl audience.  The concept is rather simple, pitting the 300ZX against a motorcyclist, a Formula 1 car, and finally, a fighter jet, only for us to find that the Nissan can outrun them all.

True to form, Scott uses the opportunity to fashion a futuristic, highly-imaginative world from scratch, transforming the race track into a cyberpunk facility from which the Nissan must escape.  Bringing his signature visual aesthetic to bear in a highly exaggerated form, Scott employs a deep, sun-baked contrast that reduces his color palette to searing bands of black, whites, orange and blues.

His characteristic silhouettes and lens flares whip by so fast that they approach abstraction. Music-video style rapid-fire editing further complements the feeling of delirious speed, teetering on the knife’s edge of control.  “TURBO DREAM” no doubt made quite an impression during its Super Bowl debut, giving a glimpse of what the coming decade would have in store for action aficionados.

Indeed, the kinetic style on display here, fashioned and perfected by both Ridley and his brother Tony, would become the dominant aesthetic of blockbuster action cinema throughout the 1990’s, adopted by testosterone-laden acolytes like Michael Bay and Simon West.

Despite its relative inconsequence to Scott’s overall career, “TURBO DREAM” nonetheless offers the 80’s zeitgeist-defining filmmaker an opportunity to revise and update his style for the coming decade and beyond.


THELMA & LOUISE (1991)

A good friend once likened a director’s cultural relevance to a tuning fork— after so many strikes, the fork can begin straying from perfect pitch.  Similarly, a director can deliver a number of films that strike a chord with audiences before finding him or herself eclipsed by their changing tastes.

Once that pitch begins wavering, it can be extremely difficult to recalibrate— indeed, many filmmakers can never attain the same lofty heights after they’ve fallen out of fashion.  Director Francis Ford Coppola is an excellent example: after creating some of the most iconic films ever made during a legendary run in the 1970’s, his subsequent efforts throughout the 80s and 90’s failed to measure up.

Even direct efforts to recapture that magic, like 1990’s THE GODFATHER PART III, proved unsuccessful.  Sir Ridley Scott’s lurching career is an excellent example of another side of this phenomenon— his versatility and artistic sensitivity has allowed him to weather multiple professional depressions, emerging on the other side as an even stronger filmmaker than he was before.

Case in point: 1991’s THELMA & LOUISE, a celebrated classic that saw Scott’s return to cultural prominence after a series of thrillers made in the mid-to-late 80’s that yielded diminishing returns.  The film is a master class in recalibrating one’s artistic sensibilities by venturing far outside established zones of comfort while still retaining the aspects that make one’s artistry unique.

First written in 1980 by first-time screenwriter Callie Khouri as an intended directing vehicle (1), the cutting-edge screenplay for THELMA & LOUISE steadily gained the attraction of powerful benefactors throughout its ten year slog to cinema screens.  The project didn’t gain its critical momentum until producer Mimi Polk Gitlin brought the project to Scott for his producing consideration.

As a filmmaker with a well-established track record for vividly-realized female protagonists, Scott found the project an easy proposition. After shepherding the project through the development and pre-production pipeline, his collaborators began to insist that he should also direct.

While we might argue today that a female director is the appropriate choice to tackle such an unabashedly feminist story, Scott’s artistic caliber undoubtedly injected their efforts with a higher commercial profile while insulating against the inevitable critiques that the story was hateful towards men.

A female-directed THELMA & LOUISE would no doubt have made for a groundbreaking and distinctive experience, but Scott’s take on the matter nonetheless makes for a highly-stylized classic of blockbuster proportions.

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THELMA & LOUISE finds Scott turning his lens to new vistas heretofore unseen in his filmography: the high deserts of America’s heartland and its sprawling highway system.

Beginning in Arkansas, the story quickly introduces us to Susan Sarandon’s Louise, a salty diner waitress, and Geena Davis’ Thelma, a naive housewife living in stifled domesticity with her overcompensating redneck salesman husband, Darryl (played with campy swagger by Christopher McDonald).

The girls hit the road for a short weekend getaway, but their intended fishing trip quickly balloons into something else altogether when Louise shoots a man dead to prevent him from raping Thelma in a roadhouse parking lot. Quickly determining that they’re not cut out for the prison life, the girls hastily decide to extend their little road trip and make a run for Mexico.

Making their way through the American Southwest towards an unexpected terminus at the Grand Canyon, their body count escalates as they encounter ever-more cocksure men deserving of their wrath. Thelma & Louise’s journey is one of liberation, empowerment, and self-realization, layered with nuanced character shading and idiosyncrasies that would earn Oscar nominations in the Best Actress category for both Sarandon and Davis.

The film’s predominantly-male supporting cast happily plays into the narrative’s absurdist skewering of masculinity. Alongside McDonald’s aforementioned performance, the film boasts inspired turns by venerated characters actors like Harvey Keitel, Michael Madsen, and Stephen Tobolowsky— Keitel reuniting with Scott after their collaboration on his 1977 debut THE DUELLISTS and playing a driven, compassionate detective named Hal who wants to serve justice while ensuring the girls’ personal safety, Tobolowsky as Hal’s milquetoast superior, and Madsen as Louise’s cool but volatile rockabilly boyfriend, Jimmy.

Of course, no discussion of THELMA & LOUISE’s cast is complete without mentioning Brad Pitt, who delivers his breakthrough performance here as JD, a boyishly-charming drifter who helps Thelma achieve her sexual reawakening even as his slippery, sociopathic tendencies come into focus.

THELMA & LOUISE marks Scott’s third successive project set in a world that’s not of his own making. Nevertheless, he remakes our contemporaneous reality in his own image, infusing his real-world backdrops with an immersive cinematic scale.

In his first collaboration with Scott, the late cinematographer Adrian Biddle updates and complements Scott’s established aesthetic for a new era, earning an Oscar nomination for his efforts  Framed in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio and captured on 35mm film, THELMA & LOUISE presents a high-contrast visual style that employs atmospheric lighting effects emblematic of Scott’s hand: silhouettes, backlit interiors rendered with a cold, cerulean daylight, smoke, lens flares, and surging neon.

Harsh orange sunlight radiates over dramatic desert vistas populated by Scott’s signature attention to detail and returning production designer Norris Spencer’s set dressings, with busy diners, honkytonk trucker bars, roadside gas stations, sprawling oil fields, and crop-duster flybys creating a vivid picture of the American southwest as seen from the perspective of an English immigrant.

Editor Thom Noble would also score an Oscar nomination of his own, sewing together scenes shot in LA, Barstow, and as far away as Monument Valley and Moab, Utah into a singular, cohesive environment.

Scott’s second consecutive collaboration with composer Hans Zimmer results in a classic score that’s reminiscent of Ry Cooder’s distinct sound— a sonic palette of brooding electric guitar wails and folksy harmonica riffs, complementing a well-chosen mix of needledrops that pull from the deep cuts of roadhouse country and redneck rock.

Thelma and Louise join the ranks of previous Scott heroines like Ripley, Rachael, and Lili in the director’s pantheon of vibrantly-realized female protagonists, but their aggressive brand of armed feminism wasn’t appreciated by all.  The film was besieged by controversy upon its release, with many people (mostly men) feeling as if they were personally under attack.

Others decried what they saw as THELMA & LOUISE’s masculinization of its two heroines, taking issue with the film’s use of violence and sexual liberation as tools of empowerment.  Nonetheless, THELMA & LOUISE managed to strike a chord with audiences, with its cultural resonance ultimately landing Davis and Sarandon on the cover of Time.

Critics praised the film, lauding Scott in particular for his bold direction and his revealing of a comedic dexterity heretofore unknown to audiences.  Six Oscar nominations followed, including those in the aforementioned categories of cinematography & editing in addition to an original screenplay nod for Khouri and Scott’s own nomination for directing — his first.

Time has only bolstered THELMA & LOUISE as a cornerstone of not just Scott’s cinematic legacy, but feminist and 90’s cinema as well, earning a spot on the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry in 2016. After a series of admittedly-middling works in the late 80’s, the production of THELMA & LOUISE would usher in an entirely new phase of Scott’s career— one that would actively shape the cultural character of the 1990’s and beyond.


1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE (1992)

I can still remember that song— the one we were compelled by our grade school teachers to sing every year on one particular day in October.  “In August 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue”. It’s understandable that the story of Christopher Columbus, the famed Spanish explorer, would be simplified and sanitized for elementary-aged minds as the man who “discovered America”.

After all, how exactly does one communicate to kids that this adventurous-seeming guy’s quest for exotic riches would play an instrumental part in one of the worst genocides in recorded history?

Like many other kids of my generation, a fuller picture of Columbus came into view as I got older— he didn’t even discover “America” per se; he landed on an island in the Bahamas, and even then, it had already been “discovered”, judging by the centuries-old indigenous civilization they encountered upon making landfall.

In recent years, progressive America has increasingly caught on to the problematic nature of Columbus’ lionization, subsequently calling for the replacement of his eponymous holiday with one that better honors the native population decimated under his leadership.

The movement has grown so strong, in fact, that many cities like Los Angeles have written this switch away from Columbus into law.  It was a far different story over twenty-five years ago: the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ landfall in The New World was fast approaching, and many parties were organizing efforts to celebrate the occasion appropriately.

One such person was screenwriter Rose Bosch, who had managed to find a treasure trove of parchments detailing Columbus’ activities in the land he dubbed “San Salvador”. Having long wanted to make a film on Columbus, director Sir Ridley Scott and fellow producer Alain Goldman subsequently became involved with the project that would ultimately become 1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE (1992) — their involvement securing $47 million in financing to realize a swashbuckling historical epic about the founding of the New World.

Scott’s eighth feature film certainly accomplishes this task, but it also manages to paint a more complex portrait of Columbus beyond a simple hero or villain.  Indeed, 1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE does not ignore Columbus’ hand in the genesis of bloodshed between conqueror and native.

The film represents another example of Scott’s impeccable technical artistry, consistently and brilliantly executed throughout what is ultimately a very problematic narrative with no easy explanation for its sympathies.

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1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE spans a fateful decade in world history, beginning in 1490 in Spain — the height of the Inquisition — and ending in 1500 with Columbus a broken man, on the verge of being scrubbed from history entirely in the wake of Amerigo Vespucci’s discovery of the larger mainland continent.

Celebrated French actor Gerard Depardieu portrays Columbus, looking very much like the infamous explorer depicted in paintings from the period. That said, those similarities only extend as far as the surface level. Laboring through his heavy French accent, Depardieu displays a bombastic righteousness that’s calibrated for heroism but instead reads as megalomania.

A gifted navigator who maintains that the earth is round at a time when Flat Earthers controlled the paradigm, Columbus endeavors to prove it by sailing across the ocean in the wrong direction and still connecting with India.

He has few allies in this quest, namely his wife and Frank Langella’s nobleman with deep pockets, but when he’s summoned for an audience with Sigourney Weaver’s Isabel of Castile — the Queen of Spain herself — Columbus is given the opportunity to make good on his claims and secure India’s untold riches for the glory of his country.

In her first reunion with Scott over a decade after her breakthrough performance in 1979’s ALIEN, Weaver projects a suitably regal, albeit emotionless aura as she sends Columbus forth into the great unknown.  After a long journey at sea filled with mutinous threats by his crew, Columbus finally sets his sight on land— memorably rendered by Scott in the image of a pristine beach and the lush jungle foliage beyond emerging from a cloud of dense fog.

He thinks he’s reached an undiscovered land near India, claiming it for Spain as San Salvador— however, he’s actually landed on Guanahani in the Bahamas. As he and his men venture deeper in to the island, they find that it’s not as undiscovered as they had assumed; indeed, it’s inhabited by a thriving indigenous civilization.

1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISEsubsequently chronicles the fraying of their initial alliance, as greed and xenophobia subvert their efforts to build a Spanish outpost on the island.  As the situation devolves into a bloodbath far beyond his control, Columbus must also fend off efforts by rivals like Armand Assante’s Sanchez and Mark Margolis’ Bobadilla to destroy his legacy in the Old World.

The result is a baptism of blood, filling nearly three hours of runtime with sweeping, albeit profoundly flawed, insights into the New World’s complicated origins.  After their successful, Oscar-nominated team-up with THELMA & LOUISE (1991), Scott and cinematographer Adrian Biddle once again join forces to deliver a visual tour de force.

1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE’s stylistic presentation retains Scott’s trademark aesthetic, with the 2.35:1 35mm film image boasting expressive contrast and atmospheric lighting effects like silhouettes, shafts of concentrated light, smoke, and flickering candlelight.

The color palette is marked by lush earth tones and flaring sunsets, given extra dimension by gradient filters that darken the top third of the frame. While his 1977 debut, THE DUELLISTS, could be counted as an entry in the historical epic genre, 1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE truly establishes Scott’s particular template for the realm, using classical camerawork to capture sweeping vistas and returning production designer Norris Spencer’s immersive period recreation.

Scott’s approach here would serve him rather well in later epics set in the Middle Ages or ancient antiquity— films like GLADIATOR (2000), KINGDOM OF HEAVEN (2005) and even ROBIN HOOD (2010).  Interestingly, Scott borrows from the Hitchcock/Spielberg playbook several times throughout 1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE, combining camera movement with zooms to create a surreal, imbalancing effect that collapses the depth of field around his subject.

The film’s use of extreme slow-motion also speaks to the action genre’s adoption of impressionistic flourish in the 90’s, echoing the work of like-minded directors such as Michael Bay, John Woo, and even Scott’s own brother, Tony.

While Scott initially wanted to reprise his collaboration with Hans Zimmer, the composer behind his previous two features, he would ultimately opt for a reunion with his BLADE RUNNER maestro, Vangelis. Despite a decade having passed since their last time working together, Vangelis and Scott easily slide right back into a unified creative rhythm.

1492’s score is appropriately epic, matching the monumental scale of Scott’s visuals with a bombastic orchestra that combines synth elements with the exotic flair of tribal drums and wailing vocalizations.  While Vangelis’ efforts here aren’t as iconic to American audiences as his work on BLADE RUNNER, his theme has nonetheless managed to achieve a particular notoriety abroad as the adopted anthem of Portugal’s Socialist Party.

Despite its status as a minor, somewhat forgotten work in Scott’s filmography, 1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE nonetheless serves as a prime example of the director’s particular thematic signatures.  There is, of course, his creation of an immersive environment, which he splits here to reflect the clash of cultures between the Old World and the New.

The film gives us an evocative glimpse into a pastoral, pre-industrial Spain as well as the urban atmosphere at its medieval zenith— castle-like city states with teeming crowds, vibrantly-colored flags, and diverse architectural flourishes that visually convey a long, complicated history of alternating Muslim and Christian occupation.

Scott is one of the rare prestige directors whose work is marked more by his technical mastery of craft and slick visual style instead of a unifying ideological thread, but if one had to name a dominant theme that runs through the man’s best work, it would undoubtedly be the theme of xenophobia.

Scott’s filmography is populated with the distrust and hostilities between two vastly different cultures or races—  THE DUELLISTS and SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME (1987) charted the bitter rivalry and simmering affair, respectively, between two people from competing economic backgrounds; ALIEN (and to a lesser extent, 1985’s LEGEND) portrayed the human response to a creature as far away from “human” as we could possibly conceive; BLADE RUNNER’s ongoing suppression of a replicant uprising recalled the dehumanization tactics that led to open racism and remorseless genocide; BLACK RAIN (1989) dropped a fiercely American worldview into the rigid social codes of contemporary Japanese society; THELMA & LOUISE brought complicated gender dynamics to bear by deliberately pitting the women against the men in a gun-blazing race to the finish line.

In its depiction of the clash between the Spanish and the indigenous population of the newfound Americas, 1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE folds effortlessly into Scott’s career-long examination of xenophobia.  Indeed, this is one of the more admirable aspects of a film that endeavors to portray an ethically-complicated historical figure, showing us the ease with which xenophobia could utterly destroy the fragile balance of trust between the two civilizations.

A lesser filmmaker would either lionize or demonize Columbus, leaving little room for the nuanced notion that none of us casts ourselves as the villain in our own narratives. Scott’s deep experience here allows him to dance along that line without losing his balance, painting Columbus as a profoundly flawed (and perhaps extremely narcissistic) man whose well-intentioned leadership nonetheless resulted in genocidal atrocities on a catastrophic scale.

1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE boasts no less than five editors— a development most likely owing to a rush to meet an ambitious October release date that would coincide with the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ landfall to the day.  Several other producers had the same idea, resulting in Scott’s film debuting against a wave of competing Columbus pictures.

Scott’s effort has proven to be the one with the most staying power in the decades since, but it is still largely ignored in the context of his larger filmography.  Middling reviews and a disappointing box office bow as the 7th highest-grossing picture in theaters that weekend ensured 1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE’s prompt burial.

Indeed, while 99% of Scott’s feature library has made the leap to Blu Ray and beyond, 1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE earned itself a high-definition release only very recently.  Two decades removed from its release, Scott’s work here ultimately reveals itself as less than the sum of its parts, with the director’s artistic strengths becoming the film’s weaknesses.

