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Tony Scott, R.I.P.

One of the downsides to running a blog the way that I run a blog is that I don’t always have the opportunity to respond to news as it breaks. As such, in writing about the passing of director Tony Scott, pretty much everything that I would say has been said by the time I can publish this, and far more eloquently than I could ever hope to say it. Obviously, I never knew Tony Scott personally, so I won’t comment on the man himself – although the tributes from those who did know him are deeply moving. I knew Tony Scott as countless film fans knew the director, through his work. And that work meant a lot to me.

I’m relatively young. Although Scott found fame in the eighties with Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop II, I came of age when the director was really hitting his prime. True Romance, Crimson Tide and Enemy of the State are easily three of my favourite films of the nineties, and they really informed a lot of what I came to look for in an action film. Although Tony Scott’s impact on the action movie genre during the nineties was arguably less obvious than that of Michael Bay or Jerry Bruckheimer, I think the director left his own inalienable mark, both in what viewers came to expect from blockbuster cinema, and in what the studios felt that they could offer.

When I think of Scott, my mind almost immediately jumps to Denzel Washington. Washington really is one of the great Hollywood leading men, with celebrated performances in movies like Philadelphia and Training Day among countless others. However, if you ask me what films I associate with Denzel Washington, the list is going to be dominated by his collaborations with Tony Scott. Crimson Tide, Man on Fire, Deja Vu. It’s very weird to say that about an Oscar-winning actor, to suggest that some of his best or most iconic roles come from action movies, but I think that speaks to a lot of what I associate with Tony Scott as a director.

Scott was a pretty great action director. His sequences were tight, crisp and controlled. You knew what was going on, what the stakes were, and what everybody wanted. That should be pretty standard, but you can never take those things for granted. Still, in terms of raw energy and bombast, Scott could never quite hope to pound the audience into quivering submission through sheer force in the way that Michael Bay could. Scott had a different approach to his action films, and a different way of convincing the audience to invest inthe stuff happening on-screen.

Unlike so many action movie directors – working then and now – Tony Scott seemed to genuinely care about the characters involved in his story.

You might have watched Crimson Tide because it was a thriller on a nuclear submarine, but you returned to it time and again because it saw Denzel Washington facing off against Gene Hackman. Look at the supporting cast in that film – Viggo Mortensen and James Gandolfini, among others. Man on Fire was elevated beyond a conventional revenge film because you genuinely cared about the lead character’s humanity. Even Scott’s recent Unstoppable worked far better than it should have because Scott managed to get two truly likeable performances from two truly charismatic actors.

That’s the clear throughline that runs from one end of Scott’s career to the other. Tom Cruise has seldom had more charisma than he showed in Top Gun. Even in the otherwise disappointing The Taking of Pelham 123, you could tell that Tony Scott was genuinely invested in Denzel Washington’s performance. In action movies it is very difficult to keep it all firmly anchored and tied together amid the high stakes and the inevitable explosions, but Scott never lost sight of the characters in the middle of those films.

Consider, for example, True Romance, the film that really helped establish Quentin Tarantino as a writer. Tarantino’s dialogue was rather unlike anything that was being done in mainstream cinema at the time. Reservoir Dogs had been released the year before, but Tarantino was still very much speaking his own language in the script. And yet the script is entirely safe in the hands of Scott. In fact, the sequences everybody remembers from the film – Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper? Brad Pitt? – are all dialogue-driven. Tell me that nay of the other action directors of Scott’s generation could do that.

I look at Scott’s collaborations with Washington and I wonder if that made it possible for serious actors to venture into action cinema. Without Crimson Tide or Man on Fire, would Liam Neeson have made Taken? I think Scott made it acceptable for legitimate, serious, dramatic actors to make movies with car chases, explosions and tightly-edited fight sequences. It’s not a legacy that I imagine Scott will get a lot of credit for, but it’s what I think of when I remember Tony Scott.

While you can see the very clear fingerprint of Michael Bay in the vast majority of modern blockbusters, I think you can still see the finer traces of Tony Scott’s work in the best of them.

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6 Responses

  1. You truly nailed the essence of this highly under appreciated filmmaker, Darren. Michael Bay is a hack compared to Tony Scott. Did you ever see his extended BMW commercials? So many of his films were critically panned when they came out (no doubt looked downed upon since the man continued to do music videos and commercials), and only rose in popularity and status once audiences gave them a chance. His loss is terrible news, and he will be sorely missed. Thanks for this.

    • Thanks. I do think that Scott tends to get lumped in the nineties action directors, if only because he made nineties action films. But I think – with the possible exception of The Rock – that none of the other nineties blockbusters from that crowd could measure up to Scott’s work with Crimson Tide or Enemy of the State. And I think the thing about Scott was that – unlike Bay or some other action movie directors – he is concerned about his actors and his characters, and making sure they don’t get lost. I mean, I can’t remember a character from a Michael Bay film who seems distinct from the default persona the actor playing them. Nicolas Cage is geeky and high-intensity; Sean Connery is suave and charming; Bruce Willis is a hero; Shia LeBouef is not as cool as he thinks he is; Ben Affleck has a chin. But I remember Gene Hackman’s characters in Crimson Tide and Enemy of the States as separate entities. Or Denzel Washington’s roles in Crimson Tide and Man on Fire as distinct from one another.

  2. Tony never received the acclaim that his brother Ridley got, mostly because he relished popcorn entertainment. But he was very good at what he did and set the standard for modern action flicks. He was what Michael Bay would be if Bay could direct. Scott’s films were action that relied on great cinematography and stunts rather than CGI. His movies were big and loud, but very entertaining and distinctive. The film world has lost a true visionary.

    • I think that’s it. I didn’t want to mention Ridley’s work, because I think Tony distinguished himself from his sibling, but I always felt the pair complimented and contrasted one another quite well. Ridley had a knack for these wonderfully cold and inhuman constructs populated with archetypes defined by their environment – is it little wonder that Ridley thought Dekkard was a Replicant? – while Tony’s word was a bit more warma nd imperfect, populated by characters. It seemed like Ridley started constructing his movies from the outside in (so that they always looked polished, and the world made more sense than the characters inhabiting it, if that makes sense) while Tony did the opposite (so you’d always get a very human heart of what could become a more conventional action movie).

  3. Wonderfully written. It’s a terrible loss to Hollywood. I remember always looking forward to the next Tony Scott action film. Especially if it was a collaboration with Denzel Washington. Sad to think there won’t be another one of those to look forward to.

    • Thanks Jaina. It is quite a shame. I remember catching the last few minutes of the underrated Deja Vu a few weeks back and thinking “Man, I need to watch that again.” I just wish it were under better circumstances.

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