Something we’ve come to appreciate since the terrible news of the passing of director Tony Scott came in this morning, is that there’s an argument to be made that almost any one of his films saw him at the top of his game. From debut feature “The Hunger,” one of the first movies of the MTV generation, and the era-defining “Top Gun,” all the way to the bold formal experimentation of his last four films (some of which, especially the highly divisive “Domino,” were derided by many, but have their fervent auteurist supporters as well), his films were always technically impeccable, thrilling and instantly recognizable as a Tony Scott picture. He was the action director as auteur.
Which is not to say that his films were entirely about chase scenes and explosions. Far from it in fact — he loved actors, and they seemed to love him back. Denzel Washington worked with him five times, Gene Hackman twice in a row, and one only has to look at the depth of talent in his casts to see the kind of talent he attracted on on his pics. Not many filmmakers could lure names like Keira Knightley, Gary Oldman, Kevin Costner, Jon Voight, Barry Pepper, Gabriel Byrne, Jack Black, Philip Baker Hall, Alec Baldwin, Robert Redford, Brad Pitt and more to an action movie, but that’s what Scott managed across a number of films.
Sadly, there are no more Tony Scott movies to come, but the director leaves behind a resume of some of the most exciting and influential mainstream movies produced in Hollywood in the last few decades. To mark the director’s passing, we wanted to pick out five of our favorites, a task that proved trickier than we first imagined — as we said, depending on your tastes, an argument could be made for almost any one of his features deserving a place here. You can read about our five picks (and watch one more bonus film) below, and let us know your own favorites in the comments section. And for more, you can check out our 2010 retrospective on the director right here.
“The Hunger” (1983)
When the time came to make his first full feature (a decade after the 60-minute, little seen and somewhat uncharacterstic “Loving Memory“) the Scott of 1983’s “The Hunger” was far from a carbon copy of his by-then A-list brother Ridley, but was instead a genuine auteur announcing his entrance. “The Hunger” is a film both assured and ambitious, wringing subtlety and slow-boiling tension out of a shamelessly ridiculous plot involving a vampiric vixen that has persisted since Ancient Egyptian times in the graceful form of Catherine Deneuve, with lover David Bowie (showing off rarely seen, but always appreciated dramatic chops — this ties with “The Prestige” for his best supporting turn) riding her coattails through the veins of time. When Deneuve’s Miriam Blaylock takes an interest in researcher Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon), Bowie’s John begins a gracelessly rapid descent into advanced age and seeks the help of Roberts, who happens to study premature aging (only in the movies, folks!). Scott keeps a firm handle on his stylistic flourishes, with Stephen Goldblatt‘s noirish lighting an invaluable assist. “The Hunger” is a vampire film that could just as easily be a study of lust, love, and the waste that either lays on the body. Scott may be accused of almost exploitatively turning up the heat in the infamous lesbian scene between Deneuve and Sarandon, but like the rest of the film, even the juicy bits are handled with the kind of restraint that may have been the director’s trademark had “The Hunger” been a runaway hit. Alas, the film was too strange, too dark and burdened with a vexing finale for that to happen. But, it is also one of the best vampire films ever made, a fable that toes the line between a fairy tale and a blood bath, occasionally (and expertly) mixing both. An assured debut, although an unfortunate box office burn for Scott, “The Hunger” is well deserving of its sizable cult following.
“True Romance” (1993)
Gifted Quentin Tarantino’s excellent screenplay for “True Romance,” in many ways his own version of Terrence Malick’s “Badlands” (hammered home by Hans Zimmer riffing on its use of Gassenhauer for the theme), Scott ended up delivering one of the most nuanced, and least hi-octane, works of his career, and perhaps the film that’ll prove his most lasting legacy. The pairing of screenwriter and director here (which didn’t work so well for Richard Kelly in “Domino,” unfortunately) is a good fit, with a plethora of memorable characters and dialogue, most notably Brad Pitt’s honey bear bong-smoking pothead and the legendary face off between Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken (“You got me in a vendetta kinda mood”), the single finest scene of the director’s career, and some of the most electric acting of the 1990s. The original ending was changed by Scott, and for the better; Clarence (Christian Slater) died in the end of Tarantino’s script, but it goes to show that sometimes a Hollywood happy ending can be the more satisfing and authentic choice to make. It was proof that Scott had the ability to make wise directorial choices, show restraint where needed, and tease out a host of great performances (Slater, Patricia Arquette, Gary Oldman, James Gandolfini, Val Kilmer, all giving enormously entertaining turns).
“Crimson Tide” (1995)
Yes, “Crimson Tide” is a Tony Scott film, very much so. But it may be remembered these days, at least to the obsessive film geeks of the world, for the contributions of uncredited co-writer Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino, a longtime Scott fan, was called in to punch up the dialogue after “True Romance” on this certifiably great submarine thriller that pits Denzel Washington against the power-mad captain played by Gene Hackman. The portions that bear Tarantino’s mark might as well be highlighted in blinking neon lights: an early scene in the film where the various crew members talk about their favorite submarine movies (in a wonderful bit of meta-textual knowingness); a discussion about which version of the Silver Surfer is better; and Hackman rattling on endlessly about different breeds of horses, a speech which has the flow of the famous “Sicilian” speech in the pair’s earlier collaboration. But Tarantino’s contributions are ultimately cosmetic, because even without them, “Crimson Tide” is a gripping, taut thriller, with the highest stakes imaginable. Scott choreographs the suspense sequences brilliantly (aided by claustrophobic cinematography by Dariusz Wolski), and emphasizes that the close-knit camaraderie that forms underneath the ocean can just as quickly curdle into something quite dangerous. It’s also worth noting Scott’s often unheralded genius at casting. Tucked beneath and around the cramped submarine sets are actors like James Gandolfini, Viggo Mortensen, Steve Zahn, and Ryan Phillippe, although the film’s anchored by two titanic, stubborn bull movie star performances by Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman, and Scott is careful not to let us sympathize too heavily with one or the other. How come we don’t get grown-up mainstream entertainment as smart and gripping as this anymore?