His over-the-top, epic treatment of a controversial figure makes for a cringe-worthy watching experience today, despite the expected top-notch technical execution. There is a palpable degree of directorial excess or indulgence on display here, perhaps a result of Scott’s increased confidence in the wake of THELMA & LOUISE’s success.

However, whereas that film pushed Scott out of his comfort zone, 1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE allows him to work very much within his wheelhouse, resulting in a finished product that is as visually striking as it is emotionally stale.  In order to avoid another sustained downturn like the one he had weathered in the mid to late 80’s, Scott would need to conquer the most lethal foe to his artistry yet: his own complacency.


MIDLAND BANK: “THE POWER OF LISTENING” COMMERCIAL (1993)

In 1993, director Ridley Scott delivered his latest high-profile entry in his long & celebrated career in the commercial field.  Commissioned by British banking giant Midland Bank, “THE POWER OF LISTENING” details a simple, yet exceedingly elegant concept that ties together the sweeping scope of human history through the most universal language of all: music.

Beginning with early man rhythmically banging on stones & sticks, surrounded by a vast desert, the musical baton is then passed off to a group of Muslim nomads… then Christian crusaders… then Victorian nobility… and then finally a modern orchestra.  As we blast through the centuries in the span of a minute, each successive group adds their piece onto a singular musical composition.

It’s easy to see why Scott was hired to execute the spot— such a high-concept piece requires a director with effortless technical dexterity and a talent for cinematic expressionism.  Filming in the 1.33:1 aspect ratio for the square television sets of the era, Scott imprints his signature visual style with a high-contrast image populated by silhouettes, smoke, lens flares, and an immersive desert backdrop.

A heavy orange color cast and gradient skies point to particular visual conceits that Scott had been experimenting with during the late 80’s and early 90’s. Considered compositions, as well as classical camera moves like pans and dollies, are used to connect the various vignettes and historical epochs through time & space.

While it’s not mentioned in the same breath as iconic spots like Apple’s “1984” or even Hovis’ “BIKE ROUND”“THE POWER OF LISTENING” nonetheless stands as yet another sterling example of Scott’s short-form prowess.

Despite its age, “THE POWER OF LISTENING” represents one of the more recent high-profile spots in Scott’s filmography– he has no doubt remained active in the commercial world, but the mid-90’s onward would find the seasoned director increasingly devoting his full attention to theatrical features.

With literally thousands of commercials under his belt, Scott by this point had done pretty much everything there was to do in advertising; he could leave that world behind, secure in the knowledge that he had been one of its most influential voices.


WHITE SQUALL (1996)

As he rapidly approached his sixtieth birthday, director Ridley Scott found himself the subject of attention usually reserved for the occasion of one’s imminent retirement.  For instance, 1995 would see Scott and his brother, Tony, receive the equivalent of a lifetime achievement award in the form of a BAFTA for their Outstanding British Contribution to Cinema.

However, judging by Scott’s professional moves during this period, it becomes clear that retirement was the absolute last thing on the seasoned director’s agenda. That same year, he not only served as the head of a consortium that purchased Shepperton Studios, he also reorganized the production company he shared with Tony to better facilitate their shared vision for the future.

Originally founded in 1970 as Scott Free Enterprises, the name later changed to Percy Main in 1980, in honor of the English village where their father grew up. 1995 would see the company reach its current incarnation: Scott Free Productions. This version of the company would oversee some of Scott’s biggest hits, ultimately growing to become a powerhouse in the industry (and on a personal note, the site of a job interview I had in 2011 to be the assistant to a high-ranking executive).

The first project under this reinvigorated banner was understandably very important— it needed to set the tone for all the subsequent projects that followed.

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As fate would have it, that first project would take on the form of WHITE SQUALL (1996)— an adventure film based off Charles Gieg Jr. and Felix Sutton’s 1962 novel, “The “Last Voyage Of The Albatross”.  As adapted by screenwriter Todd Robinson, WHITE SQUALL imbues the time-honored coming-of-age story with life-or-death stakes, finding a group of teenage boys sailing the Atlantic seaboard on the Albatross, a 1920 schooner that sank on May 2nd, 1961 during an intense storm that its captain claimed was a mythic “white squall”.

The story is told from the point of view of Chuck Gieg, played by actor Scott Wolf as a real straight arrow. Gieg is a young man from Mystic, CT, who signs up to join the Albatross as part of its college preparatory program— a kind of “semester at sea” where he’ll learn the in’s and out’s of sailing while studying for his entrance exams.

Throughout his subsequent adventures, he forms a tight-knit bond with the other boys on the crew and comes into his own as a man, culminating in a violent storm and an awful tragedy that will change his life forever. Wolf’s performance is something of a blank template— the story is not so much his to tell as it is the collective crew’s, so he often cedes the spotlight in order to let his shipmates shine.

Jeff Bridges anchors WHITE SQUALL as Sheldon, the captain of the Albatross, projecting a stern warmth that makes it easy to see why the boys would come to lionize and revere him.  Caroline Goodall plays the ship surgeon and Sheldon’s wife, Dr. Alice Sheldon, the sole woman on the ship. When it comes to the antics of teenage boyhood, she’s seen it all, and has subsequently honed a seasoned, maternal skillset without compromising her authority.

The film deftly balances these characters with the others onboard the Albatross, with some getting more of a chance to shine than others— John Savage’s eccentric English teacher, or Ryan Philippe’s timid, baby-faced student, for instance.

WHITE SQUALL also boasts the talents of the late character actor James Rebhorn, who makes a brief appearance here as a Coast Guard officer during the climactic trial sequence, as well as Balthazar Getty, who is notable not so much for his performance here as he is for his lineage as the son of John Paul Getty III— the subject of Scott’s 2017 film, ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD.

Scott spends a great deal of screen time developing the relationships at the core of the story, allowing us to witness key episodes in the boys’ passage into manhood, all while building towards the inevitable storm foretold in the film’s very title.

WHITE SQUALL is executed with the characteristic technical pedigree that we’ve come to expect from a Scott film, leaning into his confident, expressive style to deliver a memorable picture on all fronts.  With the exception of returning producer Mimi Polk Gatlin, Scott works with fresh department heads all around, resulting in a reinvigorated, polished aesthetic that feels contemporary and cutting-edge despite its 1960’s period setting.

Having been shot in various places around the Caribbean as well as a horizon tank in Malta (1), the film as a whole projects an exotic, swashbuckling aura not unlike his previous sailing adventure, 1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE (1992).  Cinematographer Hugh Johnson ably imprints the golden veneer of nostalgia onto the 2.35:1 35mm frame, complementing Scott’s trademark blend of atmospheric, high-contrast lighting effects, silhouettes, smoke, gradient skies and impressionistic slow-motion flourishes.

The use of billowing curtains and the slat-lighting of Venetian blinds is another trademark of Scott’s aesthetic (as well as brother Tony’s), and his incorporation of said compositional devices imbue WHITE SQUALL with a majestic flair— the Venetian blinds adding stateliness to the court sequence, and the billowing curtains swapped out for flapping sails that catch the wind on open water.

Scott’s classical camerawork complements this epic-sized approach, using canted angles to exaggerate the unsteady sensation of being on a rocking ship as it threads gigantic waves.  The production design team of Peter J. Hampton and Leslie Tompkins create an authentic, subdued period look while facilitating Scott’s signature talent for conveying an immersive environment.

Indeed, WHITE SQUALL is at its most vibrant when the crew of the Albatross decamps to busy island ports filled with the local culture— one can practically taste the complex flavors of a given regional palette.  Scott initially intended for celebrated French composer Maurice Jarre to score WHITE SQUALL, before turning to previous collaborator Hans Zimmer for another round.

When Zimmer ran into scheduling difficulties, he brought Scott’s attention to his protege, Jeff Rona.  Rona would ultimately receive WHITE SQUALL’s music credit, combining orchestral elements like strings and woodwinds with some synth instrumentation to create an ethereal, romantic mood that complements Scott’s nostalgia-steeped mix of doo-wop jukebox needledrops from the period.

As the first production from the modern-day incarnation of Scott Free, WHITE SQUALL is an important film in Scott’s canon.  Mixed reviews no doubt contributed to the film’s lackluster box office performance, further contributing to the decline of Scott’s commercial profile within the industry since the high of THELMA & LOUISE five years earlier.

That said, WHITE SQUALL has aged beautifully in the twenty-plus years since, taking on a timeless glow even as some of its aesthetic choices point to the time of its making.  A modest wave of appreciation has buoyed WHITE SQUALL since its release, elevating it as a minor classic in Scott’s filmography.

Its influence hasn’t spread much further than the concentrated circle of Scott die-hards, but those who have discovered it are able to see WHITE SQUALL for what it is: a sweeping coming-of-age epic that stands as one of the most solidly-constructed entries in its genre, as well as a display of an inspired filmmaker on the upswing towards ever-higher peaks in his career.


G.I. JANE (1997)

The 1990’s were a golden age for brawny, high-octane action films made by directors with a distinct visual style.  Before the dull sheen of computer-generated effects brought their cartoonish rag-doll physics to the fore, these films relied on massive pyrotechnics and even bigger biceps to pump up the audience’s heart rate.

The bombastic patriotism of the Reagan years fused with the detached nihilism of the grunge era to create a wave of stylish and witty action that yielded some of the genre’s high water marks— films like SPEED (1994), THE ROCK (1996), TRUE LIES (1994) or THE MATRIX (1999).

Ridley Scott’s G.I. JANE, however, is not one of these films.  Released in 1997, the film promised the impeccable pedigree of a seasoned director working in peak form and a zeitgeist-y storyline by screenwriters David Twohy and Danielle Alexander that injected the unbridled machismo of the armed services with a healthy dose of Girl Power.

An archetypical “battle of the sexes” narrative played out on a big-budget scale, G.I. JANE had been shepherded along through development by actress Demi Moore as a starring vehicle when Scott got involved.  While one could argue that the story would have been better served by a female director, Scott’s celebrated track record of fierce heroines, from ALIEN’s Ripley to THELMA & LOUISE’s titular duo, suggested that his participation would mean more than just “the next best thing”.

Despite his best efforts, G.I. JANE ultimately struggles to break out as a major work in Scott’s career, instead nestling itself quite comfortably within his middle-tier of serviceable entertainments.

G.I. JANE tells the fictional story of the first woman to be selected for the US Navy Special Warfare Group, an elite unit comprised of the best and brightest from the military’s various branches.  We’re quickly introduced to Anne Bancroft’s Lillian DeHaven, an aggressively feminist US Senator pushing for gender parity within the armed forces.

She identifies and selects Moore’s Jordan O’ Neill for this elite combat program, effectively using her as a tool for her own PR campaign.  Already an accomplished computer analyst in the Navy, O’Neill finds herself back at the bottom of the ladder, forced to compete in a testosterone-laden environment where she’s constantly outmatched in size and strength.

As if that wasn’t enough, she also has to contend with the misogynistic antagonism and rampant sexism of her male colleagues (perhaps best signified in the fragile, hairtrigger masculinity of Jim Caviezel’s character). Through a series of harrowing obstacles and ordeals, O’Neill eventually proves her fierceness and ambition, earning their begrudging respect as well as that of her commanding officer, Master Chief Urgayle.

Played by Viggo Mortensen just prior to his breakout in Peter Jackson’s THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, Urgayle’s alpha male theatrics come across as distractingly cheesy in a modern viewing context, strutting around in a goofy mustache and short shorts while he barks orders through a megaphone.

The main thrust of the story emerges when O’Neill inevitably proves all of her doubters wrong— her ascendancy causes problems for Senator DeHaven’s agenda, which reveals itself to advance feminist interests only as far as it helps her own commercial pursuits.  When the action moves from the training grounds in Florida to the live-ammunition climax off the Libyan coast, O’Neill faces the ultimate test of mettle in order to prove that there is no such thing as gender when it comes to warfare.

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G.I. JANE serves as a prime example of Scott’s aesthetic, especially in its 90’s iteration.  Reteaming with his WHITE SQUALL cinematographer, Hugh Johnson, Scott frames his 35mm film image in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio to create an appropriately epic and cinematic tone.

A high-contrast, subdued color palette deals in primarily blue and yellow tones, making for a picture that lacks the warm vibrancy of previous works like WHITE SQUALL or 1492: CONQUEST OF PARADISE (1992) but rather evokes the cold steeliness of the military-industrial complex.

Signature Scott touches are peppered throughout, populating the film with evocative flourishes like silhouettes, the use of venetian blinds to create noir-style shadows, and even punches of colored smoke during the climax.  This sequence also finds Scott deviating from his otherwise-ironclad use of classical camerawork, evoking the chaos of battle by going handheld and experimenting with an interesting technique that rapidly rocks the zoom back and forth.

While it grows admittedly wearisome the more it’s used, the technique nevertheless emulates the stress of taking fire— especially when combined with Pieter Scalia’s staccato editing. Aerial footage captured from a helicopter finds several opportunities to add a bird’s-eye view to the action, becoming something of a bridge between Scott’s aesthetic and brother Tony’s more bombastic pop sensibilities.

Composer Trevor Jones completes the “90’s-ness” of G.I. JANE’s presentation, delivering an original score that ultimately comes across as “budget Zimmer” in its use of militaristic percussion and a blandly-heroic orchestral arrangement of strings and horns. The film’s musical character better is better served through Scott’s various needledrops, with Three Dog Night’s “Mama Told Me Not To Come” headlining a suite of blues and classic rock tracks.

Scott’s artistic strength with well-developed, strong female protagonists suffuses G.I. JANE with a vitality that may otherwise have been lost in the hands of a lesser filmmaker.  He neither leans into O’Niell’s objectification as a sexual object nor does he reduce her sexuality so she can “hang with the guys”.

Like all of us, she is a complex biological being, and her strength lies in her refusal to abandon her humanity in the face of a training regimen designed to do exactly that.  Like much of Scott’s theatrical output throughout the late 80’s and the whole of the 1990’s, G.I. JANE does not take place in a fantasy world that Scott can build from scratch— it takes place contemporaneously in an admittedly-exaggerated version of a world we can recognize as our own.

In lieu of imagination, Scott and his production designer Arthur Max (in the first of several subsequent collaborations) channel their efforts towards meticulous research and attention to detail.  The protocols, training facilities, and tactical equipment of military life are vividly realized— especially during the climactic battle sequence that takes place in the deserts off the Libyan coast, retroactively becoming something like a rough draft for Scott’s similarly-themed combat picture, BLACK HAWK DOWN (2001).

Indeed, Scott’s artistic interest in the Middle East region has given subsequent works like KINGDOM OF HEAVEN (2005), BODY OF LIES (2008) and EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS (2014) an exotic backdrop seldom utilized by contemporary filmmakers in the American studio system, priming them with a timely relevance in their explorations of xenophobia in a post-9/11 context.  While G.I. JANE doesn’t quite aspire to such lofty thematic heights, it does play a part in establishing a visual grammar in which Scott can later convey these ideas.

In the years since, G.I. JANE has struggled to maintain the high profile it enjoyed upon release as the #1 movie at the box office (despite mixed reviews).  Even Scott’s poorly-received films tend to find some degree of re-appreciation in later years, usually after the release of a superior director’s cut.  No such fate seems to be in the cards for G.I. JANE, and at the risk of editorializing too much, this isn’t necessarily a great tragedy.

In the context of Scott’s filmography alone, the film has already been eclipsed by superior works about armed combat like BLACK HAWK DOWN.  While it’s clear that the filmmakers’ intentions were good, one can’t help but wonder if G.I. JANE’s premise might have been too absurd for its time— Moore’s Razzie win for Worst Actress arguably reflects less on the quality of her performance than it does on the notion that audiences of the day weren’t particularly inclined towards the idea of a woman in combat.

In the real world, women couldn’t even become Navy SEALS until 2016– almost twenty years after G.I. JANE’s release.  The film’s heart may have been ahead of its time, but its skeleton reveals itself to be a fossil of 90’s-era pop entertainment.  Nonetheless, all fossils have archeological value, and G.I. JANE’s worth lies in the small  insights it yields into the evolving craft of a director on the cusp of his own artistic renaissance.


GLADIATOR (2000)

The late 90’s and early 2000’s were watershed years for American cinema, ushering in a new age of gigantic studio spectacles following the imagination-shattering release of Steven Spielberg’s JURASSIC PARK in 1993.  Cinema had been nicknamed “The Dream Factory” for a reason, allowing audiences to escape from reality for two hours at a time and share in the collective rapture of witnessing images in motion— some of which could never be encountered in waking life.

The notion that “anything was possible” when it came to the movies was something taken for granted, but JURASSIC PARK was proof positive of its validity.  Here were realistic, flesh-and-blood dinosaurs — extinct for millions of years, yet walking around up on screen… roaring, stomping, chomping.  Suddenly, there was no limit to what filmmakers could do, and they seized that opportunity with reckless abandon.

