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The Essentials: The 5 Best Tony Scott Films

by Oliver Lyttelton
August 20, 2012 11:59 AM
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Tony Scott

Something we've come to appreciate since the terrible news of the passing of director Tony Scott came in this morning, is that there's an argument to be made that almost any one of his films saw him at the top of his game. From debut feature "The Hunger," one of the first movies of the MTV generation, and the era-defining "Top Gun," all the way to the bold formal experimentation of his last four films (some of which, especially the highly divisive "Domino," were derided by many, but have their fervent auteurist supporters as well), his films were always technically impeccable, thrilling and instantly recognizable as a Tony Scott picture. He was the action director as auteur.

Which is not to say that his films were entirely about chase scenes and explosions. Far from it in fact -- he loved actors, and they seemed to love him back. Denzel Washington worked with him five times, Gene Hackman twice in a row, and one only has to look at the depth of talent in his casts to see the kind of talent he attracted on on his pics. Not many filmmakers could lure names like Keira Knightley, Gary Oldman, Kevin Costner, Jon Voight, Barry Pepper, Gabriel Byrne, Jack Black, Philip Baker Hall, Alec Baldwin, Robert Redford, Brad Pitt and more to an action movie, but that's what Scott managed across a number of films.

Sadly, there are no more Tony Scott movies to come, but the director leaves behind a resume of some of the most exciting and influential mainstream movies produced in Hollywood in the last few decades. To mark the director's passing, we wanted to pick out five of our favorites, a task that proved trickier than we first imagined -- as we said, depending on your tastes, an argument could be made for almost any one of his features deserving a place here. You can read about our five picks (and watch one more bonus film) below, and let us know your own favorites in the comments section. And for more, you can check out our 2010 retrospective on the director right here.

The Hunger
"The Hunger" (1983)
When the time came to make his first full feature (a decade after the 60-minute, little seen and somewhat uncharacterstic "Loving Memory") the Scott of 1983’s "The Hunger” was far from a carbon copy of his by-then A-list brother Ridley, but was instead a genuine auteur announcing his entrance. “The Hunger” is a film both assured and ambitious, wringing subtlety and slow-boiling tension out of a shamelessly ridiculous plot involving a vampiric vixen that has persisted since Ancient Egyptian times in the graceful form of Catherine Deneuve, with lover David Bowie (showing off rarely seen, but always appreciated dramatic chops -- this ties with “The Prestige” for his best supporting turn) riding her coattails through the veins of time. When Deneuve’s Miriam Blaylock takes an interest in researcher Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon), Bowie’s John begins a gracelessly rapid descent into advanced age and seeks the help of Roberts, who happens to study premature aging (only in the movies, folks!). Scott keeps a firm handle on his stylistic flourishes, with Stephen Goldblatt's noirish lighting an invaluable assist. “The Hunger” is a vampire film that could just as easily be a study of lust, love, and the waste that either lays on the body. Scott may be accused of almost exploitatively turning up the heat in the infamous lesbian scene between Deneuve and Sarandon, but like the rest of the film, even the juicy bits are handled with the kind of restraint that may have been the director’s trademark had “The Hunger” been a runaway hit. Alas, the film was too strange, too dark and burdened with a vexing finale for that to happen. But, it is also one of the best vampire films ever made, a fable that toes the line between a fairy tale and a blood bath, occasionally (and expertly) mixing both. An assured debut, although an unfortunate box office burn for Scott, “The Hunger” is well deserving of its sizable cult following.

True Romance
"True Romance” (1993)
Gifted Quentin Tarantino’s excellent screenplay for “True Romance,” in many ways his own version of Terrence Malick’s “Badlands” (hammered home by Hans Zimmer riffing on its use of Gassenhauer for the theme), Scott ended up delivering one of the most nuanced, and least hi-octane, works of his career, and perhaps the film that'll prove his most lasting legacy. The pairing of screenwriter and director here (which didn’t work so well for Richard Kelly in “Domino,” unfortunately) is a good fit, with a plethora of memorable characters and dialogue, most notably Brad Pitt’s honey bear bong-smoking pothead and the legendary face off between Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken (“You got me in a vendetta kinda mood”), the single finest scene of the director's career, and some of the most electric acting of the 1990s. The original ending was changed by Scott, and for the better; Clarence (Christian Slater) died in the end of Tarantino’s script, but it goes to show that sometimes a Hollywood happy ending can be the more satisfing and authentic choice to make. It was proof that Scott had the ability to make wise directorial choices, show restraint where needed, and tease out a host of great performances (Slater, Patricia Arquette, Gary Oldman, James Gandolfini, Val Kilmer, all giving enormously entertaining turns).

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  • sedna | February 26, 2013 11:27 PMReply

    Where the FUCK is Man on Fire on that list? Tony's masterpiece

  • JR | August 22, 2012 11:37 AMReply

    True Romance #1 by far. Last Boy Scout REALLY deserves to be on this list as well. Speaking of screenwriter/director pairings, Shane Black and Tony were a match made in heaven on that one.

  • Leonardo | August 21, 2012 4:04 PMReply

    The Last Boy Scout and Man of Fire are among my favorites from him

  • Jong Weddell | August 21, 2012 2:56 PMReply

    Absolutely adore Last Boy Scout, I think it's the ultimate Bruce Willis action pic in terms of attitude and style, even surpassing the Die Hards. The one-liners are better, too. And I enjoyed Domino a hell of a lot. Didn't think it deserved the pasting it got at the time, though, if I recall rightly, Sight and Sound carried a review that was right on the money.
    Once read an interview with him talking about future projects (this was several years ago) and he talked up a film about mercenaries who go around repossessing luxury items owned by drug dealers. Wish that he'd made it, sounded great.

  • Richard313 | August 20, 2012 10:00 PMReply

    Hate to insult cause I really love you guys, but this list reads like it was written by a 24-year-old who's only been watching movies beyond entertainment for 5 yrs or so..
    Trur Romance. Man on fire. Revenge. Beverly Hills Cop two. All flawed in some slight way, but that is just how time affects art. Each of his films is a product of the decade in which they were made, and that fucking rocks.
    He enhanced the genre like very few. And he even shot a smoky room filled with tension better than his brother Ridley...

  • McKenzie | August 20, 2012 1:11 PMReply

    I'm so glad you included "Beat the Devil". It's always been the film I talk about when extolling the virtues of the late Mr. Scott. RIP. You will be missed.

  • cirkusfolk | August 20, 2012 12:57 PMReply

    No Top Gun or Enemy of the State...sad.

  • AS | August 20, 2012 12:44 PMReply

    Man on Fire was easily his best film. R.I.P. Tony.

  • callumq | August 20, 2012 2:37 PM

    Agree that Man on Fire is his best. The visuals, the music, the interaction between Washington's and Fanning's characters are fantastic. One of my favorite action thrillers since I saw it in 2004.

  • Evan | August 20, 2012 12:10 PMReply

    RPI Tony Scott. The Hunger, Top Gun, and True Romance are classics.

  • jimmiescoffee | August 20, 2012 12:08 PMReply

    very, very sad. i like tony's work quite a bit. good write up.

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