The aftermath of Tony Scott’s shock death revealed how his films divided cinephiles and were not given much thought. Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s excellent article points to this:
While the last few years have seen Scott embraced by a certain cinephilic community (the Cinema Scope crowd, the Mann-Scott-Baysian "vulgar auteurists," etc.), he remains, for the most part, a director of immensely popular and commercially successful films who has never been all that popular or successful with critics or "serious film types."
I was certainly not aware of this polarization even though I should have figured something was amiss given the lack of articles exploring his works. I had seen 12 out of his 16 directed features but I couldn't remember reading a single in-depth critical analysis of his films, although many articles have now surfaced, some of which were written a few years ago. One of those older must read articles is Cinema Scope’s brilliant piece which uses Deja Vu as a jumping point to gaze at other Tony Scott features.
All the wonderful articles on Tony Scott inspired a quick film spotlight. The starting point was obviously to catch up with the 4 missing films from my viewing list, The Hunger (1983), Revenge (1990), Man on Fire (2004) and Deja Vu (2006). I revisited a few other titles to have an eight film spotlight, half of Tony’s total feature output.
The Hunger (1983)
Days of Thunder (1990)
True Romance (1993)
Man on Fire (2004)
Deja Vu (2006)
Trying to maintain control
"Control is an illusion," Kidman already said to Cruise’s NASCAR driver way back in Days of Thunder (1990), and in hindsight it seems an announcement of themes, even style. -- Cinema Scope 29
Christoph Huber and Mark Peranson hit the nail on the head with regards to “control” in Tony’s films. Obvious examples are films in which characters try to control fast moving objects such as planes in Top Gun, cars in Days of Thunder and a speeding train in Unstoppable. However, control is not limited to objects and a few of Tony Scott’s films explore emotional control. Crimson Tide is about staying calm and in control, something which is required in Domino & Man on Fire as well. On the other hand, The Hunger, True Romance & Revenge depict events that unfold when characters give in to their urges and fail to keep their emotions in check. It is incredibly difficult to maintain control when love is involved so it is not a surprize to find that a lot of Tony Scott’s films have love at their core. True Romance and Revenge are clear examples but Tony’s films are not limited to physical love but explore compassion and parental love as well. In Spy Game, Brad Pitt’s Tom Bishop puts his life in danger because of a woman (Catherine McCormack’s character of Elizabeth Hadley) while Nathan Muir (Robert Redford) puts his life savings and reputation on the line because of the father-son like relationship he shares with Bishop. A parental concern is also echoed in Man on Fire with Denzel Washington’s desire to save young Pita (Dakota Fanning). Deja Vu shows that love can manifest itself even when two people don’t share the same physical space. In the film, Denzel Washington’s Doug Carlin falls madly in love with Claire Kuchever (Paula Patton) just by looking at photos and pixels of her.
Love is present in many of Tony’s films but that emotion does not dominate the films which are jam packed with thought provoking ideas packaged in a pulsating framework. Spy Game is set against the backdrop of complicated political policies, Man on Fire looks at corruption and kidnappings in Mexico, Deja Vu examines the possibilities when space-time is folded while Domino is a fierce commentary on reality television. As a result, Scott’s films are not hollow entertainment but offer an insight into society and human behavior in general.
There are many Tony Scott films that I have enjoyed and revisited multiples times over the years but the following would be a current rough ordering:
1. Deja Vu: The film perfectly mixes elements of Rear Window and Minority Report with a tender loving touch.
2. Spy Game: Espionage, terrorism, compassion and some clever trickery while the clock ticks away.
3. The Taking of Pelham 123
4. Unstoppable: Besides the obvious attempt to control a runaway train, the film is also a brilliant take on the modern economic crisis by showing how an employee's blind rush results in a problem that gets bigger with each passing minute. If this employee had taken an extra few minutes to properly complete his job, then a small one person problem would not have turned into a gigantic mess that impacted millions.
Of course, just like Deja Vu this list would have been completely different four days ago.
Domino (written by Richard Kelly) and True Romance (written by Quentin Tarantino) also show that Tony Scott nicely incorporated the writers sentiments with his visual take on the material. One can observe seeds of Kelly’s Southland Tales in Domino with regards to an over hyped pop culture while Tarantino’s trademark crisp dialogues and love of movies are all over True Romance.
And lastly, if I had to pick one frame to depict the sentiment of control and speed shown in Tony Scott’s films, I would pick the wheelchair race in Days of Thunder that takes places in the hospital between Cole Trickle (Tom Cruise) and Rowdy Burns (Michael Rooker). In the scene, a nurse is pushing Rowdy’s wheelchair down the hall when Cole’s wheelchair enters the frame. For a few brief seconds, Cole and Rowdy find themselves side by side before Cole decides to edge his chair forward a bit. Cole’s act is a call to war for Rowdy who then pushes himself ahead. And it isn’t too long before both Cole and Rowdy are racing down the hospital in their wheelchairs. A race that started in cars continues in wheelchairs. And even if there were no wheelchairs, both characters would have still found a way to race against each other. No injury could remove the urge to speed from their DNA.