The phrase “capturing our imagination” might be apt here, but in actuality the opposite was true: our imaginations had been unleashed.

In our rush to realize untold worlds with boundless possibilities, there inevitably resulted in some regrettable ideas and ill-advised cash-in attempts.  There were also some certified classics— films that employed this new technology in service to a sound story rather than leaning on it as the main hook. Almost twenty years on, these new classics are easily distinguishable, not just by their enduring place in cinephiles’ hearts, but also by computer effects that actually hold up.

Director Sir Ridley Scott’s GLADIATOR (2000), is such a film; in recreating the awe-inspiring majesty of Ancient Rome, Scott’s vision attains an elegant, almost monumental pedigree that modern cinema rarely achieves.  Built like an old-school studio epic with modern sensibilities, GLADIATOR has been held in high regard ever since its release, assuming command as a flagship catalog title that ensures consistent re-releases with each new home video format.

In other words, the film hasn’t strayed too far from the forefront of our collective cinematic memory in the decades since, installing itself in the pop culture pantheon as arguably the first classic studio film of the 21st century.  For Scott himself, GLADIATOR has become a transformative project, marking his emergence as a mature, world-class filmmaker fully attuned to his creative inspirations and operating at the peak of his powers (although age-wise he was on the cusp of eligibility for retirement).

It seems somewhat silly to say, as hugely influential classics like ALIEN (1979), BLADE RUNNER (1982) and THELMA & LOUISE (1991) pepper his back catalog, but yet they are also largely defined by their respective visual aesthetics.  They are, by and large, products of their time. GLADIATOR, however, is an altogether different beast, channeling the spirit of Hollywood Golden Age spectacles like Stanley Kubrick‘s SPARTACUS (1960) or William Wyler‘s BEN-HUR (1959) to create a timeless adventure that restores majesty and a sense of Shakespearean dramaturgy to the modern theatrical experience.

Like many films of this kind, GLADIATOR’s road to production was a long one forged by a passionate individual.  This person was screenwriter David Franzoni, who had been spinning his interest in ancient Roman culture and the gladiatorial games into a single narrative thread since the 1970’s.

Following his writing involvement with Steven Spielberg’s AMISTAD (1997), Franzoni was invited to pitch his long-gestating passion project to Spielberg and other executives at Dreamworks, who immediately responded to the exciting possibilities inherent in recreating ancient Rome in this emerging digital age. Franzoni subsequently joined fellow producers Douglas Wick and Brando Lustig in searching for a director who could capably navigate the production’s complicated logistics and inevitable challenges.

Their search led them to Scott, whose gifts for worldbuilding and innate knack for big-budget spectacle positioned him as the obvious top candidate.  Scott did agree to direct the film, but not because he particularly responded to Franzoni’s script (indeed, I’ve read his early draft myself and can confirm its excellent structure comes at the expense of… well, everything else).

Instead, Scott’s personal attraction to the project stemmed from an evocative painting shown to him by Wick during his pitch.  That painting was “Pollice Verso” (“Thumbs Down”) by Jean-Leon Gerome— a rather famous work depicting a Roman gladiator standing over his vanquished opponent, waiting on the Emperor to render one of two verdicts: mercy or death.

Upon seeing the painting, Scott knew his involvement was inevitable, and his first order of business was hiring John Logan to heavily rewrite Franzoni’s dialogue, which he deemed too un-artful and unsubtle for his tastes.  Logan also retooled the first act, using the murder of the protagonist’s wife and child as his primary motivation.

Having your work rewritten by another screenwriter can be a painful, bitter process, so Franzoni must have felt especially aggrieved when Scott brought on a third screenwriter, William Nicholson, after what was reportedly a less-than-promising table read by the cast. Nicholson’s contributions focused on the addition of the spiritual “Elysium” angle and making the protagonist more well-rounded, and Scott felt these revisions were so necessary that he invited Nicholson to stay on through the shoot and provide additional rewrites as needed.

Indeed, Nicholson’s services would be very much required— the combative rewriting process ultimately resulted in Scott and company commencing on a $100 million shoot with only a quarter of a finished script, with the remainder being written and rewritten on the fly against the cast’s aggressive questioning and criticisms of its contents.

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That GLADIATOR’s final narrative is so cohesive and powerful is something of a miracle, but that’s not said to diminish Scott seasoned storytelling skills or the contributions from his stellar cast, all of whom turn in career-best performances.  Set 180 years after the birth of Christ, the film details an epic story about, to paraphrase the now-famous marketing campaign, a Roman general-turned-gladiator who defies an empire in his quest for personal revenge.

We begin in wooded Germania, where Russell Crowe begins his first of several performances throughout Scott’s filmography as Maximus, a general of the Roman army in service to Emperor Marcus Aurelius.  A gifted and charismatic leader, Maximus has been tasked with delivering Germania from the barbarian hordes and placing it under Roman control.

Crowe excels in a role that original choice Mel Gibson reportedly turned down because he felt he was too old, bringing a fierce, yet compassionate authority that helps us to believe this stone-cold killer is truly a family man at heart. After his victory in Germania, his ailing Emperor Marcus Aurelius (a sublime Sir Richard Harris) assigns Maximus a formidable new task: succeed him as Emperor and reinstate the Republic, subsequently returning democracy to Roman society.

Naturally, Aurelius’ son and assumed heir, Commodus, doesn’t take this news lightly. Joaquin Phoenix strikes a perfectly sniveling and petulant tone as GLADIATOR’s classical villain— aggrieved and emasculated by his father’s unexpected decision, he proceeds to mask his murder of Marcus Aurelius as a natural death and condemn Maximus and his family to execution when he won’t pledge loyalty to his new “Emperor”.

A better killer than his own executioners, Maximus narrowly escapes death and rides for his native Spain to prevent the murders of his beloved son and wife (seen in visions in the form of actress Giannina Fabio, who would later become Scott’s wife in 2015).

Upon arriving home, Maximus tragically discovers that he is too late— the sight of his family’s burned and crucified bodies robs him of his will to live, sending him into a kind of comatose state that results in his abduction by passing slave traders.  Pressed into a brutal life of forced gladiatorial combat in the arid Roman province of Zucchabar, his natural fighting talents turn him into a local star while also giving him something to strive for: his freedom.

After a series of wins in regional gladiatorial arenas, his owner, Proximo, decides to take Maximus to his gladiator academy in Rome and groom him for battle at the Coliseum.  Celebrated actor Oliver Reed proves a brilliant choice as the grumpy former gladiator-turned-slave owner and mentor to Maximus, lending GLADIATOR a worldly gravitas akin to the sword-and-sandal epics of yesteryear.

GLADIATOR also marks Reed’s final on-screen performance, having suffered an unexpected heart attack that would cause him to pass away three weeks before production wrapped.  Rather than recast the role and undergo reshoots, Scott put his considerable logistical skills and profound understanding of visual film grammar to the test in an effort to keep Reed’s performance intact.

This was achieved via some light CGI compositing, but the majority of Scott’s workaround consisted of good old-fashioned cinematic trickery— a mix of body doubles and cleverly-chosen outtakes from other scenes.  The death of a major cast member during production is one of filmmaking’s most debilitating scenarios, but Scott’s quick thinking and resourcefulness enabled production to continue on with barely a hiccup.

Maximus’ series of hard-fought wins in the Coliseum cause his fame to spread throughout Rome, elevating him to a level of celebrity on par with Commodus himself and forcing him to reveal his true identity to his scheming nemesis.

With his crusade against Commodus now out in the open, Maximus devises a slave uprising that will free his fellow gladiators, conspiring with the likes of Proximo, select Roman senators, his loyal friend and fellow slave, Juba (Djimon Hounsou in a breakout performance), and even Commodus’ own beloved sister, Lucille, played by Connie Nielsen with a regal elegance that recalls the string-pulling manipulativeness of Lady Macbeth while subverting the expectations of the “romantic interest” archetype.

Far more than just a damsel in distress, Nelson’s performance as Lucille takes its place alongside Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley, Sean Young’s Rachel, and Susan Sarandon & Geena Davis’ Thelma & Louise in Scott’s lengthy display of strong, resilient heroines. With her love of Maximus, as well as the crowd’s, preventing Commodus from outright killing him, the stage is set for a final, Shakespearean encounter between these two bitter rivals on the blood-stained Coliseum floor.

The influence of aforementioned epics like SPARTACUS and BEN-HUR loom large throughout GLADIATOR’s visual presentation, infusing Scott’s trademark pop aesthetic with the prestige of world-class production value.  Working with Scott for the first time, cinematographer John Mathieson would earn an Oscar nomination for his efforts here, imprinting a series of enduring images onto the 2.39:1 35mm film frame, a prime example of which is Maximus’ hand caressing golden wheat stalks as he walks through a field (a surprisingly influential visual that’s been endlessly copied and parodied in the years since).

Scott employs his tried-and-true color palette of blues and oranges to better differentiate the film’s various locales: a cold blue cast communicates both the wooded chill of Germania and the marble chambers of Rome’s Forum, while strong orange hues convey the arid vistas of Zucchabar as well as the warm Mediterranean climate that hangs over the Coliseum.

Maximus’ visions of a peaceful afterlife take on a strong blue/green tint, firmly establishing its otherworldly nature without pushing in too fantastical a direction.

Scott’s approach to camerawork has always been based on a mix between the classical formalism of crane and dolly shots and new-school techniques handheld photography, and GLADIATOR further reinforces this blend by drawing inspiration from both sweeping Golden Age epics and more-recent works like Steven Spielberg’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998)— a picture whose innovations with 45-degree shutter angles create a hyperreal staccato in action sequences that GLADIATOR ably replicates for its own visceral battles.

This evocative mix can also be glimpsed in some of the film’s stylish time lapse shots, or in a standout sequence that finds Commodus returning to Rome as its new Emperor, rendered in a fascist visual syntax that immediately calls to mind the Nazi propaganda of Leni Riefenstahl’s TRIUMPH OF THE WILL (1935) (although, as Scott notes in his commentary, the Nazis actually followed the Roman Empire’s lead in the design of their own iconography).

Scott’s atmospheric signatures are ever present throughout GLADIATOR: smoke, shafts of concentrated light, plumes of dust, billowing snow, and intimate candlelight work in concert to bring theatricality and immediacy to the antiquity of imperial Rome.

Returning production designer Arthur Max would earn an Oscar nomination for his own efforts towards this end, the highlight being the building of a portion of the Coliseum in Malta at a cost of $1 million and several months’ construction time.  Thanks to the oblong oval shape of the structure, clever compositions and strategic viewing angles could create a comprehensive impression of depth and scale without the need to build the whole damn thing.

Likewise, only the first couple tiers of audience seating needed to be built, with the remainder being digitally recreated.  Indeed, a considerable quantity of computer-generated imagery was required to recreate Ancient Rome in the wide, but Scott’s tasteful implementation uses real elements as the base of each effect shot, allowing GLADIATOR to age far more gracefully than most of the other CGI-heavy films from the period like THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999), George Lucas’ first installment in the Star Wars prequel trilogy.

GLADIATOR’s post-production process benefits from the familiarity afforded by Scott’s hiring of two returning collaborators, both of whom would also score Oscar nominations of their own for their work here. Editor Pietro Scalia’s seasoned hand brings a propulsive rhythm and an intuitive spatial cohesion to GLADIATOR’s several battle sequences, while composer Hans Zimmer’s heroic and appropriately-bombastic score infuses the action with rousing drama.

One of the best selling soundtracks of all time (1), GLADIATOR’s score is an easy contender for Zimmer’s finest work— an honor he shares with renowned vocalist Lisa Gerrard, whose haunting, mournful wails perfectly complement Zimmer’s use of harps and mandolins, adding an exotic antiquity to the otherwise-standard orchestral blend of strings, horns, and percussion.

GLADIATOR’s producers were wise to seek out Scott’s directing services— whether they possessed the intuition or not, their project’s specific narrative needs play directly into Scott’s strengths as a storyteller.  With the exception of 1991’s THELMA & LOUISE, the 90’s had been something of a stagnant creative period for Scott, finding him treading water with projects that appealed to his artistic interests without necessarily challenging him.

Indeed, challenge appears to be the “special sauce” in his touchstone works; he thrives on it, drawing the necessary oxygen from it to deliver a meaningful and resonant exhortation. GLADIATOR would pose a formidable challenge from every logistical angle, beginning with the hard truth that the swashbuckling sword-and-sandals genre was all but dead at the turn of the 21st century.

The prospect of recreating Ancient Rome as an immersive environment, however, was too powerful a draw for Scott to resist. Under Scott’s seasoned eye, the environment becomes the selling point for audiences, offering them a chance to experience the antiquity and the majesty of imperial Rome in all its grimy, sweaty, bloody glory.

In many ways, GLADIATOR resembles Scott’s 1977 debut, THE DUELLISTS, in its vibrant historical recreation of an era long gone— a tribute to Scott’s longtime flair for building fantastical, cohesive worlds on-screen. This is especially true of GLADIATOR’s locales outside of Rome, which aren’t as reliant on heavy computer manipulation: the woods outside Farnham, England stand in for the rugged wilderness of Germania while a Moroccan desert town that Scott had previously scouted for G.I. JANE (1998) transforms itself into the bustling province of Zucchabar while further indulging his on-screen interest in Middle Eastern locales.

In undertaking GLADIATOR, Scott establishes a new template for his career, continually returning to the genre he helped to invigorate with subsequent works like KINGDOM OF HEAVEN (2005), ROBIN HOOD (2010) and EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS (2014).

None of those works, however, would ultimately achieve the level of prestige and universal praise accorded to GLADIATOR.  Almost-uniformly rave reviews (although the late Roger Ebert was not a fan (3)) drove box office receipts towards half a billion dollars worldwide, making GLADIATOR the second highest grossing film of 2000.

Its old-school approach to spectacle and unrivaled production value positioned the film as a major awards contender, especially at the Oscars, where it took home gold statues in technical categories like Best Sound, Best Costume Design and Best Visual Effects as well as two of the big marquee categories: Best Actor and Best Picture.

Other nominations beyond the aforementioned included Best Screenplay and a Best Supporting Actor nod for Phoenix’s performance, with Scott himself earning his first nomination from the Academy for his direction. Scott’s eye for tastemaking design had always been beloved by pop culture, but his recognition by the admittedly-stuffy members of the Academy marks a profound ascent in the eyes of the industry, emerging from the realm of slick, yet workman-like commerce into the prestigious plane of high art.

Whereas critics had previously derided him for favoring style over substance, they now recognized that his style had become the substance, not unlike a painter whose work is celebrated more for its visible brush strokes than the image that said strokes comprise.  The film’s influence is still felt today, with recent sword-and-sandal epics like 2016’s remake of BEN-HUR or the Starz television series SPARTACUS resonating like the aftershocks of GLADIATOR’s earth-shattering success.

Indeed, GLADIATOR has done an admirable job in staying in the public eye for almost two decades, with a 2005 home video re-release providing audiences with a new extended cut of the film that adds fifteen minutes to the runtime (Scott, however still maintains the theatrical cut is his definitive director’s cut).  A sequel was even considered, to the extent that producers commissioned a full screenplay by renowned rock star and film composer Nick Cave.

While the project was ultimately abandoned for straying too far from the spirit of the original, Cave’s 2006 draft nonetheless explored some interesting ideas in its detailing of Maximus’ quest through the afterlife, becoming an immortal soldier fighting through the major wars of history (up to and including World War 2).

None of these revisionist developments have dulled the sharpness of GLADIATOR’s blade, serving only to further reinforce its legacy as a modern classic.  Its eventual selection for the National Film Registry all but assured, GLADIATOR has claimed victory as a cornerstone of Scott’s cinematic legacy.  As one of mainstream American cinema’s most prominent voices during its first hundred years of existence, Scott was now primed to do the same as the medium entered its second century.


HANNIBAL (2001)

In the annals of silver screen monsters, few loom as terrifyingly large as one Dr. Hannibal Lecter, the infamous cannibal, murderer, and psychopathic genius.  First introduced to film audiences by way of Brian Cox in Michael Mann’s MANHUNTER (1986), the character didn’t really take our collective fear hostage until Sir Anthony Hopkins stepped into the role for Jonathan Demme’s THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS (1991).

Arriving on the tail end of a century of cinematic spooks like Dracula, Frankenstein and The Wolf Man, Hopkins’ Dr. Lecter quickly joined their high-profile ranks as one of the ultimate boogeymen, turning THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS into an outright sensation that dominated both the box office and awards season.

The prospect of a sequel, then, naturally possessed an undeniable appeal for those who stood to benefit, and no person was perhaps more eager to capitalize on the opportunity than legendary producer Dino De Laurentiis.  Having served as an executive producer on MANHUNTER, he still held the screen rights to the character, but his dissatisfaction with Mann’s final product compelled him to sit out any involvement in Demme’s subsequent re-working of the property.

