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Ridley Scott: A Necessary Reevaluation

The Playlist By The Playlist | The Playlist May 14, 2010 at 3:27AM

Ridley Scott is, in some circles anyhow, a god. Practically treated as royalty with laudatory genuflection from certain film enthusiasts — generally genre fetishists — he has turned in two unimpeachable cinema touchstones, "Blade Runner" and "Alien," plus a few other arguable modern semi-classics including "Black Hawk Down" and "Gladiator" (at least in some people's minds). But his track record overall? Scott's batting average isn't exactly amazing across the board, and while he has major peaks, his work can be frustratingly uneven for someone who is clearly and masterfully talented. While a craftsman of technically marvelous and grand spectacle cinema, his films can also be inordinately soulless and have become increasingly so with each film (Sigourney Weaver famously said that Scott paid more attention to the props and extraterrestrials than the actors on "Alien," but somehow that picture still worked). And the most recent "Robin Hood" picture? Absolutely unnecessary, totally forgettable, pointless and lacking energy or direction (even our own review feels too kind).
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Ridley Scott is, in some circles anyhow, a god. Practically treated as royalty with laudatory genuflection from certain film enthusiasts — generally genre fetishists — he has turned in two unimpeachable cinema touchstones, "Blade Runner" and "Alien," plus a few other arguable modern semi-classics including "Black Hawk Down" and "Gladiator" (at least in some people's minds). But his track record overall? Scott's batting average isn't exactly amazing across the board, and while he has major peaks, his work can be frustratingly uneven for someone who is clearly and masterfully talented. While a craftsman of technically marvelous and grand spectacle cinema, his films can also be inordinately soulless and have become increasingly so with each film (Sigourney Weaver famously said that Scott paid more attention to the props and extraterrestrials than the actors on "Alien," but somehow that picture still worked). And the most recent "Robin Hood" picture? Absolutely unnecessary, totally forgettable, pointless and lacking energy or direction (even our own review feels too kind).

Hell, when the project was first announced as "Nottingham," fans wtf'd?! in disbelief when it was reported that Russell Crowe would play a character that masqueraded as both Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham. But in retrospect, at least that idea would have been a fresh one. The enervating, mediocre quality of the merry men tale made us take a step back and do a now seemingly important and necessary reevaluation of Scott's work and see where we land. In no specific order of course...

"Hannibal"
Ten years after "The Silence of the Lambs," it was time to cannibalize (cute) on the popularity of Hannibal Lecter, but after a bumpy development which saw the departure of "Lambs" director Jonathan Demme and star Jodie Foster, the property fell into the lap of Scott who proceeded to shove this lump of shit down our throats like it were a Death's Head moth and we were a size 14. The mad glee and playfulness of Hannibal made famous by Anthony Hopkins in "Lambs," was replaced by an over the top, highly stylized freakshow that included an uncredited Gary Oldman cutting off his own face and a bored Ray Liotta eating his own brain. It's even worse than it sounds. [F]

"Black Hawk Down"
A common complaint about Scott's career is that he's nothing more than a technician; that his films, while handsome, frequently lack soul. This writer doesn't always buy that posit, but a viewing of "Black Hawk Down" certainly gave us pause. The photography, by Krzysztof Kieslowski collaborator Slawomir Idziak, is astounding, and Pietro Scalia's cutting is world-class, but Scott can't decide if he wants to make an aesthetic marvel or an immersive docudrama, and the two cancel each other out. His storytelling instincts, normally so good, fail him completely, and it's almost impossible to follow the film's geography, or to distinguish between the starry cast — only Eric Bana, fresh from "Chopper," makes an impression. Even putting aside the film's deeply questionable politics, it's a curiously uninvolving film, overdosing on bluster and bravado, but without truly engaging with the audience. [D+]

"Blade Runner"
What's left to say about "Blade Runner" at this point? A flop on its release, it's proven a massive influence on virtually every sci-fi movie, videogame and comic book since, and remains one of the most complete, coherent visions of a future ever put on screen that feels completely in step with dystopian classics like "Brave New World," and "1984." Whichever version of the film you watch — the pulpy Philip Marlowe version or the existentially introspective one — you walk away at the credits feeling like you've spent months in the Los Angeles of 2019 and, despite the bleak rain-soaked atmosphere, you'd go back again in a heartbeat. But it's not just an exercise in world-creation; the noirish plot is gripping and the performances are uniformly outstanding, even from actors now undervalued like Sean Young and Daryl Hannah. [A+]