“Spy Game” (2001)
What might be considered Tony Scott‘s last “straight” movie (read: not batshit), and perhaps his most underrated, “Spy Game” is an unbelievably compelling tale of a retiring CIA Agent (Robert Redford) who has to use every trick in his not-inconsiderable playbook to successfully free an imprisoned agent (Brad Pitt) who also happens to be his protégé and close friend. Oh, and all of this on his last day of work. Nobody does the “ticking clock” quite like Scott, who installs not only a dramatic freeze frame but also a time stamp that practically smashes the screen apart. It’s a fitting stylistic flourish, though, for a picture that’s all about time: the film shifts back and forth, liberally, from the modern day stuff with Redford running around his high tech office trying to make amends, cash in every favor he’s collected, and block his superiors’ boneheaded attempts at diplomacy, to various immaculately production-designed sequences of Pitt and Redford throughout their career (Vietnam, Cold War, etc). It’s in these flashback sequences that Scott really shines, tasked with the double duty of creating captivating suspense set pieces while also delivering important character beats, and he pulls it off marvelously. It’s a quieter, lower-key kind of picture than the kind of one he normally made, more John Le Carre than James Bond, and a celebration of old-fashioned spy craft and values. Redford gives his last great performance to date (and probably his best since “The Natural,” crafty and playful), while Pitt, long his natural heir, is brash and charismatic, and the supporting cast is stuffed with interesting character actors, from Stephen Dillane and Marianne Jean-Baptiste to Charlotte Rampling and David Hemmings. It was a little languid to become a runaway hit on release, but years of airing on TV have seen it’s reputation restored somewhat.
Scott’s last few movies saw him experiment more and more with filters, shutter speed and a generally visceral approach that’s been much copied, but rarely matched. It was impressive in “Man On Fire,” totally bonkers in “Domino” and distracting in “The Taking Of Pelham 123.” But it was his second runaway train movie in two years, “Unstoppable,” that he finally found the perfect synthesis, a film where the style helped the material, and yet also an extraordinarily entertaining action-thriller that’s one of the most entertaining films the director ever made. An exhilarating experience, and his best film in nearly a decade, “Unstoppable” is a rare actioner without a villain; the only evildoer is human error and a faceless train that’s rolling out of control (“A missile the size of the Chrysler Building,” in the words of Rosario Dawson‘s character) and threatening to decimate a rather big and populated town. Other advantages include over-the-top Fox News reports, oily corporate assholes making margin-loss based decisions, and goofball, inept track workers who precipitate this entire mess. Usually these plot devices in Tony Scott films are black-and-white and make your eyes roll because they’re so forced. Here, they’re a form of delightful comedy and often so ridiculous, they’re a good laugh. Of course, the only two who can stop it are being-out-to-pasture engineer Denzel Washington (his fifth and final collaboration with Scott), and cocky rookie Chris Pine, two highly charismatic leads happy to take the back seat to a runaway train. Big, dumb, thrilling fun — plus simply just genuinely nail-biting and intense — “Unstoppable” is an undeniably enjoyable film, the disaster movie done right. Sadly, it was Scott’s last film, as it turned out, but given that the film closes on the sound of applause, a somewhat fitting one.
BONUS – WATCH NOW
“Beat the Devil” (2002)
Tony Scott’s late-career, ultra-impressionistic style took root with the gloriously hyperactive “Beat the Devil,” his contribution to the BMW film series, “The Hire,” which was a series of extended BMW commercials in the guise of slick and exciting short films with serious Hollywood pedigree. The talent in front of and behind the camera on “The Hire” series was staggering. Directors included John Woo, Wong Kar-Wai, Joe Carnahan, Ang Lee, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Guy Ritchie, John Frankenheimer and Scott, with an acting lineup featuring the likes of Don Cheadle, Mickey Rourke, Madonna, Stellan Skarsgård, F. Murray Abraham, Ray Liotta, Dennis Haysbert, Maury Chaykin, and Marilyn Manson. And for those of us who hoped to see Clive Owen as the next James Bond, we’ll always have this series of shorts, where he plays the nameless Driver, an expert behind the wheel (always a BMW, naturally) who is tasked with various life-threatening missions with differing degrees of difficulty. The one linking thread between the different films, Owen brought a manly command to the lead role that helped solidify the entire series. “Beat the Devil” is the most out-right entertaining film of the bunch, and it’s the one that seems to be having the most fun. It centers on the idea that James Brown (who played himself), back in his youth, sold his soul to the Devil (a hysterical Gary Oldman in make-up and costume that has to be seen to be believed) in exchange for the chance to have a legendary career. But now that the rocker is getting old, he wants to renegotiate the terms of his deal so he can go back to being young, so he suggests that his Driver (Owen) will race Lucifer’s driver, Bob (Danny Trejo), from the Vegas strip out into the desert. Winner takes all. For roughly 10 minutes, Tony Scott makes cinematic rock ‘n’ roll love to his camera — every image is cranked, every sound effect is juiced, every edit is sharp as a tack. His fragmented, cubist style that would be seen in future efforts like “Man on Fire” and “Domino” was being first experimented with here (overlapping subtitles, a washed out and desaturated color scheme, staccato editing patterns and skewed camera angles). “Beat the Devil” exists primarily as a sensory blast but it’s also got a great sense of humor (probably the best out of any short in the series) which is why it’s one of our favorites.
– Drew Taylor, Mark Zhuravsky, Erik McLanahan, Oliver Lyttelton