When he heard that Hannibal’s literary creator, Thomas Harris, was embarking on a sequel in 1999, De Laurentiis quite understandably jumped at the opportunity to rectify his earlier blunder, and secured the novel’s screen rights for a record $10 million.

To say that a sequel to THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS — in both literary and cinematic form —would be highly anticipated is certainly an understatement.  Readers and audiences alike were keen to witness the carnage wrought by an unleashed Dr. Lecter, and it was arguably this eagerness that compelled Harris to take an indulgent tack in his approach.

After all, a good horror sequel should up the ante wherever possible, reveling in higher body counts and ever-more horrific behavior from its monster. However, the finished novel, titled simply “Hannibal”, didn’t quite achieve the desired effect with its intended production team— Demme echoed the sentiments of LAMBS screenwriter Ted Tally and star Jodie Foster in declaring his distaste for the new novel’s gleeful approach to bloodletting.

Nevertheless, they gave the project the benefit of the doubt for the time being, battling original screenwriter David Mamet and then Steven Zaillian throughout no less than fifteen drafts before their persistent misgivings caused them to finally drop out of the project altogether.  De Laurentiis felt that as long as he still had Hopkins (and he did), then he still had a movie, so he pushed on undeterred.

This is when director Sir Ridley Scott entered the fray, having been approached by De Laurentiis on the set of GLADIATOR.  The two were old friends, having established a warm relationship when De Laurentiis pursued Scott to make DUNE after his success with 1979’s ALIEN.  Funnily enough, Scott initially turned down De Laurentiis’ offer, under the mistaken assumption that the celebrated producer wanted him to make a film about the historical figure of Hannibal, the conqueror from Carthage who took on the Roman Empire.

When he realized that De Laurentiis was actually proposing an $87 million sequel to one of the most successful horror films of all time, Scott was suddenly much more receptive to the prospect. While HANNIBAL met with a fairly divisive reception when it hit theaters in 2001, it nevertheless proved that, after a quarter century of making feature films, there were still cinematic avenues that Scott’s celebrated career had yet to stroll down: the gothic horror film, and the sequel.

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HANNIBAL picks up ten years after THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, with Dr. Lecter living perhaps the cushiest life that an international fugitive has ever lived.  Volunteering under an assumed name as an assistant museum curator in picturesque Florence, Italy, Dr. Lecter seems to have found the fullest, most-sophisticated realization of his true self— his taste for murder and human flesh now seems more like a quirk than a defining trait.  In all this time, his toxic affection for FBI agent Clarice Starling has not diminished; the specter of unconsummated love haunting him at his core.

Since their chilling encounter in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, Starling has gone on to an established career in the FBI, but she too is haunted by the deep psychological impression Lecter was able to make on her. Taking over Foster’s iconic role is no easy feat, but Julianne Moore (cast here off of Hopkins’ recommendation) ably slips into Starling’s shoes. Indeed, she makes it her own, conveying the same icy determination that marked the character in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, albeit bolstered by the confidence of age and experience.

Laid low after a drug raid gone horribly awry, Starling unexpectedly receives a letter of condolence from Lecter, from which she can detect a unique fragrance that an expert (Darren Aronofsky regular Mark Margolis in a brief cameo) pinpoints as only available from a boutique shop in Florence.  Unable to investigate herself, she makes contact with a local detective, Inspector Pazzi.

Played with subdued intensity by Giancarlo Giannini, Pazzi is a driven cop who happens to share Lecter’s taste for the finer things in life. The desire for self-gain grows to overwhelm his duty to the law when Pazzi learns of a $3 million reward for Lecter’s capture, offered by his only living victim— a wealthy invalid named Mason Verger.

Inhabited by an unrecognizable Gary Oldman in a truly sickening performance that required him to spend six hours in the makeup chair every day (5), Verger’s obscene wealth is no match for his hideous countenance, which might go down as some of the most revolting prosthetic effects in cinematic history. With his face left a desperate mess of skin grafts and scar tissue after Lecter convinced him to disfigure himself, Verger is less a man than he is a sentient fetus, living only for the satisfaction of exacting his revenge on Lecter.

Suffice to say, Lecter is almost immediately captured by Verger’s men upon his return to America, and Starling finds herself in the strange position of having to rescue this diabolical psychopath against the orders of her superior, agent Paul Krendler (Ray Liotta). The result is an exhilarating rescue sequence set in Verger’s gothic mansion in rural North Carolina, followed shortly thereafter by a macabre dinner party at Krendler’s lake house that will give Lecter the intimate reunion with Starling he’s been dreaming of for a decade.

While HANNIBAL’s plot may lack the discipline and tight structure of THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, it nonetheless projects a very uncomfortable atmosphere by humanizing the monster at its core— indeed, we come to feel something like sympathy for Lecter, thanks to Hopkins’ intimate familiarity with — and absolute refusal to judge — a character that has come to define his career.

Fresh off their successful collaboration with GLADIATOR, Scott and cinematographer John Mathieson roll right into HANNIBAL without skipping a beat.  The pair conjures a very different atmosphere than GLADIATOR, leaning into the story’s genre trappings with a suitably dark and frightening aesthetic.

Shooting on 35mm film in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio, Mathieson and Scott employ a desaturated, high-contrast color palette that explores the interplay between blue and orange tones (a longtime trademark of the director’s visual style).  A heavy blue cast dominates nearly every frame, reinforcing a cold, depressive mood that reflects Lecter’s elegant inhumanity.

So too does Scott’s formal camerawork, which favors butter-smooth dollies, cranes, and Kubrickian slow-zooms amidst the occasional handheld setup.  Shadows are a defining trait of HANNIBAL’s visual approach, informing Scott’s employment of signature atmospheric conceits like silhouettes, smoke, and shafts of concentrated light.

Echoing the indulgent nature of Harris’ novel, Scott repeatedly embraces the opportunity to experiment with his aesthetic, towards end both effective (like consistently obscuring Lecter’s full visage through careful placement of shadow and reflections) as well as derivative (the rendering of a fish market shootout in extreme slow-motion that immediately reminds one of THE MATRIX (1999)).

A curious expansion of Scott’s visual artistry finds him using slow shutter speeds in select “flashback” sequences, which creates a disconnected, staccato energy while evoking the “snapshot” nature of a memory recalled.  For all its visual indulgences, HANNIBAL’s stylistic cohesion is ensured through the return of established post-production collaborators like editor Pietro Scalia and composer Hans Zimmer.

Complementing a suite of classical cues (some of which made an appearance in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS), Zimmer’s subdued, spooky score employs conventional orchestral instruments albeit played at tonal extremes, in a bid to reflect the similarly-extreme nature of Lecter’s sophisticated inhumanity.

Driven by propulsive chimes and bellowing cellos, Zimmer’s work here is curiously under-mixed; it plays at a noticeably lower volume than expected. Whether this was a technical oversight or an intentional artistic choice, it’s objectively a shame— HANNIBAL’s score is one of Zimmer’s best; a dark, beautiful beast that beckons us with elegant mystery and baroque foreboding.

Unless they also directed the originating installment, most directors of Scott’s caliber avoid sequels like the plague.  Though they often tend to be more successful from a financial standpoint, sequels find filmmakers starting from a place of artistic disadvantage— they have to service and subvert audience expectations at the same time, recycling the elements that made the original work so well while also delivering something new.

Scott must have intuitively known that imitating Demme’s work on THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS was the road to surefire failure; he had to make it his own.  While HANNIBAL may not quite succeed as a worthy sequel, it certainly excels as an individual piece contained within the context of Scott’s filmography.  Key aspects of the narrative seem tailor-made to Scott’s unique sensibilities, beginning with a story driven by a strong heroine.

The character of Clarice Starling may not be Scott’s creation, but her manifestation in HANNIBAL evidences the influence of the Scott heroines who came before her.  In Moore’s characterization, one can glimpse the tactical courage of ALIEN’s Ripley, the calculating observation of BLADE RUNNER’s Rachel, or the principled defiance against male power dynamics exhibited by the namesakes of THELMA & LOUISE.

Also like these women, Starling never has to sacrifice her own femininity in order to project strength or courage, or emulate masculine behavior to prove her resolve.  Whereas Foster’s take on Starling portrayed her femininity as a liability, inviting objectifying leers and crass sexism from her cohorts in the FBI, Moore’s performance embraces it as a source of personal strength, giving her the edge that eludes complacent colleagues like Liotta’s incompetent and misogynist superior.

HANNIBAL’s exotic Florence backdrop no doubt held enormous appeal for Scott, promising new and challenging opportunities to create yet another highly-immersive environment.  Working once more with his BLACK RAIN (1989) and THELMA & LOUISE production designer Norris Spencer as well as Diego Loreggian, Scott achieves just that, foregoing the fantastical worldbuilding afforded by a fictional setting in favor of a “you-are-there” vibrancy.

A standout sequence in this regard finds Pazzi’s assistant stalking Hannibal through a bustling Florence bazaar, with Scott strategically employing smoke, shadows, a crowd of high-energy extras, and evocative lighting to drop the audience right in the middle of the action.

This heightened sense of “presence”, a rare quality that still manages to elude many world-class directors, can also be felt in the fish market shootout that opens the film, or even sequences set in Verger’s gothic mansion, which provide an appropriately spooky “monster movie” backdrop in which Lecter’s Dracula figure can roam.

That said, if HANNIBAL flirts with the manifestation of Lecter in the syntax of vampirism, he doesn’t necessarily draw from expected sources like Tod Browning’s DRACULA (1931).  Rather, HANNIBAL’s inspiration comes from a much more intimate source— 1983’s THE HUNGER, the debut film of Scott’s younger brother, Tony.

The aesthetic similarities are undeniable, with both films sharing the same blue color cast, evoking the coldness of the undead.  While Lecter isn’t necessarily a “vampire” per se, he nonetheless assumes the elegant, worldly nihilism of THE HUNGER’s vampiric protagonists: beings who’ve lived for hundreds of years and have grown disenchanted by seeing repetitive sociological cycles play out time and time again to the same effect.

He also shares their taste for classical music, and for drawing blood with small concealed blades. While Scott’s homage to his brother’s breakout work will undoubtedly go unnoticed by most, its intensely-personal nature nonetheless causes HANNIBAL to resonate at a different emotional register than THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, making for an altogether-different beast that makes an honest attempt to justify its existence as a sequel to a story that didn’t necessarily need one.

Despite his best intentions, Scott’s efforts may not have been enough to surmount the outsized expectations set by the original.  The prospect of once again experiencing Lecter’s darkly-magnetic charisma may have lured audiences in to the tune of a $58 million opening weekend (which in 2001, was the third-biggest debut ever), but even Hopkins’ reprisal of his famous role couldn’t fully ensnare their attentions as he had done the first time around.

Reviews tended to be all over the place; there were those who really liked it, and those who really didn’t, but HANNIBAL’s true kiss of critical death lay in the critics who were simply ambivalent about it. GLADIATOR may have marked Scott’s graduation to a world-class director of prestige films, but HANNIBAL was decidedly a middling, journeyman work.

It’s a testament to Scott’s work ethic that even his most forgettable films exhibit top-notch craftsmanship, but HANNIBAL ultimately fails because his vision doesn’t amount to more than the sum of its parts. Following a career-defining work like GLADIATOR was never going to be an easy task, so one would be justified in cutting Scott a little slack if HANNIBAL falls short— after all, the consistent pivoting from wins to losses was the natural rhythm of Scott’s filmography.

HANNIBAL may have been a disappointment, but Scott thankfully had his next win up his sleeve, and his tireless work ethic meant that it was already due for release later that same year.


BLACK HAWK DOWN (2001)

Still riding high off the success of GLADIATOR (2000), director Ridley Scott found his filmmaking services more in demand than ever, jumping from one production to the next with barely a beat between them to catch his breath.  His name had become synonymous with both awards prestige and financial success, so naturally every producer in town wanted to work with him.

One such producer was Jerry Bruckheimer, the industry titan whose big-budget displays of massive pyrotechnics had informed some of the cultural character of both the 80’s and 90’s.  Bruckheimer was already something of a family friend, having produced TOP GUN (1986) and BEVERLY HILLS COP 2 (1987) for Scott’s brother, Tony.

During the production of HANNIBAL, Bruckheimer had approached Scott with a project he had previously been developing as a directing vehicle for action director Simon West (1)— an adaption of Mark Bowden’s non-fiction book “Black Hawk Down”.

Originally published in 1999, the book recounts the events that have come to be known as The Battle of Mogadishu: an operation undertaken by the US Military against the Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid, in which the loss of eighteen US lives and and the deaths of countless Somali citizens marked one of the most consequential firefights since Vietnam.

West had initiated the project, bringing it to Bruckheimer’s attention with the request that he purchase the film rights. After the option was secured, screenwriter Ken Nolan was brought on board to adapt the book into a script, which then went through several uncredited rewrites from the likes of Stephen Gaghan, Steven Zaillian, Edna Sands, and even Bowden himself.

Nolan ultimately had the last laugh, receiving sole credit as well as the opportunity to rewrite the rewrites on set. Certainly no stranger to large budgets, Scott would effortlessly navigate the $92 million production of BLACK HAWK DOWN, coasting off his resurgent creative momentum to deliver another run at Oscar glory with an unrivaled portrait of modern urban warfare.

It was supposed to be a quick mission: apprehend and extract two advisers to Somali warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid, who in 1993 was waging war against UN peacekeeping forces inside Mogadishu following a bloody civil war and the dissolution of the local government.  Having declared himself the new leader of Somalia, Aidid was commanding a large, heavily-armed civilian militia who routinely seized Red Cross food shipments as a way to exert his power over the populace.

Starvation was no way to lead a nation, so the U.S. Army had deployed several special ops units into Mogadishu with the aim of taking Aidid out.  For all their training and might, the troops had failed to heed the central lesson of Vietnam: that a well-funded military and superior weaponry were no match for passionate locals with nothing left to lose.

The mission is quickly compromised, leaving the troops marooned in the middle of pure urban anarchy when they lose their superiority over the air— the consequential event that gives the film its title.  The remainder of BLACK HAWK DOWN follows the ensemble as they fight to escape Mogadishu in one piece, blending fact with the fiction of various character composites to create a riveting exercise in sustained suspense and adrenaline.

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Despite production occurring far before the calamitous events of September 11, 2001, the spectre of that fateful day nevertheless colors the experience of BLACK HAWK DOWN, becoming a rallying cry for those desperate to conquer the sense of profound helplessness felt in the face of terrorism’s inherent anarchy.

It was a reflection of our new normal, where our enemies didn’t come at us wearing the uniform or colors of any recognizable nation or creed; where the only certainty was the uncertainty of our collective security. Scott’s vision would strike a strange tone, being both anti-war and pro-military simultaneously.

Indeed, the film strings along several such contradictions— attempts to portray the ugliness of combat and the visceral horror of a human body exploding into a crimson mist are subverted by the propagandistic jingoism of the soldiers’ enthusiasm; a prologue spotlighting the horrific suffering of starving Somalis gives way to their dehumanization as enemy combatants.

Indeed, with very few exceptions (a rich Somali arms dealer and one of Aidid’s lieutenants), BLACK HAWK DOWN roots itself almost exclusively within the American perspective.  In this light, Scott’s large cast of Hollywood stars and unknowns alike finds itself tasked not with projecting character development in the conventional sense, but rather with quickly establishing multiple viewpoints for the audience to track as the operation goes from bad to worse.

Having spent a week in hardcore military training as part of their prep, the cast proudly sacrifices their vanity and any concerted efforts at individualization so as to better gel together into a single organism. Even when they splinter into smaller groups, they move through the city as one, aided by the omniscience of the one helicopter flying out of RPG range above.

Playing a soldier named Eversmann, Josh Hartnett might as well as named “Everyman”, anchoring the film (and its marketing materials) as something of a cypher through which the audience can implant themselves into the action. Ewan McGregor plays Grimes, the coffee boy/desk jockey itching to get in on the fight.

Eric Bana and William Fichtner are the cool, composed members of an elite sub-unit of soldiers called Delta Force.  Orlando Bloom is Blackburn, the boyish new guy. Tom Sizemore’s character is named McKnight, but he is essentially the same “unstoppable son-of-a-bitch with a heart of gold” stock character he played in Steven Spielberg’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998) and seemingly every other war movie made since.

Jason Isaacs and Tom Hardy are almost unrecognizable in their roles as Steele and Twombly respectively— Isaacs’ shaved head gives his facial features a harder, mean-looking edge, while Hardy (in his very first feature film role) is still so boyish and scrawny here that one might miss his presence entirely.  Jeremy Piven pops up as well, embodying his usual cocksure, smart-mouth shtick in the guise of a helicopter pilot.

The late Sam Shepard lords over all as the no-nonsense commander, Garrison, swaggering around in dark aviators and chomping cigars like the living embodiment of the Bush Doctrine. The lengthy roster of names listed above are only a fraction of the thirty or so characters featured in the film— themselves a fraction of the hundred characters that Bowden’s original book tracks as the conflict spirals out of control.