"American Gangster"
This is probably one of the few Scott movies we wouldn’t mind he sequelize, if only because, like “Robin Hood,” it’s clear he focused on the least interesting part of the story. Like “Hood,” which was originally a dual-identities sort of experiment before becoming an origin story, “American Gangster” ends with a post-script informing us of the unusual working relationship between the two characters we just watched clash, coke entrepreneur Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) and city cop Ritchie Roberts (Russell Crowe). We walk away from the movie forgetting Lucas’ too-glammy criminal capitalist enterprise and the obvious dichotomy between his family life and Roberts’ own broken home, but remain enthused by the idea of Roberts’ second career as a defense attorney taking Lucas as a client and shortening his sentence. [C]

"Matchstick Men"
When people say that Nicolas Cage lost his way after his enjoyable Jerry Bruckheimer-produced '90s action flicks (which he did), they fail to take into account his strong turn in this sharp, fast and engaging con man cum father-daughter tale. Forget "Bad Lieutenant: Port Of Call New Orleans," Cage's mannered and manic character, hounded by phobias, struggles throughout the picture, with Cage portraying a wonderfully nuanced inner conflict. His empathy for his newfound daughter is at odds with his inherent neuroticism, and his fierce, on-the-ball skills of deception. Sam Rockwell is aces as usual and Alison Lohman still bears the burden of this stellar performance she hasn't been able to top. The contrivance at the end does make the picture feel a little slight, but it's an absorbing, taut and well-written ride. [B]

"Body Of Lies"
While charged with being an empty and empty-headed political thriller — it's a spy film about a CIA operative who uncovers a lead on a major terrorist leader suspected to be operating out of Jordan — it does two important things: proves Russell Crowe is a fine (arguably better) supporting actor especially when he is subverting his tough guy, alpha male characters (it might be his most interesting work since "The Insider"), and it might have been the first picture where we actually bought Leonardo DiCaprio as a full-blown adult (as opposed to say, "The Aviator," where you say, hey there's that kid DiCaprio trying to play Howard Hughes). It also boasted a nice turn by Marc Strong as well, leading Hollywood to recognize his villainous strengths. It's also pretty damn entertaining, even if it's insignificant. [B-]

"Kingdom Of Heaven"
You may think you've seen, and been disappointed by "Kingdom Of Heaven," but you haven't had the full experience of just how tedious it can be until you get into the protracted director's cut. Yes, the extra 45 minutes restores entire plotlines and gives the film room to breathe, but it also just makes the slog of an experience (who cares if inherently dull gaps are filled) simply 45 minutes longer.Yes, Edward Norton courageously plays his non-existent character behind a mask the entire length of the picture. Congratulations? Hopefully one day we'll see a Final Cut with Bore-lando Bloom's performance digitally removed and replaced by Paul Bettany, Scott's first choice for the part; there's a reason that Bloom hasn't played a lead role in three years. Deeply flawed, it's like the more solemn, vastly less entertaining version of "Gladiator," with a completely shallow theme of faith that feels empty. Original version [D], Director's Cut [C-]

"Legend"
As dated and corny as Ridley Scott's fantasy film can feel these days, the picture does get a lot of things right. Atmospheric, gauzy, elf-like aesthetics straight from the fairy world from whence it came, a dreamy score by Tangerine Dream, a wonderfully romantic closing number by sharp dressed Roxy Music gentleman Bryan Ferry, and what feels like a rare appearance by '80s hottie Mia Sara (it was actually her debut role and while Ferris Bueller's Sloane did get a lot of work after both these '80s film, none of them are very memorable). It's also pretty damn quotable ("Black as midnight, black as pitch, blacker than the foulest witch!" says the stinky little Goblin Blix) or at least... it was at the time. Sure the sets are a bit cheesy, but as a pre-"Lord of The Rings" fairy goblins romance fantasy flick, it was certainly one of the better ones of its time. [B]

"Black Rain"
Okay, maybe we do get plenty pumped by Hans Zimmer’s percussion-heavy, guitar-wailing theme, particularly when Michael Douglas and his glorious '80s poof of hair pursues the big baddie by motorcycle. That doesn’t change the fact that Scott’s atmospheric actioner is a product of his time, a decidedly B-affair from a guy most consider A-List. Douglas and his partner Andy Garcia are NY cops huffing and puffing their way through a Japanese crime investigation, cutting through red tape the way movie cops do until, shockingly, the case gets very, very personal. Action fans will find a lot to like about the film’s crackerjack pace, but Douglas is laughable as a grizzled tough guy, and the film’s East-West relationships were probably somewhat progressive at the time, but still fairly cartoonish. [B-]

"G.I. Jane"
After demonstrating a great empathy and understanding for strong female characters (a rarity from male filmmakers), Scott's 1997 misfire was trying to recapture the rah-rah girl power spirit of his groundbreaking "Thelma & Louise." Results, as they say, may vary. The elation that made "Thelma & Louise" was gone, instead replaced with a wafer-thin action plot by David Twohy (something about a woman being added to an elite combat team and missing nuclear materials), an unconvincing "gritty" turn by Demi Moore in the title role (shaved head and all), and an unrelentingly grim atmosphere, both thematically and photographically. It is interesting to see Viggo Mortensen, in an unshowy role, impart even the most frivolous character with earth-shattering importance. Beyond that, and this thing is a major grind. [C-]

