Submitted for your approval are the five films I believe in my heart of hearts to be the essentials of Tony Scott’s unusual but beloved and rewarding filmography. If your knowledge of the man’s work doesn’t extend beyond his ability to make Tom Cruise look good in the cockpit of a fighter jet and the front seat of a battered stock car then you might find this list worth a read.
After spending more than two decades directing television commercials for his brother’s production company as well as directing an adaptation of the Henry James story The Author of Beltraffio for French television in 1975, Scott made his feature directorial debut in 1983 with The Hunger, an erotic and esoteric horror film based on a novel by Whitley Strieber. Prior to this, he also considered making a film based on another acclaimed horror novel, Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire. For his first movie, Scott rounded up a hell of a cast to play his three lead characters: legendary French actress Catherine Deneuve, British rock icon David Bowie, and American actress Susan Sarandon.
The Hunger told the story of an eternally young vampire (Deneuve) who sets her sights on a scientist (Sarandon) to be her new companion after her previous lover for 200 years (Bowie) succumbs to a rapid aging process that befalls all her lovers. Upon its release the movie failed to strike a chord with audiences and critics and grossed barely $6 million at the box office. Scott’s art horror had to wait until its video release to build a cult following. Vampire movie fans won’t find much bloodshed and thrills here; this is more of a haunting romantic drama with an overtone of Gothic horror. When I first saw it I wasn’t terribly impressed with the story although the visuals, as would be expected of a Tony Scott movie, are sumptuous and atmospheric. Much like brother Ridley’s classic sci-fi thriller Blade Runner – another movie that wasn’t nearly what viewers expected it to be – The Hunger is a film to be experienced rather than merely viewed. Though its narrative is rather inert at times the performances are fantastic, particularly Bowie as the lover who was promised immortality and eternal love and got the shit end of the stick. The chilling rapid aging effects for his character were created by the famed movie make-up guru Dick Smith, best known for this work on The Exorcist, Taxi Driver, and Scanners.
The Hunger isn’t a perfect film, but it has many worthy virtues and in every frame clearly demonstrated neophyte filmmaker Scott’s amazing command of the cinematic medium. Plus, it beats the hell out of the Twilight movies if only for that memorable love scene between Deneuve and Sarandon. You know the one guys. I recommend seeing this movie on a widescreen DVD; viewed in fullscreen you won’t be able to tell what the hell is going on half the time.
In his second collaboration with two-time Oscar honoree Denzel Washington Scott went back to a project he had long cherished, an adaptation of the 1981 novel Man on Fire by Philip Nicholson, written under the pseudonym A. J. Quinnell. He was supposed to have made the film back in the late 80s, but fell out of the project over salary negotiations and the resulting picture was made by a lesser-known director and flopped badly in the U.S. Nearly two decades later Scott got a second chance to make his version of Man on Fire and this time around he would not fail.
The screenplay was written by another Oscar winner, Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential, Payback) and moved the location of the novel from Italy to Mexico. Washington took the lead role of Creasy, a former CIA agent who goes to work as the personal bodyguard for a wealthy couple (Marc Anthony, Radha Mitchell) and their precocious daughter Pita (Dakota Fanning). When Pita is kidnapped by a criminal organization with ties to the Mexico City cops and offered up for a sizable ransom, Creasy sets out to get her back alive no matter how many people have to die in the process. As his friend Rayburn (Christopher Walken) tells the authorities, “Creasy’s art is death. He’s about to paint his masterpiece.”
Opening in theaters the same month as two other high-profile action movies about revenge – Kill Bill Volume 2 and The Punisher – Man on Fire did brisk business at the box office but never seemed to get the appreciation it deserved. Critics slammed Scott for taking a bolder, experimental approach to his direction; most scenes moved faster than anything the director has made and his visual style seemed to take a cue from expressionistic oil paintings with bleeding colors. There were a lot of subtitles and they were displayed on the screen in multiple fonts and speeds. It was almost like a graphic novel brought to bloody, grimy life. Since then Man on Fire has been hailed as one of the finer action films of the past decade.