BLACK HAWK DOWN immediately distinguishes itself amidst Scott’s lengthy filmography with its searing, hyper-kinetic aesthetic; understandably, this is quite the feat, considering the highly visual nature of Scott’s work.  Working for the first time with cinematographer Slawomir Idziak, Scott takes a page out of brother Tony’s filmmaking playbook, whereby the style becomes the substance.

Every Super35mm film frame of Idziak’s Oscar-nominated work here is geared to project pure adrenaline, prioritizing chaotic handheld photography that drops the audience in the middle of the action.

Shot spherically but presented in the 2.39:1 aspect ratio, BLACK HAWK DOWN’s unique look is all the more notable due to its creation in a time before digital intermediates and powerful coloring tools were in widespread use— meaning the exceedingly high contrast, crushed blacks, exaggerated grain structure, and greenish-yellow highlights that imbue an arid, sun-scorched color palette with a poisonous or acidic edge were all achieved via painstaking photochemical processes in the film lab.

In an oblique way, BLACK HAWK DOWN’s approach to color is very similar to the stylized neon hues found in BLADE RUNNER (1982)— they both aim to convey a bustling alien landscape meant to overwhelm the viewer’s senses.  BLACK HAWK DOWN further achieves this strange atmosphere through the aforementioned prologue, which Scott renders in a dominating cobalt cast, or nocturnal battle sequences that embrace a sickly green tone in the highlights, motivated by a desire for theatrical effect rather than to signal the presence of a conventional light source.

Scott and Idziak complement the radical visual aesthetic with an equally frenetic approach to camerawork, mostly foregoing Scott’s longtime use of classical studio filmmaking techniques in favor of a documentary realism that, again, tosses the audience directly into the crossfire— swooping aerials, chaotic handheld setups, lens flares, 45-degree shutters, rack zooms, and even freeze-frames all go a long way towards conveying the visceral, overwhelming nature of the mission.

While Scott may be working with a new cinematographer, he nevertheless falls back on his latter-day dream team of department heads like production designer Arthur Max, editor Pietro Scalia (who won the Oscar for his work here) and composer Hans Zimmer.  A former production designer himself, Scott has always possessed an unparalleled eye towards art design in his films— that is, until his recent collaborations with Max.

More than just an equal in this regard, Scott and Max seem to thrive off each other’s tastes, cultivating a symbiotic relationship that has pushed both men towards ever-loftier heights.  Far beyond the familiarity of signature atmospheric effects like silhouettes, smoke, and gradient skies, Scott and Max populate the frame by essentially building out a teeming city from scratch.

To recreate Mogadishu as it was in the early 90’s, production took over the Moroccan cities of Rabat and Salé, repurposing their various buildings and public spaces as Scott and Max saw fit.  Resembling a small occupation force themselves, the crew populated these cities with era-appropriate equipment on loan from the US military and commandeered their citizens as background extras.

The logistical intricacies of such an endeavor are simply mind-boggling, with the result standing as a testament to Scott’s cigar-chomping, David Lean-style confidence in grand-scale filmmaking.  The phrase “the art of war” comes to mind, suggesting that even a military general can be an artist; he creates a kind of beauty, expression, and meaning through tactical maneuvering and logistical precision. This is the root of Scott’s artistry as a filmmaker— the art of quick decisions, of marshaling his collaborators towards a common goal.

The sentiment likening filmmaking to war-making has become a trite trivialization of either endeavor, expressed more often by amateurs than seasoned veterans, but it is demonstrably true in Scott’s case.  He knows that a general is only as good as his officers, so he surrounds himself with the best of the best.

Like his collaborations with Max, Scott’s longstanding relationship with composer Hans Zimmer frequently brings out the best in either man.  In the case of BLACK HAWK DOWN, Zimmer seeks to find an oblique harmony in the clash between western and eastern musical traditions.

Representing the American side, a bed of militaristic brass and percussion drives electronic orchestration inspired by techno and heavy metal rock, creating a sound that wouldn’t necessarily be out of place in a contemporary recruitment ad.  The Somali side of Zimmer’s score adopts more of an organic approach, using regional instruments and East African rhythms to create an exotic sound punctuated by the recurring use of haunting vocalizations that evoke the danger of an unknown landscape.

Regrettably, this sound — one could call it the “scary Muslim wail” — has, like a cancer, managed to seep into nearly every post-9/11 film set in the Middle East. To Zimmer’s credit as an influential composer, he may have started this trend with BLACK HAWK DOWN, but it has nonetheless aged about as well as President Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” rally.

Ironically, Scott’s use of dated popular music helps BLACK HAWK DOWN achieve a degree of timelessness— the film boasts an eclectic mix of sourced cues ranging from Elvis Presley to House of Pain, reflecting the wide variety of backgrounds that the troops are coming from.

Scott’s use of Stevie Ray Vaughan covering Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child” is a particularly pointed inclusion, linking The Battle of Mogadishu — a tactical loss — to the quagmire of Vietnam via a shared association with rock-and-roll music.

It’s easy to see why the prospect of directing BLACK HAWK DOWN held such appeal for Scott— its various aesthetic and thematic opportunities touch on the very cornerstones of his artistry.  From a technical standpoint, the ability to transform an entire small city into his personal backlot was irresistible to a renowned cinematic worldbuilder like him.

As such, BLACK HAWK DOWN conveys a harrowing immersiveness, rendering the chaotic war zone of Mogadishu and the teeming tactical activity of the American base camp so fully that it might as well be virtual reality.  The project’s worldbuilding opportunities were doubly appealing in that they also represented a return to Morocco, a favorite shooting locale of Scott’s.

A shoot in modern-day Mogadishu was out of the question — it was still far too dangerous for the American military, let alone a civilian film crew, to step foot inside.  Scott’s familiarity with the Moroccan film community, having shot scenes for both GLADIATOR and G.I. JANE (1998) in the country, allowed the production to take full advantage of the local resources and pull off what could very well have been a logistical impossibility in other, more-developed countries.

In light of BLACK HAWK DOWN’s making, G.I. JANE actually becomes more significant in the context of Scott’s filmography; it now stands as a trial run for the former, allowing Scott to develop his skills in the depiction of military precision and tactical maneuvers.  This would be particularly important in the case of BLACK HAWK DOWN, as a key narrative and thematic tenet of the film is the marked contrast in combat styles on display: the disciplined precision and technological superiority of American forces against the wildly unpredictable anarchy of the Somali militia.

Finally, BLACK HAWK DOWN affords Scott the opportunity to further explore his career-long fascination with the theme of xenophobia, although the opportunity is somewhat squandered by his overriding sympathies for the American experience.  The film was met with a fair degree of controversy upon release for its dehumanizing depiction of the Somalis, and understandably so— a significant bulk of the story adopts the American imperialist perspective only to relegate the Somalis into the background as distant figures; ferocious “savages” with little more to their humanity than rage and bloodlust.

We’re only afforded fleeting glimpses of the Somalis’ humanity (a brief interlude of Somali children taking shelter inside a bullet-riddled school comes to mind). Far from a knee-jerk, reactionary development, BLACK HAWK DOWN’s controversy is rightly justified in questioning whether Scott’s earnest embrace of a pro-military stance came at the expense of an anti-war sentiment that would’ve been better conveyed through a more-balanced depiction of the Somalis.

BLACK HAWK DOWN’s success, while obviously bolstered by positive critical reviews, was largely propelled by a pro-military sentiment that swelled in the months directly following 9/11– in these new, uncertain, terrifying times, the American people needed a “win”; a reminder that their government and their military still had the ability to keep them secure.  

BLACK HAWK DOWN was in a position to provide this small comfort, with the fact that the real-life event was actually a tactical failure ironically salving the psychological wounds of the audience.  It’s strange to think of right-wing entertainment as being “good”; Hollywood’s broad liberal slant leaves very little air for conservative voices to produce quality content.

As such, the loudest and most reactionary efforts usually get the most air-time: the idea of “right-wing filmmaking” conjures up sickly visions of Dinesh D’Souza’s paranoid conspiracy “documentaries” or treacly faith-based and congregation-funded melodramas that unspool with all the subtlety of a brick thrown through a window.

BLACK HAWK DOWN is none of these, but yet it is the very definition of right-wing entertainment— that it stands as one of President George W. Bush’s favorite films (1) says a lot about its legacy as a cultural touchstone for conservative viewpoints.  How one feels about that fact is up to one’s own personal politics, but the pedigree of Scott’s craft here is nonetheless undeniable.

Scott is nothing if not a prolific filmmaker, but even he had not managed to break the “two films in one year” barrier that younger cohorts like Steven Spielberg or Steven Soderbergh had done— until now.

BLACK HAWK DOWN followed HANNIBAL’s 2001 release by only several months, coming in just under the wire for Oscar eligibility with a limited theatrical release before the year was out; a sound strategy, considering the aforementioned nominations (including Scott’s third nod for Best Director) and the sound mixing team’s win at the 2002 Academy Awards.

A wider release would follow in mid-January 2002, where it proved a financial success with a worldwide total of $172 million in box office receipts (3). For all its controversy, and despite his artistic stumble with HANNIBAL, Scott’s efforts on BLACK HAWK DOWN would serve as a doubling-down on claims that he was in the grips of a newfound artistic prime.

Indeed, his voice was actively shaping the cultural zeitgeist of a tumultuous decade. It would be quite some time until he experienced these lofty heights once more, but he could rest assured that BLACK HAWK DOWN had laid yet another cornsterone to an-already monumental legacy.


MATCHSTICK MEN (2003)

Shortly after the conclusion of his ambitious anti-war/pro-military action drama, BLACK HAWK DOWN (2001), director Sir Ridley Scott began development on another ambitious effort titled TRIPOLI. Written by William Monaghan of THE DEPARTED (2006) fame, TRIPOLI was to be a sweeping period epic in the vein of GLADIATOR (2000), whereby Russell Crowe and Ben Kingsley would play US diplomats who took up arms with Christian and Muslim soldiers against the leader of Tripoli at the turn of the nineteenth century.

 Naturally, the project would take quite some time to develop before it could go before cameras, so Scott — ever the unflagging workhorse — immediately began looking for a film he could quickly shoot while waiting on TRIPOLI’s green light.  He would find it in MATCHSTICK MEN (2003), a contemporary caper penned by brothers Nicholas and Ted Griffin and based off Eric Garcia’s book of the same name.

Representing Scott’s return to the Warner Brothers fold for the first time since 1982’s BLADE RUNNERMATCHSTICK MEN would ultimately prove a minor effort amidst the director’s intimidating filmography — despite being a fleet-footed, highly enjoyable picture on its own merits.

Its setting within modern-day Los Angeles already positions MATCHSTICK MEN as a curio within Scott’s work, finding Nicolas Cage as a small-time conman named Roy Waller, emphasis on “small”.  For all his supposed skill, all the middle-aged grifter has to show for it is a small house in the Valley and a rundown office he shares with his business “partner”, Frank Mercer (Sam Rockwell).

An actor not exactly known for his subtlety, Cage finds a prime vehicle for his eccentric energy in the character of Roy, whose chronic anxiety and crippling agoraphobia constantly threaten to undermine the collected cool that his profession requires of him.

Rockwell revels in Frank’s oily swagger, strutting around like a capitalist cowboy who sees the entire San Fernando Valley as his for the taking; its denizens, a bottomless pool of unwitting marks, the latest being Bruce McGill’s Chuck Frechette, a small-potatoes businessman and country-club gangster who nevertheless represents the opportunity for a huge payday.

Roy and Frank have honed their con skills to an exact science, easily separating fools from their money with a superhuman tactical dexterity. The equation is suddenly thrown off balance by the unexpected appearance of a daughter Roy never knew he had, coming to him in the form of a spunky teenager named Angela.

A product of a semi-serious relationship long since consigned to ancient history, Angela’s endearing unpredictability and infectious energy (courtesy of actress Alison Lohman in her breakout role) prove to be just the thing Roy needs to free his mental health from its long, slow decline.  Once Angela discovers the true nature of Roy’s profession, it isn’t long before she talks her way into the action herself.

The ensuing heist is as heartwarming as it is idiosyncratic; a “Take Your Daughter To Work Day” for career criminals. Of course, there is no honor among thieves, and the bright glow of Roy’s newfound fatherhood might just be blinding him to a reckoning that he should’ve seen coming.

MATCHSTICK MEN’s narrative certainly marks a major departure from Scott’s usual oeuvre, but the punchy aesthetic on display here continually assures us we are in familiar hands.  After sitting out BLACK HAWK DOWN, cinematographer John Mathieson returns for his third collaboration with Scott, tasked with avoid the bright and colorful conventions of the studio comedy genre.

Shot with anamorphic lenses on beautiful 35mm celluloid, MATCHSTICK MEN opts for a moody, restrained color palette that punctuates heavy cobalt hues with pops of pink. Be it from Roy’s prescription pills or Frank’s convenience-store wraparounds, pink proves itself to be a very important color throughout, screaming out to clue the audience in whenever an element of the plot against Frank is present within the frame.

Scott’s artistic preference for silhouettes and low-key lighting earns a narrative justification here, helping to distinguish the debilitating difference Roy encounters between interior and exterior settings. Interiors are a dark, comforting cocoon of carpet and slat blinds, while exteriors might as well be the surface of the sun.

A frequent image finds Roy standing at his window and looking out at his glistening backyard pool, but its framing suggests something more akin to an astronaut warily surveying a hostile environment that may vaporize him the moment he leaves the spaceship.  In addition to clever framing, Scott and Mathieson utilize a variety of in-camera techniques like ramping shutter speeds or low frame rates to convey Roy’s agoraphobia as the very-real, debilitating experience that it is for him.

Cheeky transitions and freeze-frames lean into MATCHSTICK MEN’s postmodern comedic sensibilities, as do the contributions of production designer Tom Foden and returning composer Hans Zimmer.  Foden and Zimmer both work to create a distinct mid-century flavor, as if MATCHSTICK MEN was simply OCEAN’S ELEVEN with middle-aged Valley burnouts instead of suave, Rat Pack con-men.

Foden achieves this vibe through carefully chosen locations and inspired set dressing, while Zimmer draws inspiration from the aforementioned Rat Pack’s sonic palette.  Better regarded for his bombastically avant-garde scores for superhero movies and historical epics, Zimmer finds in MATCHSTICK MEN the rare opportunity to be playful and light-hearted.

An accordion features prominently throughout Zimmer’s jazzy, jaunty orchestral score, prompting nostalgic visions of bowling alleys and wet bars.  The ever-present croon of Frank Sinatra dominates an eclectic suite of vintage big-band needledrops, as if Scott had simply swiped The Grove’s playlist for his own use.  That said, the film also deploys a variety of tunes from other, more-recent decades as ambient background music for specific locations, alluding to the incongruous, yet strangely harmonious, diversity of LA’s musical landscape.

After its premiere at the Venice Film Festival, MATCHSTICK MEN was released to mostly-positive reviews that stood in stark contrast to a lackluster box office take.  Intended as a minor comedic diversion in the vein of THELMA & LOUISE (1991), MATCHSTICK MEN was never destined to stand shoulder to shoulder with that prior classic— or any other classics in Scott’s canon, for that matter.

While the film further builds on his talent for strongly-realized female characters and intensively immersive environments, Scott doesn’t betray any sort of overt aspiration towards the gravitas his name usually bestows on a project— and that’s kind of what’s great about it.

MATCHSTICK MEN’s ever-growing appeal lies in its low-key, yet unflappable, confidence, as well as its heartwarming twist on the conventional father/daughter relationship.  This is the work of a seasoned artist who knows he has nothing to prove, exhibiting only the personal joy he derives from the filmmaking process. If MATCHSTICK MEN comes to be remembered as an artistic success for Scott, then it will be because he didn’t need to resort to cheap tricks in order to share that joy with his audience.


KINGDOM OF HEAVEN (2005)

The cinematic landscape is littered with the ruins of would-be classics, embarked upon by well-intentioned filmmakers who nevertheless couldn’t rise to the task.  As much as we like to attribute a technical or industrial quality to the act of filmmaking, we tend to forget its volatile and unpredictable nature as an artistic medium.

Indeed, each film is a strange alchemy of vision, taste, and ego that’s nearly impossible to quantify, let alone rely upon — the same creative ingredients that won an Oscar yesterday may yield today’s box office bomb.  For all his unassailable talents as a director, even the most cursory glances at Sir Ridley Scott’s canon demonstrates that he is no stranger to failure.

What sets him apart is his ability to re-write the fate of his films; having popularized the idea of the “Director’s Cut” with BLADE RUNNER (1982), Scott has learned to wield this tool like a weapon against the studio overlords who unwittingly conspire against his legacy.  It remains one of the most fascinating quirks of Scott’s career that this pragmatic journeyman of the studio tradition would also routinely shame fussy executives with the full potency of his unmanipulated vision.