"A Good Year"
This 2006 picture is perhaps Scott's most fascinating work, if only because it seems to swim against the tides of his basic intuitions and the very fiber of his nature. Putatively a romantic comedy, the picture is actually more of a character study about a tried-and-true asshole (a British investment broker) who eventually discovers he has a soul when he inherits his uncle's French chateau and vineyard — the very place where he spent his childhood and a locale that contains his most cherished memories. The movie is a complete 18o from everything the filmmaker has ever made because it, for once, shies away from genre and actually tries to dig for some true humanity (which is sorely lacking in about 90% of his films). So on paper, we ideologically love this film and it's actually quite entertaining and engaging for its first hour or even more. It's great to see Scott attempting something different and succeeding, at least early on. But sigh, it cannot resist some pretty bad pedestrian cliches in its devolving third act and the romance between Russell Crowe and Marion Cotillard, which only really comes to the forefront in the last half of the second act is remarkably unbelievable and superficial. It's also extraordinarily notable for being one of the few films that make otherwise excellent actresses like Cotillard and Abbie Cornish seem completely talentless. [C]

"Alien"
Still (just about) Scott's greatest film, thirty years on, and it is, despite what some might say, still better than James Cameron's sequel, Scott's sci-fi horror is an exercise in minimalistic terror, taking the darkness and manifesting it in the most unknowable, terrifying extraterrestrial creature ever seen on screen. Now it's part of film history, it's hard to realize how surprising the film must have been at the time, sitting down in the theater, and not knowing that Sigourney Weaver would turn out to be the lead, or exactly what happens in that dinner scene. But even if years of homages, rip-offs and shoddy sequels have lessened the impact, it still retains its power to terrify. [A+]

"Thelma and Louise"
On a recent BBC radio interview, frequent collaborator Russell Crowe said that Scott made the "first post-feminist action picture" with 1991's "Thelma and Louise." We're not sure about the whole "post-feminist" bit (feminism is still going on, after all). Scott did do a whole lot with this lean, beautifully shot and briskly paced (even at 129 minutes) road movie. Beyond a couple of absolutely riveting star turns by Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon and some nicely feminist subtext, the film also marked the big time debut of Brad Pitt. Most of Scott's most compelling work ("Blade Runner") involves the creation of an invented universe. Here, he was merely content on capturing a feeling — of isolation, entrapment, and freedom. And he did it amazingly. [A-]

"1492: Conquest Of Paradise"
After the genre exercise of "Black Rain" and the aforementioned post-feminist action picture, Scott returned to his familiar world of spectacle with the "1492: Conquest Of Paradise." The international cast was led by Gerard Depardieu, which quickly became one of many stumbling blocks for the film and indicative of the production as a whole. The actor, wonderful in his native French films, seemed lost here trying to work with English dialogue. The film, all pomp and circumstance and brimming with its of sense of self-importance was well-meaning, but ultimately limp and forgettable. While Scott did manage some of his trademark razzle dazzle it wasn't enough to save the film that didn't even have substance enough to fill up the costumes worn by its well-attired cast. [C]

"Gladiator"
This is one that continues to baffle us a little. Certainly not bad by any stretch, it's hard to believe that back in 2000, this was an outright phenomenon, becoming a box office sensation, making a star out of Russell Crowe and earning a number of Academy Award nominations and wins including Best Picture. Looking back on it now, it's an impressive and accomplished piece of entertainment but hardly the stuff of a Best Picture winner (though, they usually never are). That said, there is something to be said about the power of the film and Scott's filmmaking prowess that can still draw us in, and make us watch it to the end even during the most casual of channel surfing sessions. [B]

As for "The Duellists" (1977), "Someone To Watch Over Me" (1987) and "White Squall" (1996), collectively none of us had seen any of them in such a long time it felt unfair to encapsulate them [ed. and I remember simply falling asleep to "White Squall" on DVD back in the day], but their Rotten Tomatoes scores are 100%, 82% and 62% respectively, though those numbers do feel a little overinflated. So we basically land where we set out: Scott's one of our most skilled cinematic artisans, but after the reevaluation of his work, it's a real possibility that he may never see a Directing Academy Award, unless it's a lifetime achievement award (he's been nominated three times, and never won). It's the lack of heart and soul in his films that is his Achilles' heel; and most of his films fall apart in the last act, leaving the viewer cold to the preceding hours of technical grandiosity. Though he's considered a modern auteur by many, upon a closer look, Ridley Scott might just be overrated.
— Oliver Lytellton, Gabe Toro, Drew Taylor, Alish Erman, Ben Webster, Kevin Jagernauth


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