Washington is superb as ever playing a character who lives in a world full of gray areas and is willing to put aside morality to enact biblical vengeance in the name of protecting the people he cares about. Fanning is sweet and innocent without being annoying and has a great rapport with Washington; their relationship is the emotional core of the film. The rest of the cast, including Anthony, Mitchell, Walken, Rachel Ticotin, Giancarlo Giannini, and Mickey Rourke, also do excellent work in their smaller but no less integral roles. But the real appeal of Man on Fire is the action, Tony Scott’s true forte, and the man delivers as always. Creasy packs an arsenal too large for most platoons to carry into combat to rescue Pita and employs a variety of ingenious methods of execution on his prey, the highlight being his cold dispatch of a corrupt Mexican police commissioner via a rectally-inserted explosive device.
According to an old Klingon proverb, revenge is a dish best served cold. In Man on Fire they don’t much colder.
There have been great movies about submarine warfare, the best probably being Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot. In 1995, Scott decided to take his flagging career to the coldest depths of the sea. Crimson Tide marked the first time he had worked with Denzel Washington and the younger actor was cast opposite his fellow Oscar-winner Gene Hackman in a timely and tense tale of modern nuclear warfare.
Hackman played the captain of a U.S. nuclear submarine with a mission to possibly launch missiles at a Soviet military base with their own heavy supply of nukes under the command of an extremist group. When disrupted communications leave the captain and his crew about their orders the captain decides to launch the missiles anyway, against the judgment of his headstrong executive officer (Washington). The two career Naval officers soon find themselves at odds when the executive officer orders the captain removed from his command and the sub’s crew start taking sides in a mutinous showdown with the world staring down the barrel of a nuclear war.
The critical and financial success of Crimson Tide not only revived Scott’s career, but also the careers and fortunes of his powerhouse producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, who had also produced three of his previous hits. Scott and Bruckheimer would go on to collaborate on three more films before his death. Crimson Tide is possibly the one Tony Scott smash hit that doesn’t contain very much action. There some intense confrontations, guns being pointed, an edge-of-you-seat battle between the American sub and a enemy vessel, and a few thrown punches. But the real action is the ongoing battle of words between Hackman and Washington, two genuine superstars who never fail to bring true firepower to their performances. The battle lines are never clearly drawn in Crimson Tide and throughout the movie you’ll find yourself wondering which of the main characters is taking the proper course of action. Neither Hackman or Washington are playing paragons of virtue or evil here; they’re both proud and charismatic leaders who want nothing more to protect the lives of their shipmates and their fellow Americans.
The screenplay by Michael Schiffer crackles with wit and intelligence and contains a few interesting dialogue exchanges that were no doubt the contribution of Quentin Tarantino, who performed an uncredited script polish. Tarantino’s hiring was probably Scott’s idea as the younger filmmaker was an unabashed fan of the director’s previous work and the two had worked together on the next movie on this list. The supporting cast is another doozy: Viggo Mortensen and James Gandolfini, years before they were Aragorn and Tony Soprano, both had prominent roles as fellow sub officers, and you can also spot Rick Schroeder, Ryan Phillipe, and Steve Zahn in smaller parts.
Seventeen years after its release Crimson Tide remains a masterclass in sustained tension and terrific acting. In addition to being one of Tony Scott’s best films it’s also one of the finest from the Simpson/Bruckheimer school of slick event moviemaking.
2. True Romance (1993, Morgan Creek Productions/Warner Bros.)
Tagline: Stealing. Cheating. Killing. Who says romance is dead?
Quentin Tarantino had long wanted to direct his screenplay for True Romance personally as a low-budget feature, but once it fell into the hands of Scott it became a major motion picture with oodles of star power and all the violence you can pack into a single feature film. The final film barely made its $13 million production budget, a pittance for a Tony Scott movie, at the box office but in the years since True Romance has become a much-quoted cult classic on video and DVD. Tarantino’s tale of a lovelorn comic store clerk (Christian Slater) who marries a hooker with a heart of gold (Patricia Arquette) and gets involved with drug smuggling, the Mob, and hotheaded Hollywood producers seemed like a perfect match for Scott’s directorial sensibilities in every way.
