Tony Scott’s shocking suicide yesterday brought an end to not just one of the most influential careers in modern Hollywood, but also one of the strangest and most divisive. It’s interesting to note that, for a guy so often identified with blockbusters, he really had just a handful of genuine hits: Top Gun was huge, Beverly Hills Cop II was huge (mainly because it was a sequel to a box office phenomenon), Enemy of the State and Crimson Tide were huge-ish. Otherwise, films like Days of Thunder and The Last Boy Scout were generally seen as underperforming and not quite there. And True Romance, now correctly viewed as one of Scott’s best films, was basically a flop. Despite all that, his influence over not just other filmmakers but also male moviegoers of a certain age is undeniable.
Full disclosure: I was never a big Tony Scott fan. But you didn’t have to be to grow up with Tony Scott movies in the 1980s and 90s. Even when the films weren’t good (as with Days of Thunder, a movie that somehow became a generational touchstone without anyone particularly liking it), they were still compelling in their own way. You at the very least admired the audacity of the imagery, the over-the-topness…nay, the Tony Scott-ness of it all, with his long lenses and his slow-motion and his silhouettes and his blue-light sex scenes and his weird New Age-y action reveries.
If it sounds like I’m describing Michael Bay, that’s because I sort of am. What we like to think of today as the Bay/Jerry Bruckheimer aesthetic was, in fact, originally the Tony Scott aesthetic (often deployed in films made for Bruckheimer and his late partner Don Simpson). Only back then there was a lot more art to it. Scott famously cross-bred an amped up, high-stakes kineticism with a certain romantic quality: He liked to intercut frenzied scenes of violence with elegiac moments, often with dreamy music playing in the background. This guy made guy movies, or at least what boys liked to think of as guy movies: He shot gunfights and sports stadiums and cars and planes and machines the way other directors might shoot pastoral scenes.
In so doing he also helped lay down the foundations of the boys-with-big-toys blockbuster style that we’re still contending with today. Along the way, sometimes his people stopped being people and became myths: His long lenses flattened and almost abstracted the characters, and his use of slow-motion and heroic silhouettes caught small, fleeting moments and stretched them until they felt monumental. Indeed, Tony Scott movies often hovered on the edge of abstraction. In later years, his editing became downright experimental in films like Domino, Déjà vu, and The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3. It didn’t always work, but you got the sense – and here’s where he proved himself the very opposite of a hack, something he was often accused of being – that Tony Scott was constantly trying something new.
There was more to it than that. When paired with a great script – one that actually gave his characters something more to do besides fix cars and ride motorcycles and fly airplanes against sunsets -- Scott could work wonders. Crimson Tide was billed as a big-balled Simpson/Bruckheimer nuclear submarine movie, but it was at heart a claustrophobic, 12 Angry Men-style chamber drama. As such, Scott wound the film so tightly, with acting and emotions so intense, that it’s still terrifying to watch, nearly two decades later. In True Romance, he took Quentin Tarantino’s self-contained fantasy of geek wish fulfillment and placed it in something resembling the real world (or the “real world” by Hollywood standards, at least), drenching it in the atmosphere of industrial Detroit and the coked-out wastelands of Los Angeles. His last film, 2010’s Unstoppable, might be a movie about a toxic runaway train “the size of the Chrysler Building,” (which is a line I’d like to think Scott put in there himself) but it’s also a beautifully drawn portrait of a gruff, over-the-hill train man and a soft, haunted rookie bonding as they slowly realize the weight of the responsibility on their hands.
Speaking of Unstoppable: Chris Pine and Denzel Washington’s performances in that film are two of the best, most touching action movie turns in recent years. For all his action bona fides, Tony Scott could absolutely direct actors, too. In some ways, Tom Cruise has been trying (and failing) for years to re-create the naturalism that Scott’s direction lent him in Top Gun and Days of Thunder. And until Se7en and Twelve Monkeys came along, all we really had as evidence of Brad Pitt’s future greatness was his turn as the stoned roommate in True Romance. Indeed, I don’t think I can recall a single genuinely bad performance in a Tony Scott movie. His work with actors like Washington and Gene Hackman was often sterling, but he also got career best performances out of performers with more limited range, like Pine, Christian Slater, Patricia Arquette, Damon Wayans, Bronson Pinchot...the list goes on.
There was also something curiously moving to Scott’s career trajectory. I once read an anecdote in an otherwise quite forgettable book called Sex, Stupidity and Greed: Inside the American Movie Industry, by Ian Grey. At one point, Grey tells of being in a West Hollywood bar sometime in the early 1980s and running into a “somewhat thick-set, though sportily dressed” man who introduces himself as Tony, then proceeds to drunkenly and bitterly rail against his “hack” brother who makes horror and monster movies and, in Tony’s words, “knows nothing of art.” At this point, Ridley Scott has made Alien, The Duellists, and Blade Runner, whereas Tony is still licking his wounds from the failure of his first feature The Hunger, a vampire art-film par excellence starring David Bowie and Catherine Deneuve.
Now, Ridley and Tony have been in business together for years, so I have no idea how much to trust Grey’s anecdote. But there is something poignant in the idea of Tony Scott picking himself up after the defiantly oblique and bizarre The Hunger and effectively out-Hollywood-ing both his brother and Hollywood itself, in the process helping create the modern blockbuster aesthetic. It’s touching not because it suggests Tony Scott sold out, but because it suggests that there was a real urgency behind the stylization of his imagery and the ferocity with which his films moved. He didn’t give up on his dreams of becoming a true artist, but rather realized one can create art in the unlikeliest of places, and in the unlikeliest of ways.