Nowhere is this trait more evident than in Scott’s medieval epic, KINGDOM OF HEAVEN (2005) — a lavishly-mounted effort that overcame a catastrophic theatrical release with a director’s cut that re-positioned this apparent failure as one of the finest films in the venerated director’s oeuvre.

Interestingly enough, the opportunity to make KINGDOM OF HEAVEN rose from the ashes of another failed project: TRIPOLI.  Similarly-styled as a sweeping historical epic, TRIPOLI had already endured a troubled development history that saw Twentieth Century Fox pull the plug no less than twice prior.

The third iteration of TRIPOLI got as far as pre-production, with Scott and company scouting locations in far flung locales while commissioning the construction of elaborate sets.  Despite the considerable costs already imposed, executives at Fox ultimately deemed it better to simply cut their losses by killing Scott’s long-gestating passion project for a third and final time.

TRIPOLI was finally, ultimately, officially, dead—  but all was not lost. Around this same time, TRIPOLI’s screenwriter, William Monahan, finished another script about The Siege of Jerusalem during the Crusades of the late 12th century.  Scott — who himself had been knighted in 2003 for his contributions to English film history — had always wanted to make a movie set in The Crusades but had not yet found the right story.

He had even developed a project some years ago titled, simply, KNIGHT, but hadn’t progressed beyond the commissioning of some conceptual art for it.  Here, now, was a story that Scott could really sink his teeth into, and he subsequently marshaled the momentum of his TRIPOLI team’s efforts into the production of KINGDOM OF HEAVEN.

Just as fellow director Stanley Kubrick threw all the research and passion for his failed NAPOLEON project into 1975’s BARRY LYNDON, so too would Scott create KINGDOM OF HEAVEN as his own consolation prize for TRIPOLI’s collapse.  He would be aided in this quest by Executive Producers Lisa Ellzey, Terry Needham, and GLADIATOR’s Branko Lustig, prompting speculation around the industry that Scott was about to deliver the second coming of his Oscar-winning 2000 epic.

To those inside Scott’s creative circle, however, it became quickly apparent that KINGDOM OF HEAVEN was destined to leave a much more complicated legacy.

kingdomofheaven

Billed alternatively as both an action-adventure and a historical epic, KINGDOM OF HEAVEN assumes the time-honored Hero’s Quest plot structure, serving as something of a road movie that tracks protagonist Balian de Iberia’s journey from obscure French blacksmith to commander of the Christian armies in Jerusalem.

The story begins in 1184, where, after his wife’s tragic suicide, the young widower has resigned himself to a meager subsistence forging swords for distant battles. Having previously worked with Scott in a minor role in 2001’s BLACK HAWK DOWN, Orlando Bloom seizes the opportunity of his first major leading role by assuming the guise of a soulful and sensitive man who nevertheless possesses a fierce determination and courage.

The source of said courage is a mystery to him, as Scott’s Director’s Cut reveals his only relatives in the village to be a conniving uncle and Michael Sheen’s duplicitous half-brother who masquerades as a pious man of God.  Imagine Balian’s surprise when he discovers his true lineage as the son of a revered knight named Godfrey de Ibelin, who informs Balian of this fact when he rides through town on the way to The Holy Land.

As Godfrey, Liam Neeson’s paternal wisdom and worldliness projects the perfect aura to inspire Balian to leave his home and claim his true destiny.  Impaled by an arrow during a scuffle with the authorities outside town, Godfrey lasts just long enough to escort Balian to the coastal town of Messina and train him in the ways of the sword; his final act being the bestowal of knighthood on his young heir.

The reluctant hero soon departs for Jerusalem, where he quickly becomes entangled in the affairs of King Baldwin and his sister, Princess Sibylla.  Played by Ed Norton in an uncredited performance, King Baldwin is a young ruler whose leprosy forces his face to be perpetually veiled behind an enigmatic chrome mask— one of the film’s most striking and memorable conceits.

His is a fair and just rule, always grappling with the philosophical implications of his power, and he becomes one of the first to recognize both Balian’s keen intellect and his potential as an engineer and military tactician.  His sister, Sybilla, on the other hand, recognizes both his charisma and his potential as a lover— one that can better fulfill her needs than her current husband, the egomaniacal and boastful Guy de Lusignan (Martin Csokas).

Eva Green fulfills her role as the Princess of Jerusalem with a regal, statuesque elegance, benefitting (particularly in Scott’s Director’s Cut) from her director’s unique sensitivity to richly-developed heroines. Sybilla possesses agency and vision; no small feat during a time when all women were relegated to the margins of society, only able to perform the most domestic of societal functions.

Even her motherhood is a source of strength, evidenced in the Director’s Cut with a subplot that sees her deal with one of the most awful caregiving choices imaginable.

Befitting its epic aspirations, KINGDOM OF HEAVEN also boasts committed performances by a world-class supporting cast that includes David Thewlis as an enigmatic mentor/Crusader known only as Hospitaler, Jeremy Irons as a gruff authority figure who grows more and more disillusioned with the horrific butchery committed in God’s name, Brendan Gleeson as Guy’s bloodthirsty and Dionysian lieutenant, Alexander Siddig as a humane enemy combatant, and Ghasson Massoud as the elegant and just Saladin, commander to a massive Muslim army that seeks to retake Jerusalem from the Christians.

These compelling characters all feed back into Balian, who quickly rises through the ranks in a time of great crisis to take command of the Christian Army, tasked with defending the Holy City and its inhabitants from a seemingly-unstoppable enemy with nothing to lose.

As is to be expected from an epic of this caliber, KINGDOM OF HEAVEN boasts impeccable production value, particularly when it comes to the contribution of his GLADIATOR collaborators, cinematographer John Mathieson and production designer Arthur Max.  Both have gone on to become key recurring contributors to Scott’s subsequent filmography, helping him to shape and redefine his visual aesthetic during this reinvigorated career period.

The lavish Technicolor epics of the mid-twentieth century — David Lean’s 1962 classic, LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, in particular — cast a long shadow over KINGDOM OF HEAVEN’s approach, which begins with a lush 35mm film image framed in the appropriate 2.35:1 aspect ratio.

Mathieson‘s high-contrast cinematography makes full use of cutting-edge digital imaging technology to push the film’s predominantly-blue & orange color palette to extremes.  Indeed, scenes set in cold, wintery France are almost monochromatic in their use of a heavy cobalt color cast, drowning out most other colors save for deliberate little details like the gleaming crimson ruby lodged in the hilt of Godfrey’s sword.

Once the film moves to Messina, the overall color temperature takes on a neutral balance, allowing for a natural transition to the dusky oranges that define sun-dappled Jerusalem and its surrounding deserts. Scott’s atmospheric signatures are ever-present, populating his mise-en-scene with evocative visual flourishes like smoke, lens flares, billowing snow, intimate candlelight, and dramatic gradient skies.  The camerawork follows suit, blending old-school classical sweeps with relatively new techniques like varying shutter speeds, stylized slow motion and elegant Steadicam moves.

As KINGDOM OF HEAVEN’s production designer, Arthur Max holds arguably the most un-enviable position on set.  If it wasn’t enough to be tasked with recreating the 12th Century from scratch, he also has to contend with a director whose own background in production design results in an unflagging eye for demanding detail.

Thankfully, Max and Scott have formed something of a symbiotic working relationship, feeding off each other’s creative energies to construct some of the most immersive environments in all of modern cinema. KINGDOM OF HEAVEN benefits from Scott and Max’s practical, inventive approach as well as their familiarity with the film’s far-flung shooting locales in Spain and Morocco.

The latter country in particular has come to be a key resource in Scott’s recent filmography, with his prior shoots for GLADIATOR and BLACK HAWK DOWN allowing for the fostering of a productive friendship with King Mohamed VI.  The monarch was reportedly all too happy to provide his military’s assistance in filling out the warrior ranks during KINGDOM OF HEAVEN’s grueling shoot, as well as furnishing any necessary equipment.

One compelling example would find Max working with local artisans to construct the Muslim army’s siege towers, which were hand-built using only the authentic, pre-industrial methods available to them in the 12th century.  The film’s staggering recreation of medieval Jerusalem is the result of cutting-edge computer imagery blending with the kind of practical set approach that stems from seasoned experience at this scale.

Only a section of Jerusalem’s defensive wall was built, allowing the production team to seamlessly plant a highly-detailed digital environment behind it.  Scott & Max stretched crucial production dollars by recycling certain sets no less than four times, an approach bolstered by Scott’s familiarity with both his Moroccan and Spanish locations— some of which he’d used previously as far back as 1942: CONQUEST OF PARADISE (1992).

Far from simply conveying the appropriate period look, these locations were well-chosen for existing architecture that combines western medieval styles and those of eastern antiquity to further reinforce the clash between the Christian and Muslim creeds.

KINGDOM OF HEAVEN’s first-rate technical caliber extends into post-production, with returning editor Dody Dorn convincing Scott to embrace the flexibility of a digital intermediate for the very first time in his career.  The freedom of DI tools to change one’s mind and experiment while still able to store and track prior variants would prove crucial to the film’s editing process, especially as the inclusion or exclusion of certain key subplots were debated amongst Scott and company nearly all the way up to release.

Indeed, when the decision to assemble a Director’s Cut ultimately came down, Dorn already had a head start on a complete pass that enabled Scott to release this new, far superior cut in the same calendar year as his theatrical version. Harry Gregson-Williams provides a romantic, swashbuckling score to complement KINGDOM OF HEAVEN’s epic visuals, reinforcing the narrative’s religious convictions and medieval setting with a sweeping chorus and exotic orchestration.

Scott’s regular composer, Hans Zimmer, was ultimately unable to participate in KINGDOM OF HEAVEN (despite initially being attached), but his influence can still be heard via Scott’s re-use of “Vide Cor Meum”, an elegant aria co-produced by Zimmer and composed by Patrick Cassidy that was previously used in HANNIBAL (2001).

Whereas the cue was used in that film for a haunting outdoor opera sequence, KINGDOM OF HEAVEN employs it as a beautiful farewell track for King Baldwin’s funeral, his death representing the looming close of Christianity’s hold over the Holy City.

Scott’s best films are consistently the ones where he has wide latitude to create an immersive world from scratch, pulling mountains of inspiration and references from any and all disciplines to build something insanely detailed and seamlessly self-contained.  His historical epics in particular feel as visceral and immediate as our present world due to the palpable presence of dirt, grime, sweat, and blood.

Whereas other directors’ period pieces can resemble staid costume pageants or overly-reverential monuments, Scott’s attention to detail — evidenced as early as THE DUELLISTS (1977) and carrying on through today in one unbroken strain — captures nothing less than the unsanitized chaos of a civilization’s conflicts playing out in the present tense.

His most successful efforts in this regard are the ones like KINGDOM OF HEAVEN— films that reinforce the idea that the same human dramas have been playing out for centuries, and continue to shape events on the world stage today.  There’s a reason that Scott’s career found reinvorigation in the years following 9/11; his stated artistic interest in the theme of xenophobia suddenly coincided with a tumultuous zeitgeist that saw racial tensions inflamed between the Middle East and the Western world.

KINGDOM OF HEAVEN is nothing if not Scott’s attempt to bridge the ideological divide between Christian and Muslim cultures, making pointed arguments that we don’t have to keep fighting the battles of our fathers and grandfathers— in Saladin’s words: “I am not those men”.  Understanding, communication, and compassion are key towards resolving these conflicts— qualities that fighters during the Crusades obviously lacked.

Balian and Saladin stand out by virtue of their possession of these traits, allowing Balian an honorable defeat in which he ultimately cedes Jerusalem to Saladin’s control in exchange for the safe passage of his people out of the city.  Towards this end, Scott goes to great lengths to depict Saladin and his men as civilized, intelligent, and just, which makes the Christian Crusaders look downright corrupt, boar-ish and greedy by comparison.

He makes the effort to cast actual Muslims or Kurds for Saladin’s army, achieving a degree of cultural authenticity that he would admittedly undermine some years later in casting white actors to play ancient Egyptians in EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS (2014).

Since no good deed goes unpunished, Scott’s attempts at cultural sensitivity in KINGDOM OF HEAVEN nevertheless met with knee jerk reactions from certain critics who claimed the film “pandered to Osama Bin Laden” (it was later revealed that these critics hadn’t even seen the film or read the screenplay).

To be fair, Scott’s two hour and twenty-four minute Theatrical Cut does little to counteract these arguments. So structured to highlight the film’s myriad fight sequences, this cut bills itself not as a historical epic per se, but as a swashbuckling action/adventure film.

The cuts were demanded by Twentieth Century Fox, who balked at the long running time of Scott’s preferred cut as well as its preference for intellectual sophistication over rousing battles (1).  As a result, the Theatrical Cut thirstily rushes through major story beats in-between recurrent rounds of bloody swordplay, resulting in an uneven pace and an overall sense of “incompleteness”.

We get the sense that there is a deeper characterization at play, but we are largely denied the complex social and political dynamics of the time so that Balian’s journey can be better distilled to the rote “Hero’s Quest” narrative archetype.

Even worse, all the effort Scott put into developing the character of Sybilla into a richly-layered and three-dimensional person goes out the window, relegating her screentime to moments defined by their relation to Balian’s story— in other words, she’s either putting the moves on him or she’s staring longingly at him in the distance from behind a curtain or window.

The Theatrical Cut would receive a mixed reception from critics, many of whom simply wrote KINGDOM OF HEAVEN off as a colossal misfire at worst, or “Diet GLADIATOR” at best.  A poor domestic box office take reinforced the stale aura around Scott’s Theatrical Cut, earning only $47.4 million against its $130 million production (it fared far better in Europe and elsewhere internationally, becoming a major hit, interestingly enough, in Arabic-speaking countries).

Understandably, this was not the fate that either Scott or Twentieth Century Fox envisioned for KINGDOM OF HEAVEN, and while blame can be laid squarely at the studio’s feet for the film’s initial failure, they do deserve a little credit for recognizing almost immediately that this wrong needed to be rectified.

Whereas many “director’s cuts” see a long-awaited release many years after their respective films’ debuts, Scott’s original vision for KINGDOM OF HEAVEN would be commissioned and released within the same year as the Theatrical Cut.  Clocking in at three hours and nine minutes, the Director’s Cut of KINGDOM OF HEAVEN reverts to its true self as a sweeping historical epic with a sophisticated message.

The extra runtime allows new themes and dense characterization to emerge. We learn more about Balian’s life in France: how he was due to be a father before his wife committed suicide, how Sheen’s Priest character is actually his half-brother, and how Neeson’s Godfrey is both his real father and his uncle.

Sybilla’s character arc is thankfully restored, illuminating a subplot about the discovery of her son’s leprosy and the terrible choice she faces. This makes for a much richer film in the macro, even if it doesn’t necessarily add much to the spine of Balian’s story. Still other sequences, like an evocative “burning bush” scene, imbue KINGDOM OF HEAVEN with a grounded spiritual aura that reinforces its key themes.

There was an immediate impression amongst all involved that Scott’s Director’s Cut was far, far superior to the botched hatchet job that went out to theaters— so much so that Scott would go on to disown the Theatrical Cut entirel.  Even Fox realized this, giving the Director’s Cut the privilege of a theatrical release; albeit an extremely limited one that saw it play in one Los Angeles theater for two weeks, without any advertising to promote it.

In the end, this small gesture proved powerful enough to cement KINGDOM OF HEAVEN’s new fate as a misunderstood near-masterpiece.  Critics claimed Scott had created the “most substantial director’s cut of all time”— no small feat, considering how hugely influential Scott’s numerous redos on BLADE RUNNER had previously been.

Subsequent home video releases would see a variant on the Director’s Cut dubbed the Roadshow Version, which simply adds a musical Overture and Intermission in a bid to emulate the Technicolor studio epics of yesteryear.  Having come so perilously close to the oblivion of an archived hard drive in his basement, Scott’s Director’s Cut instead repositions KINGDOM OF HEAVEN as one of the master filmmaker’s crowning achievements, often mentioned in the same breath as GLADIATOR (if not ALIEN and BLADE RUNNER).

Scott may have embarked on this massive cinematic odyssey with nothing to prove, but it nevertheless would cement his reputation as the premiere builder of immersive cinematic worlds and breathtaking historical epics.  Ultimately, KINGDOM OF HEAVEN’s complicated legacy points to the nature of Scott’s own crusade as a filmmaker— the ever-insurmountable struggle to be a true artisan in the face of the increasingly-mechanized juggernaut that is big-budget Hollywood spectacle.


A GOOD YEAR (2006)

At sixty-nine years of age, and with fourteen feature films under his belt, director Ridley Scott had seemingly done everything there was to do.  He had directed lavish historical epics, groundbreaking science fiction adventures, pulpy action thrillers, and even the occasional fleet-footed caper or two.

There was perhaps one blind spot left— one that nobody would ever expect a director of Scott’s sensibilities to tackle: the romantic comedy. One could be forgiven for thinking that Scott — cinema’s favorite cigar-chomping workaholic — might not have a sentimental bone in his body, but one also need look no further than his all-consuming affection for Jack Russell terriers to see the old softie’s big heart.

