This past Sunday, the film world lost a legendary figure when director Tony Scott shockingly committed suicide in a leap from the Vincent Thomas Bridge in San Pedro.
The details of Scott’s death are still emerging, but what is known is that he had a singularly unique and high-profile career. The younger brother of Ridley Scott, he didn’t get into feature filmmaking until he was in his 40s. Once he did, he became one of Hollywood’s most sought-after action directors. On the occasion of his passing, I decided to take a look back at the entirety of his filmography, starting from the beginning.
The Hunger would be a different sort of film in almost anyone’s filmography, but that a director overwhelmingly renowned for aggressively masculine action epics would begin his feature film career with a female-centric erotic horror tale grounded in the underground New Wave club scene of the early 80s is almost as extraordinarily bizarre as the movie itself.
Supposedly born of Scott’s unsuccessful attempt to launch an Anne Rice adaptation, the film features French screen goddess Catherine Denuevre as a centuries-old vampire whose most recent consort (David Bowie) has recently succumbed to a rapid aging affliction. Susan Sarandon is a scientist investigating the goings-on connected to Denuevre who begins to suspect something strange is afoot … but not before she’s become the vampire’s new lover.
Keep in mind, this was 1983, so a pair of major star actresses hitting the sheets was pretty extraordinary and attention-getting in a time when it was rare to even hear the words “gay” or “lesbian” spoken on TV. (In the landmark documentary The Celluloid Closet, Sarandon laughed off the lascivious inquiries that followed her after the film by matter-of-factly explaining that “you don’t have to be a lesbian to want to f*** Catherine Denuevre”). It was visually groundbreaking as well, layered in striking elements that would subsequently be ripped off by every MTV video of the early 80s.
Let me be honest: I don’t really care for Top Gun. I get why people do, and I understand why it was such a big hit in its day. In many ways its the ultimate movie of the Reagan Years, as its entire plot exists as a solution to the problem of how to put all that gorgeous, expensive military technology we’d been ostensibly building up for a conflict with The Soviets – which was looking increasingly unlikely to actually happen – to good (cinematic) use.
And yeah, that’s what it is, basically: a by-the-book sports drama ported from the ball field to a (fictional) competition among top Air Force fighter-pilot recruits. Tom Cruise is the Troubled Young Man who could be The Best Ever if only he can overcome his Crippling Daddy Issues, Val Kilmer is his obsessive Rival With A Grudge, and the assembled cast preens about glowering homoerotically at oneanother until the plot contrives some actual bad guys to show up and resolve everyone’s issues and somehwere a young Quentin Tarantino finds his destiny. (QT’s career and Scott’s would be almost supernaturally “linked” from there on out.)
If nothing else, it’s a testament to Scott’s talent that he’s able to elevate such ridiculous material into something that’s still pretty memorable.
Jerry Bruckheimer may have brought Scott onto Top Gun because of The Hunger‘s slick visuals, but Top Gun‘s massive success taught everybody that the director had a direct line into the overblown adolescent machismo that was becoming the 80s zeitgeist and landed him in the director’s chair for this follow-up to the Eddie Murphy fish out of water action/comedy.
The result is an incredibly divisive film, the action and violence ramped up far beyond the original and executed in a hyper-real, oversaturated sheen that at the time was more familiar in horror movies. The bad guys, meanwhile, scheme and act like something out of a Batman comic. To this day, some consider it a betrayal of the first film, while others contend it remains one of the most influential 80s action flicks.
It’s been years since I’ve watched Revenge, a thriller with Kevin Costner as an Air Force vet taking revenge (duh) on an aristocrat (Anthony Quinn) who ruined his life and left him for dead as payback for having an affair with his (Quinn’s) wife. I remember liking it, at least.
For what it’s worth, Roger Ebert opined that it “combines the slick, high-tension filmmaking fashion of today with the values and sexual stereotyping of yesterday. It’s such a good job of salesmanship that you have to stop and remind yourself you don’t want any.” Its subsequent reputation has become much more positive.
Scott reunited with Tom Cruise for the biggest movie (at the time) to featuring the gradually-mainstreaming sport of NASCAR racing. It feels a little cheap to call it “Top Gun but with cars,” but it really kind of is.
Cruise plays an open-wheel racer recruited into NASCAR who only “gets” the sport once he’s paired with a wizened mentor in the form of Robert Duvall. The film is oddly structured and melodramatic (Cruise clashes with a rival, then becomes his pal as they both recover from injuries, then they work together to best a second rival later on) but Scott’s direction and Cruise’s typical intensity make the racing sequences more interesting than a succession of left-hand turns have any right to be.
This one has been harshly criticized for its perceived misogyny and for the fact that Scott seems to be doing something like an homage to his own work, but it’s a resoundingly solid “guy” movie that pairs 80s action-gloss with the emerging cynicism of the 90s.
Bruce Willis is a private eye who teams with a former NFL player (Damon Wayans) to ferret out a conspiracy involving sports-fixing, drugs and citywide corruption. A lot of the plot (screenplay by the great Shane Black, currently directing Iron Man 3) feels like a bunch of then-topical buzzwords (“Sports doping!” “PCP!”) on an outing at the shooting range, but it looks great and the bitter comedic tone is a trip in the right mood.
Quentin Tarantino made an early name for himself in Hollywood via a monologue
(linked in the Top Gun entry) about gay subtext in Scott’s Top Gun, and here Scott directs the future heavy-hitter’s first (intact) screenplay.
The film was a major conversation-piece among Gen-X film fans, largely because it’s one of Scott’s best but also likely because said fans identified heavily with Tarantino and Romance plays like his own wish-fulfillment fantasy. Christian Slater is a comic book store clerk who falls in love with a gold-hearted hooker and whose plan to run away with her to Hollywood is complicated by gangsters, crooked cops, an errant bag of cocaine and the ghost of Elvis.
This is often called Tony Scott’s best film, and I find it pretty difficult to disagree. It’s a stone-cold pop-drama masterpiece, a taut grownup thriller infused with the driving energy that characterized Scott’s earlier “just for fun” entries, set to a pounding score by Hans Zimmer that’s become one of the most popular “trailer music” pieces of all time.
The setup is simplicity itself. Gene Hackman is a nuclear submarine Captain whose subtle clash of wills with his new Executive Officer (Denzel Washington) boils over into a full-scale standoff when the seizure of nukes by Russian ultranationalists puts them in the position of having to decide whether or not to launch their own nukes in a preemptive strike. The Captain is an aging vet with a distinguished combat record backed by a stubborn and aggressive disposition; the XO is a highly-educated expert on tactics and military history (but with no combat experience) who takes a more cautious approach. When Hackman attempts to jump the gun (believing it to be the best decision) Washington arrests him and assumes command, causing the rest of the crew to choose up sides.
A big hit in its day and a perennial cable mainstay, Crimson Tide is easily the best movie you’ll ever see about two men arguing tactical philosophy in a sub. It also brought the Scott/Tarantino connection back into play, as producer Jerry Bruckheimer allegedly paid Quentin a hefty sum to polish up portions of the screenplay where crewmembers argued over pop-culture minutiae.
Come back next week for Part 2.
Bob Chipman is a film critic and independent filmmaker. If you’ve heard of him before, you have officially been spending way too much time on the internet.