ONE OF THE MISSING (1969)
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)
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)
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.
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.
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 FIRE. DOMINO 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)
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, 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.
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.