Fresh off the production of his 2005 short “JONATHAN”, commissioned for the socially-conscious omnibus film ALL THE INVISIBLE CHILDREN, Scott turned his development attentions towards the creature comforts of home.  He being an internationally celebrated filmmaker and the head of his own production empire, Scott’s version of “home” wasn’t necessarily a McMansion in Beverly Hills, but rather a modest vineyard in the Provence region of southern France.

Having lived there for the previous fifteen years, Scott understandably desired to express his love for the area by making it the backdrop of a film— he just needed the right story to go along with it. To accomplish this considerable task, he approached Peter Mayle, an old colleague from his commercial directing heyday in the 70’s and now his neighbor in Provence.

Mayle was primarily a novelist; an otherwise irrelevant fact had it not been for Mayle’s insistence on writing their joint venture as a book and not a screenplay. Screenwriter Marc Klein was subsequently brought in to adapt Mayle’s novel, which entangled a breezy romance with the fate of an inherited vineyard.

The rest fell into place fairly quickly, with Scott Free head Lisa Ellzey and frequent executive producer Branko Lustig stepping in to oversee Scott’s management of a $35 million budget— a significant drawdown in resources considering the lavish production value of his previous film, KINGDOM OF HEAVEN (2005), but an appropriate figure nonetheless for a film of this scale. The end result — 2006’s A GOOD YEAR — would debut as Scott’s very first romantic comedy, and likely his last.

Set in the present day, A GOOD YEAR finds Russell Crowe returning to Scott’s fold for the first time since 2000’s GLADIATOR, subsequently initiating a string of no less than three consecutive collaborations.  Just as Scott is working far outside the boundaries of his comfort zone here, so too is Crowe, who subverts his on-screen image as a gruff stoic to portray a smarmy and conceited London banker named Max Skinner.

Impeccably dressed and meticulously groomed, Max is a ruthless, filthy rich capitalist perpetually chasing down the Almighty Dollar. This lifestyle has left him emotionally bankrupt and isolated— he has no family or significant other of his own, let alone close friends.  One day, he receives word that his beloved Uncle Henry has died, leaving Max with a modest vineyard in Provence.

Seen in flashbacks in the form of Albert Finney (a familiar face in Scott’s canon, having appeared in 1977’s THE DUELLISTS), Uncle Henry is revealed to the father figure that Max never had.  A refined bachelor with a taste for fine wine and finer women, Uncle Henry would welcome Max into his house every summer, teaching him everything he knows about the art of winemaking.

While Max drifted apart from Uncle Henry upon reaching adulthood, he nevertheless has hollowed out a cavernous space for the old playboy in his heart— a fact he’s quite viscerally reminded of as he returns to survey the beautiful grounds as part of a plan to sell the vineyard off for a tidy profit, and with it, the last vestiges of his idyllic childhood.

As the film unfolds, however, he comes to realize that this crumbling house in the country is the closest thing he has to a home; the eccentric groundskeepers the closest thing he has to a family.  A GOOD YEAR satisfies its romantic angle by providing Max with a love interest in the form of Marion Cotillard’s Fanny Cheryl, a feisty and stubborn local who owns her own restaurant in town.

She’s everything he’s not — sensitive, soulful, insightful — and their conflict-laden courtship provides Max with a real opportunity for personal growth. There’s also a subplot involving Abbie Cornish as Christie Roberts, a young American who unexpectedly shows up on the vineyard’s doorstep claiming to be Henry’s long-lost daughter.

 A self-professed wine brat herself, Christie helps Max see the emotional value of the vineyard, in the process positioning herself as the appropriate heir to Henry’s legacy. The film’s larger supporting cast peppers A GOOD YEAR with flavor, whether it’s Tom Hollander as Max’s dry-humored colleague, Freddie Highmore’s portrayal of a bespectacled younger Max in flashbacks, or even Scott’s wife, Giannina Facio, making a brief cameo as a hostess as a swanky London restaurant.

With the exception of editor Dody Dorn, A GOOD YEAR mostly dispenses with Scott’s established roster of technical collaborators in favor of all-new ones.  Cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd gives the 2.35:1 35mm film frame a sun-kissed vibrancy, constantly employing the warm, romantic glow of late afternoon.

Working within Scott’s established blue/orange palette, Le Sourd uses color to differentiate the pastoral Provence sequences from those set back in London, which are rendered in a heavy, almost monochromatic cerulean hue.  An earthy, autumnal palette defines the bulk of the film, painting Henry’s vineyard and the surrounding Provence region with swatches of red, orange, green and yellow.

Scott’s aesthetic primarily employs a mix of formalistic and contemporary camerawork, but A GOOD YEAR finds the seasoned director opting for a looser approach— arguably the closest thing to a vacation this particular workaholic has taken in years.  A nimble, restless camera constantly weaves through the film’s scenery, letting itself find organic compositions rather than labor between predetermined marks.

This style isn’t to be confused with the inquisitive wandering of someone like director Terrence Malick; indeed, Scott’s camera still moves with purpose and direction, endeavoring to provide answers rather than ask questions.  Newcomer Sonja Krause proves adept at providing highly-detailed and immersive production designs that allow Scott ample latitude to inject signature atmospherics like curtains, silhouettes, smoke, and dark interiors primarily exposed by window-light.

A GOOD YEAR was shot primarily (if not entirely) on location, in venues that Scott claims were all no more than an eight minute drive from his home (1).  Krause’s set dressings imbue an already-authentic suite of locales with a rich personal history for the film’s characters, allowing the audience to experience Max’s memories as their own.

A GOOD YEAR’s easygoing vibe extends to the score, composed by Marc Streitenfeld.  Now a well-regarded composer in his own right with several contributions to Scott’s canon, Streitenfeld had initially been a protege of Scott’s frequent collaborator, Hans Zimmer, before he was invited to work on A GOOD YEAR.

Streitenfeld embraces breezy whistles and a languid accordion to imbue the score with a degree of eccentricity beyond the usual orchestration, further complementing Scott’s eclectic mix of vintage French tunes, cheeky contemporary pop, and sleazy Euro techno (played for comedic effect, of course).

Despite its evocative backdrop, there’s no getting around the fact that A GOOD YEAR isn’t exactly the most groundbreaking of plots.  It’s one we’ve seen many times before, in countless iterations.  Scott’s unique qualities as an artist give A GOOD YEAR its sole distinctiveness.  His effortless ability to conjure immersive cinematic worlds makes the film feel much more vibrant than it probably is, allowing us to bask in the rustic ambience of the French countryside, or experience the harried chaos of a British stock exchange.

Cotillard and Cornish’s rich performances further point to Scott’s strengths with female characterization, with the stubborn and defiant Cotillard taking playful satisfaction in her flirtatious emasculation of Crowe during a centerpiece sequence that sees him trapped at the bottom of an empty pool, while Cornish preoccupies herself with solving the mystery of her origins.

The presence of a Jack Russell terrier (Scott’s favorite dog breed) and the throwaway inclusion of a line from David Lean’s LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962) (a formative film for Scott that he’s pulled from several times throughout his career) evidence Scott taking the opportunity to playfully indulge his own personal quirks throughout.

Just as the film espouses the virtues of a simpler life, so too does Scott take the message to heart, letting his hair down with a casual, unpretentious approach. So much of Scott’s filmography is preoccupied with the appearance of “work” — intimidating logistics, complicated set-ups, the wrangling of massive crowds — that it’s nice to finally see the seasoned director at play.

It’s likely a good thing that Scott and company approached A GOOD YEAR with little expectations, as the finished result has met with arguably the harshest reception of his career.  Critics panned the film across the board, turned off by Scott and Crowe’s attempts to branch out into new artistic territory (3).  To them, this was a neighborhood that neither man who had no business being in.

The film’s financial success was exceedingly modest, turning a profit of several million dollars above its production budget.  However, films made at the studio level need to profit much more than “a few million” to be deemed a financially viable endeavor, so Twentieth Century Fox’s quick dismissal of A GOOD YEAR as a flop comes as no surprise.

Easily one of the least-regarded of Scott’s films, A GOOD YEAR’s lackluster legacy is evident even in its treatment by the home video sector— despite seeing a theatrical release during the initial rollout of the format, the film has yet to see a high definition Blu Ray come to market.  Over ten years removed from its release, the overriding sentiment surrounding A GOOD YEAR is that it’s undone by a saccharine earnestness that rings hollow coming from Scott.

He needs the bracing edge of his bread-and-butter films: the grimy historical epics, the ambitious science-fiction thrillers, the dangerous adventures in exotic faraway lands.  A GOOD YEAR is easily overwhelmed by the weight of Scott’s larger legacy, so it must be regarded by its own singular merits if it stands any chance of being regarded at all.

It’s an indulgent film, yes, but it is nonetheless a window into an insular world with its own customs and culture. It’s a visual confection about the sweet, simple pleasures of European country living — fine wine, beautiful surroundings, large families — so perhaps a little indulgence is called for.  If anyone’s earned the right, it’s Scott.


AMERICAN GANGSTER (2007)

The gangster picture is a time-honored staple of American cinema, equivalent to to the western in terms of cultural influence and popularity.  The long, rich history of the genre stretches from early pulp like Howard Hawks’ SCARFACE (1932) to modern classics like Martin Scorsese’s GOODFELLAS (1990).

Whereas the western’s straightforward ethical values typically boil down to who wears the white hat and who wears the black hat, gangster films are filled to the brim with murderous thugs who often possess an intense charisma, drawing out the audience’s sympathy and affections time and time again.  Figures like Michael Corleone, Tony Soprano, and Henry Hill loom large in our collective imaginations as folk heroes.

Even the real-world criminals take on this mythic aura, the brutality of their crimes often glossed over in favor of the romanticization of their renegade entrepreneurialism. We find ourselves admiring them, even as we condemn them.  In a way, they are inverse reflections of the American Dream narrative that fuels our own ambitions. They want the same things we want— family, friends, a nice home, a better community — but they’re willing to take shortcuts to get there; to cheat an unfair system that is already rigged against them.

Over the course of its nearly century-long history, the genre has extensively detailed Caucasian criminality, mostly from the perspective of Italian immigrants.  While there has been some notable variety (the Irish gangsters of THE DEPARTED (2006), the Russian thugs of David Cronenberg’s EASTERN PROMISES (2007) or even the Jewish hoods in Sergio Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (1984), the overall experience has been one of overwhelming whiteness.

The organized criminal enterprises of the African-American population, however, have typically been funneled into the “blaxploitation” subgenre— a cheeky, colorful movement that favors pulp over prestige. Until 2007, it was difficult to recall a film about African-American gangsters that endeavored to attain the mythic heights accorded to “conventional” (white) works like Francis Ford Coppola’s THE GODFATHER (1972).

AMERICAN GANGSTER, directed by Sir Ridley Scott and starring Denzel Washington as the real-life heroin kingpin of Harlem, Frank Lucas, attempts to correct this imbalance by presenting itself as a direct descendant of those prestigious gangland epics about the American Dream run amok.

Despite boasting lavish production value, razor-sharp direction, and electrifying performances, AMERICAN GANGSTER seems to lack the all-important “x” factor— that elusive, inscrutable quality that grants cinematic immortality.

It’s a great film, to be sure; Scott himself refers to the project as one of the most massive undertakings of his career.  Like its magnetic antihero, however, AMERICAN GANGSTER’s tendency to bite off more than it can chew leads to a legacy that falls just short of its grandiose ambitions.

The road to AMERICAN GANGSTER’s production was long and hard-fought, with a series of false starts and a revolving door of talent attaching and un-attaching themselves.  Scott only officially signed on towards the very end, but he was nonetheless involved in a minor capacity from the project’s inception. In 2000, Universal and Imagine Entertainment purchased the rights to Mark Jacobson’s article ‘The Return Of Superfly”, which had run in a recent issue of New York Magazine.

Producer Brian Grazer (aka The Hair) teamed up with executive producer Nicholas Pileggi of GOODFELLAS and CASINO (1995) fame to develop the film, ultimately commissioning a screenplay from Steven Zaillian.  At the time, Zaillian was also working on the script for Scott’s HANNIBAL (2001), and showed the director his 170-page draft.

Scott was quite interested, wanting to break Zaillian’s massive tome into two films to create something of a multi part epic — that is, until his availability was precluded by the imminent production of MATCHSTICK MEN (2003) as well as his failed project, TRIPOLI.  While Scott was off prepping what ultimately became 2005’s KINGDOM OF HEAVEN, Grazer soldiered on.

He next attached celebrated New Hollywood auteur Brian De Palma to direct the film, then called TRU BLU.  After De Palma’s eventual exit in 2004, director Antoine Fuqua subsequently boarded the project, with Denzel Washington and Benicio Del Toro slated to star under pay-or-play agreements.

Four weeks before principal photography could begin, production was shut down over Fuqua’s inability to reduce a budget that was rapidly nearing the $100 million mark. He was summarily dismissed over “creative differences”, and thanks to those aforementioned “pay or play” agreements, both Washington and Del Toro received their full multi-million dollar salaries without shooting a foot of film.

The following year, screenwriter Terry George was brought on to craft a screenplay that could be produced for half the current cost, but found he too couldn’t hack it— even with superstar Will Smith now attached to replace Washington. Finally, Scott re-entered the picture in 2006, bringing actor Russell Crowe with him after having discussed the project extensively during their recent collaboration on A GOOD YEAR.

Ironically enough, the version Scott was able to finally push into production was the one that so much blood and sweat had already been spilled over— Zaillian was brought back onboard to rewrite his earlier draft, as was Washington to fulfill his earlier commitments to the Lucas role, and the production budget had ballooned back up to the $100 million mark.

Whether or not the finished product is all the better for its tumultuous development history is debatable, but the meticulous craftsmanship of Scott and his collaborators certainly makes a powerhouse case in the film’s favor.

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AMERICAN GANGSTER spans the years 1968 through 1973, chronicling the epic rise and fall of one Frank Lucas— an ambitious man whose cunning business sensibilities enable him to command a vast heroin empire while serving as a prominent and beneficial community figure to the Harlem populace.  The Vietnam War may raging abroad, but extreme poverty has hit home, fueling a widespread crack epidemic that presents a lucrative business opportunity for the man hungry enough to exploit it.

Washington — who at the time was a frequent leading man for younger Scott brother, Tony — delivers an expectedly gripping performance as just such a man.  His ruthless ambition and dense gravitas commands our attention in every frame, compelling us to follow as he sets about importing pure heroin directly from the jungles of Thailand— a scheme that allows him to double his product’s potency while cutting the price in half.

Like a true capitalist, Frank bestows a brand name on his stuff— “blue magic” — and subsequently takes over Harlem’s illicit drug industry in very short order.

What sets Frank apart from streetwise competitors like Idris Elba’s Tango is the importance he places on family, evidenced by his flying his brothers and mother in from North Carolina to help him build his business. Despite Frank’s best efforts otherwise, the slow creep of greed and corruption soon frays his family’s ironclad bonds, their flaws subsequently becoming his own.

Brothers like Common’s cheery Turner and Chiwitel Ejiofor’s excess-prone Huey, become liabilities instead of assets, while his increasingly heartbroken mother (Ruby Dee, in an Oscar-nominated performance) chips away at his steely resolve.

The yin to Lucas’ yang is Richie Roberts, played by Crowe as a somewhat-slovenly plainclothes New Jersey Cop with equally-ambitious aspirations to become a defense lawyer.  Unlike Lucas, Richie’s personal life is a mess— he’s tempestuous, prone to fits of anger, and his shameless womanizing has already cost him his wife (a litigious Carla Gugino) and threatens to cost him his child.

The one good thing he has going is that he’s unfailingly honest, almost to a fault— after he turns in a huge seizure of illicit cash without taking any off the top for himself, he earns only the suspicion of his peers. Richie’s arc illustrates the rampant corruption in New York’s police force during the early 70’s, painting him as the one man brave enough to take on the system and actually enact institutional change.

Nowhere is this corruption more embodied than in the form of Josh Brolin’s Detective Trupo, a mustachioed extortionist shamelessly playing both sides for his own gain.  As he seeks to topple Lucas’ heroin empire, Roberts and his team of special operatives (headlined by a wiry John Hawkes and a dynamic RZA, of Wu-Tang Clan fame) manage to uncover the foundation-shaking criminal complicity of the NYPD: a sweeping scandal that ensnares a mind-boggling number of cops, bureaucrats, and city officials.

Befitting a film of this scope, AMERICAN GANGSTER backs up Washington and Crowe’s headlining performances with a sprawling ensemble cast that includes the likes of John Ortiz as Richie’s partner-turned-junkie, Lymari Nadal as Frank’s increasingly-disenchanted beauty-queen wife, Cuba Gooding Jr as a flamboyant playboy who rips Frank off by cutting the potency of his product in half, TI as Frank’s similarly-ambitious yet misguided nephew, Coen Brothers regular Jon Polito as an Italian bookie and confidante to Frank, and an uncredited Clarence Williams III as Frank’s mentor and father figure, “Bumpy” Johnson.