Scott was often accused of making glorified drive-in flicks for mass consumption, but there’s at all wrong with that. In its purest form True Romance is a genuine epic exploitation movie with one of the most wonderfully realized love stories of the past 20 years at its core. The Tarantino script was translated to the big screen almost unchanged – the story structure was altered and the pessimistic ending changed, for the better in my opinion – and is packed to the gills with quotable dialogue and classic scenes. The casting is genius too: where else can you find former sitcom star Bronson Pinchot as a hapless Tinseltown peon, Val Kilmer as the disembodied spirit of Elvis Presley and the Slater character’s conscience, Brad Pitt as a goofball stoner who performs no service in advancing the story but is regardless a lot of fun to watch, and Tom Sizemore and the late Chris Penn as a pair of swingin’ dick L.A. narcotics cops hungry for some real Sam Peckinpah/Walter Hill-style Saturday night at the grindhouse widescreen cinematic mayhem?
The one scene from True Romance that everyone seems to remember, even those who have watched the movie in full, is a memorable face-off between Christopher Walken (as a cold-blooded Mafioso) and Dennis Hopper (as Slater’s estranged father). If you remember the “coin toss” scene from the Coens’ No Country for Old Men let me just tell you that this scene is a greater deal more intense and once again demonstrates that Tony Scott was a much better director than his detractors claimed. Two underrated old-school actors given a moment to truly shine. There’s absolutely no action in the scene but it’s a barn burner all the same.
There’s nothing more I can say about True Romance. The best thing you can do for yourself is discover this movie and its multitude of cinematic pleasures. It’s a real labor of love from two filmmakers working hand in hand to create movie magic and it will continue to endure for decades to come.
Like I was going to pick anything else. Top Gun? No way buddy. Typically I would have chosen True Romance as my number one because it truly is Scott’s finest film as a director, but The Last Boy Scout has this weird hold over me. I must do its bidding and proclaim it number one.
Before he collaborated with Tarantino, Scott worked with another brash and hip screenwriting wunderkind who took Hollywood by storm and pretty fast: Shane Black. At the time Black had earned his place at the head table with his script for the blockbuster action classic Lethal Weapon and the studios were clamoring on bended knee for his next blood-and-thunder thrill ride. For The Last Boy Scout he was paid $1.75 million, at the time a record price paid for a screenplay. Warner Bros. was hoping for another Lethal Weapon-style surefire hit, but what they got was a grim, violent, sexist, and often satirical thriller about a low-rent private eye (Bruce Willis) and a disgraced former star football player (Damon Wayans) teaming up to unravel a web of murder and corruption in the world of California politics and professional athletics. The characters make Lethal Weapon‘s suicidal supercop Martin Riggs look like Mr. Rogers in terms of warmth and sympathy, but they earn our respect through the deftly-executed action sequences and Black’s insanely quotable dialogue, which sounds at times like a running commentary on the state of action films in the late 80s/early 90s.
Stand-up comic Taylor Negron plays the lead villain’s oily and sadistic henchman Milo and makes a grand show of it, while Danielle Harris of the Halloween movies scores tons of laughs as Willis’ foul-mouthed daughter. Few movies for me define the phrase “in your face” as succinctly as The Last Boy Scout. It’s loud, vulgar, aggressive, excessive, and gruesome. But lord almighty is it entertaining, and gloriously so. I get a sick little smile on my face every time I watch. It’s the devil on your shoulder pressuring you to wallow in the sheer unadulterated depravity of it all.
There you have it, dear readers. I’m sure most of you reading this have seen some of these movies, but the ones you haven’t I highly recommend you check out pronto. Rest in peace, Mr. Scott.