Indeed, the cast is almost too numerous to name individually, with each member turning in memorable performances that serve to bolster those of Washington and Crowe’s nuanced and muscular turns (themselves given an added humanity by virtue of an immersive prep that saw them spend significant amounts of time with their real-life counterparts).

AMERICAN GANGSTER marks Scott’s first and only collaboration with the late, celebrated cinematographer Harris Savides, their joint efforts resulting in an iteration of the director’s signature look that’s more softly-lit than its predecessors.  On its face, Scott’s theatrical, stylized approach suggests that it may not play well with Savides’ naturalistic tendencies, but AMERICAN GANGSTER nonetheless presents a unified front that routinely delivers some of the finest images in the director’s filmography.

The most immediate departure to be observed is Scott’s use of the 1.85:1 canvas in lieu of his preferred 2.35:1 aspect ratio, which enhances the film’s naturalistic tone by foregoing the suggestions of “theatricality” that the CinemaScope format implies.  Savides’ nuanced lighting techniques give the 35mm film image a somewhat-neutral color palette that deals primarily in desaturated stone and metal tones, while highlights trade in Scott’s signature blue-and-orange dichotomy.

Stylistic elements like snow, smoke, silhouettes, and dark interiors capture the grit and grime of 1970’s Harlem while evoking a visual continuity with Scott’s preceding canon.  After the loose restlessness of his camera in A GOOD YEARAMERICAN GANGSTER finds Scott returning to his tried-and-true mix of formalistic, classical camerawork and technical experimentalism (which manifest here in a variety of speed ramps, zooms, and 45 degree shutter effects).

Savides’ excellent work finds its complement in the contributions from returning Team Scott personnel like returning production designer Arthur Max, editor Pietro Scalia (reporting for duty for the first time since 2001’s BLACK HAWK DOWN), and composer Marc Streitenfeld.  A story set in 70’s Harlem naturally lends itself to a dynamic musical palette, and AMERICAN GANGSTER capably delivers in this regard.

Streitenfeld crafts a brooding, propulsive orchestral score that draws its pulpy edge from the traditions of the blues and soul genres, while Scott complements the cue sheet with a mix of pre-recorded tracks from the period.

Lively songs like Bobby Womack’s “Across 110th Street” brilliantly illustrate the flavor of the era without resorting to disco kitsch, while Public Enemy’s “Can’t Truss It” proves an inspired selection for Lucas’ emergence from prison into the New York of the 1990’s— a foreboding world he barely recognizes; on the cusp of dramatic technological change, where the principles and virtues that propelled his rise no longer hold sway.

Indeed, AMERICAN GANGSTER’s soundtrack may just be the highest-profile aspect of the film’s legacy, with Anthony Hamilton’s “Can You Feel Me?” continuing to drift through the airwaves after being commissioned to emulate a vintage 70’s R&B sound.  The film had a particularly powerful effect on hip-hop artist Jay-Z, who was so inspired by Scott’s vision that he immediately created a companion album of the same name.

AMERICAN GANGSTER theoretically could have been made by other directors (indeed, it almost was), but its effortless swagger and fluid style is exclusively Scott’s doing.  Beyond the performances, the film’s greatest strength lies in the meticulous recreation of 1970’s New York.

Scott’s dogged pursuit of authenticity would eschew controlled soundstages for the chaotic vibrancy of real-world locations, ultimately setting the record for the highest number of locations in a motion picture. This, combined with Scott’s signature ability to conjure up immersive cinematic environments from scratch, makes for a picture that captures the grit, grime and filth of the era.

Few directors are able to render the distinct color of urban life better that Scott, who fills his streets with diverse crowds and buzzing activity that speaks to the multi-directional flow of humanity in cities as well as the constant clashing of cultures.

The story’s constant pivoting between Lucas’ Harlem and Roberts’ white working-class environs provides a conduit for Scott to further his career-long exploration of xenophobia, allowing us to see firsthand how the police force’s institutional corruption and systemic racism worked overtime to keep the African-American population down during the 70’s (and beyond, if we’re being honest).

Towards this end, narcotics became a powerful tool for the police, allowing them to control the outflow of heroin to the streets in a strategic bid to perpetuate poverty and crime.  This is why Lucas represented such a large threat— here was an intelligent and eloquent man of color who defied all of their deeply-entrenched prejudices; a cunning businessman who had used his wealth to enrich his community, and who could very well beat the corrupt cops at their own game.

In response, they overreached, allowing Roberts and other virtuous lawmen to see their widespread ethical decay in the bright light of day. In the end, justice was only possible when the two worlds came together as one— signified by Lucas and Roberts joining forces to expose the law’s staggering malpractice.

AMERICAN GANGSTER’s theatrical release in 2007 would meet with a degree of controversy, in that some of its real-world subjects accused Scott and company of glamming up, if not outright fabricating, the events depicted in the film.  Any film that’s not a documentary must employ dramatic license— it’s an inherent part of the form.

What truly matters in this context is whether or not the story achieves an emotional truth; whether it successfully stitches the story at hand into the greater tapestry of the human experience.  Thanks to its meticulous period recreation and commanding performances, AMERICAN GANGSTER largely excels towards this end.

For the most part, audiences and critics alike agreed on the film’s pedigree, awarding it with a decent box office return ($130M domestic, $266M worldwide) and mostly-positive reviews (the late Roger Ebert bestowed a rare perfect four-star rating on the picture).  Positioned as an awards contender, AMERICAN GANGSTER ultimately secured just two Oscar nominations— one for Arthur Max’s production design, and the other for Ruby Dee’s supporting performance.

Indeed, Dee’s recognition (and to a lesser extent, Gugino’s memorable performance) over a cadre of muscular male performances — in what could very well be described as an overwhelmingly-masculine film — speaks volumes about Scott’s directorial strength with richly-developed female characters.  Also speaking to Scott’s artistic hallmarks: the release of an Extended Cut with AMERICAN GANGSTER’s debut on home video.

This version, which is most decidedly not a Director’s Cut, brings the film’s running time to just under three hours, containing new sequences that expand on the father/son dynamic that Lucas had with his mentor, “Bumpy” Johnson, as well as an alternate ending that sets up Lucas’ and Roberts’ friendship after the former’s release from prison.

This added information doesn’t necessarily improve AMERICAN GANGSTER’s ultimate standing within Scott’s filmography— indeed, the Theatrical Cut is still the superior version of the film by far.  Now that a decade has passed, it’s evident that true cinematic greatness lies just beyond AMERICAN GANGSTER’s grasp; one wonders if Scott’s initial idea to split the film into two parts might have been the wise move after all.

It’s easier to devour a feast when there’s more people to attack it. Nevertheless, time may yet be kinder still to AMERICAN GANGSTER, blessed with passionate contributions by figures like Scott and Washington working in top form.  More than anything, AMERICAN GANGSTER maintains Scott’s position at the forefront of 21st century studio filmmaking, while suggesting that the best days of his career may still yet be ahead of him.


BODY OF LIES (2008)

The 2000’s were a period of peak productivity for director Sir Ridley Scott, with the venerated filmmaker cranking out no less than nine feature films before the decade would come to a close.  It’s exceedingly rare for any artist, let alone one capable of commanding massive, logistically-complicated productions, to experience a sustained burst of creative energy while pushing seventy years of age.

Yet, here was Scott, busier than ever— a couple gray hairs at his temples being the only physical indicators of his slowly-fading vitality. The timing of this prolonged burst of creativity (I’m reluctant to call it a renaissance) was no accident, however.  It was a direct response to the sociopolitical zeitgeist, when the War on Terror was raging blindly and bluntly throughout the Middle East.

The conflict was of particular interest to Scott, due to his artistic fascination with the phenomenon of xenophobia and his personal affection for the Middle Eastern region.  His strongest work from this period — GLADIATOR (2000), BLACK HAWK DOWN (2001), KINGDOM OF HEAVEN (2005) — dealt (wholly or in part) with this convergence of setting and theme.

When Warner Brothers optioned the rights to author David Ignatius’ counterterrorism/espionage thriller “Body Of Lies” (originally published under the title “Penetration”), Scott likely saw another opportunity to capitalize on his ascendant momentum with a timely foray into the murky ethics of America’s current shadow war.

Body of Lies

It could be argued that the resulting effort, 2008’s BODY OF LIES, is a spiritual sequel to KINGDOM OF HEAVEN.  Despite nearly a millennia of temporal separation between them, the bitter conflict between Western and Eastern ideologies is still very much the same.  Scott would lean into this sentiment by hiring his KINGDOM OF HEAVEN scribe, William Monahan, to adapt Ignatius’ book for the screen.

Much like the real-life conflicts it aspires to portray, BODY OF LIES’ narrative is admittedly muddy and overly-complicated in its telling of a CIA operative’s attempts to draw the head of a dangerous terror cell out from hiding by staging what is essentially a false flag terror attack of his own.  Leonardo DiCaprio plays field agent Roger Ferris, who embarks on a globetrotting quest across far flung locales like Iraq, Dubai, Turkey, and Syria in order to expose the terrorist organization’s reclusive leader, Al-Saleem.

Try as he might to hide behind a veneer of unkempt scruffiness, DiCaprio is simply too famous a face to disappear completely into the role, although the film’s culture of chaos does make great use of his talents for playing desperate and confused characters.  He’s laser focused, yet barely managing to keep his head above water.

Every step he takes is monitored by his boss, Ed Hoffman, who dispatches commands and advice from cushy environs back in Virginia. Played with great relish by Russell Crowe in his third consecutive collaboration with Scott (and fourth overall), Hoffman is a blustering neocon hawk like so many real-world bureaucrats during the W. Bush years.

Crowe is significantly more successful at disappearing into his role than DiCaprio, having gained nearly fifty pounds (!) and dyed his hair a sleek gray while affecting a syrupy southern drawl.  As the chief of the CIA’s Near East Division, Hoffman’s job is to essentially subvert Ferris’, continually running side ops over the head of his man in the field — many of which come into direct conflict with Ferris’ mission objectives.

After a bungled operation that dangled the promise of asylum in America if their informant within the terrorist organization could expose his colleagues, Ferris (and Hoffman, physically absent but ever-present in DiCaprio’s ear) attempts to negotiate a collaboration with Mark Strong’s Hani, the urbane Jordanian Intelligence Chief.

Together, the three concoct a plan to implicate an innocent Jordanian architect in a staged terror attack, betting on the witless man’s very life that he will be contacted by Al-Saleem.  A high-stakes game of cat and mouse ensues, with a series of double-crosses and deceptions that further coil an already-labyrinthine plot that endeavors to compare and contrast the effectiveness of technology against more-primitive, human-based efforts in counterterrorism operations.

If this focus wasn’t ambitious enough, BODY OF LIES also throws in a romantic subplot that finds Ferris angling for the affections of a stern Iranian nurse named Aisha (Golshifteh Farahani).  While it’s debatable whether this romantic subplot actually adds anything to the primary narrative, it goes a long way towards illustrating the vast cultural divide between Western and Middle Eastern cultures, emphasizing the strict expectations of women in the Muslim world.

Indeed, Farahani‘s involvement in the film represents a considerable personal risk on her part, with her performance attracting the ire of the Iranian government for appearing on screen without her hijab (40). She’s joined by a sprawling ensemble cast that includes the likes of Oscar Isaac and Michael Stuhlbarg just prior to their mainstream breakouts— Isaac as Ferris’ partner in Iraq and Stuhlbarg in a brief cameo as Ferris’ attorney back in America, tasked with negotiating the terms of his client’s imminent divorce.

In what is undoubtedly a playful nod to his past canon, Scott drafts his partner Giannina Facio to reprise her GLADIATOR duties as Crowe’s wife.

Produced by Scott and fellow producer Donald De Line on a $70 million budget, BODY OF LIES counters its obfuscation of narrative with a clarity of aesthetic that only he could bring to the fore.  Having previously worked for Scott as a second unit cinematographer in a series of collaborations stretching all the way back to 1989’s BLACK RAINBODY OF LIES presents the opportunity for Alexander Witt to finally obtain his first credit as the main Director Of Photography.

While Witt proves every bit as capable as the cinematographers before him in replicating Scott’s high-contrast aesthetic, his work on BODY OF LIES differs from that of his predecessors by his use of natural light whenever possible.  This results in a far grittier look than the glossier theatricality of Scott’s soundstage work.  The Super 35mm film image deals primarily in the director’s characteristic blue and orange tones, using this warm/cool dichotomy to quickly differentiate the various American and Middle Eastern locales.

While shooting with anamorphic lenses would have given Scott and Witt an organic 2.35:1 aspect ratio, their choice to shoot with spherical lenses instead (and crop the frame in post) points to a desire for a technical precision within the overall picture— or to put it another way, a desire to avoid the anamorphic format’s natural warping and distortion of the image at frame’s edge.

An omniscient “surveillance” aesthetic guides Scott and Witt’s setups, conveying Hoffman’s distant-yet-watchful eye through the use of aerials, zooms, and drone POV setups that complement the close-up handheld chaos on the ground.

Scott populates his frames with his signature atmospherics, constantly layering elements like smoke, dust, billowing flags, silhouettes and lens flares that inject three-dimensional volume into a two-dimensional image.  BODY OF LIES’ visual presentation may not seem particularly impressive on its face, especially considering the flaring dynamicism of his previous works— its admirable complexity lies in the process of its making rather than the final result.

Scott’s absolute command of large-scale production logistics, combined with a clarity of vision that’s without peer, enables him to shoot with no less than three cameras running at any given time. To hear his collaborators tell it, the act of watching Scott direct his multi-cam setups from video village (while editing in his mind) is akin to watching a great conductor confidently leading a grand symphony.

Scott hedges the risk of working with a new cinematographer by enlisting the help of trusted collaborators in other departments, namely: production designer Arthur Max, editor Pietro Scalia, and composer Marc Streitenfeld.

Max continues to make his case as Scott’s most-valued creative partner, helping the director to conjure up immersive environments on a regular basis— to the point that his credits since 2005’s KINGDOM OF HEAVEN have been exclusively for Scott shoots.  BODY OF LIES marks the pair’s fourth adventure to the country of Morocco, where Scott has come to be well-regarded by the government and the locals alike thanks to his critical role in conveying the country’s beauty to the world.

After the film’s political nature derailed initial efforts to shoot in Dubai (3), Scott and company would quickly turn to the familiarity and friendliness of Morocco, which had an existing infrastructure and network they knew they could rely on— because they were the ones who built it.  Beyond his personal fondness for the country (and arid climates in general), it’s not difficult to see why Scott turns to Morocco again and again.

His unparalleled access to local resources essentially turns the entire country into one giant backlot, allowing him to fully indulge in his passion for cinematic worldbuilding.  Much like a studio backlot, he can have an ancient gladiatorial arena, an urban war zone, or a medieval fortress— all within a relatively small area.

It’s a testament to Scott and Max’s logistical resourcefulness that they were able to render BODY OF LIES’ globetrotting narrative using only the US and Morocco, which stands in for several Middle Eastern countries like Iraq, Syria, and Jordan.  Indeed, Morocco offers Scott and Max the same freedom and flexibility as a soundstage, allowing them ample latitude to create an immersive, three-dimensional world full of exotic urban textures, sights, and even smells.

Scalia’s seasoned editing expertise allows the stitching of these disparate sets and locations together with a spatial and narrative continuity, while Streitenfeld’s orchestral, percussive score imbues said continuity with high drama and international intrigue.

One could be forgiven for thinking BODY OF LIES would rank higher in Scott’s filmography— after all, it marries two of the core components of Scott’s artistic profile (a Middle Eastern setting and the theme of xenophobia).  Synergy like that often results in a home run. For all its relevant (and urgent) insights into the War on Terror and the cultural tyranny of seemingly-arbitrary country lines, BODY OF LIES’ inherent complexity is its ultimate undoing.

Scott’s slick aesthetic here often comes at the expense of clarity, justifying the many critical claims that the venerated filmmaker valued style over substance on this particular outing.

There was also the filmmakers’ willing ignorance of the previous failures of post-9/11 films about the Middle East and counterterrorism; the sinking of similarly-themed films at the box office offered repeated proof that there simply was no audience for these kind of works in America— at best, the wounds of September 11th were still too raw, and at worst, the deeply-ingrained culture of Islamophobia repulsed audiences from an otherwise eye-opening night at the megaplex.

BODY OF LIES’ dismal $39M take during its domestic theatrical run (36) reinforced this hard lesson, further illustrating the cultural gulf between America and the rest of the world in light of an international haul that nearly tripled that number.

The strength of its direction and performances — as well as its aesthetic and thematic kinship to BLACK HAWK DOWN and KINGDOM OF HEAVEN — nevertheless make BODY OF LIES a worthy addition to Scott’s canon, even if its ambitious foray into the moral ambiguity of modern spycraft comes up short.


THUNDER PERFECT MIND (2005)