The Essentials: The 5 Best Tony Scott Films

Features
by Oliver Lyttelton
August 20, 2012 11:59 AM
11 Comments
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"Crimson Tide” (1995)

Yes, "Crimson Tide" is a Tony Scott film, very much so. But it may be remembered these days, at least to the obsessive film geeks of the world, for the contributions of uncredited co-writer Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino, a longtime Scott fan, was called in to punch up the dialogue after "True Romance" on this certifiably great submarine thriller that pits Denzel Washington against the power-mad captain played by Gene Hackman. The portions that bear Tarantino's mark might as well be highlighted in blinking neon lights: an early scene in the film where the various crew members talk about their favorite submarine movies (in a wonderful bit of meta-textual knowingness); a discussion about which version of the Silver Surfer is better; and Hackman rattling on endlessly about different breeds of horses, a speech which has the flow of the famous "Sicilian" speech in the pair's earlier collaboration. But Tarantino's contributions are ultimately cosmetic, because even without them, "Crimson Tide" is a gripping, taut thriller, with the highest stakes imaginable. Scott choreographs the suspense sequences brilliantly (aided by claustrophobic cinematography by Dariusz Wolski), and emphasizes that the close-knit camaraderie that forms underneath the ocean can just as quickly curdle into something quite dangerous. It's also worth noting Scott's often unheralded genius at casting. Tucked beneath and around the cramped submarine sets are actors like James Gandolfini, Viggo Mortensen, Steve Zahn, and Ryan Phillippe, although the film's anchored by two titanic, stubborn bull movie star performances by Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman, and Scott is careful not to let us sympathize too heavily with one or the other. How come we don't get grown-up mainstream entertainment as smart and gripping as this anymore?

"Spy Game” (2001)

What might be considered Tony Scott's last "straight" movie (read: not batshit), and perhaps his most underrated, "Spy Game" is an unbelievably compelling tale of a retiring CIA Agent (Robert Redford) who has to use every trick in his not-inconsiderable playbook to successfully free an imprisoned agent (Brad Pitt) who also happens to be his protégé and close friend. Oh, and all of this on his last day of work. Nobody does the "ticking clock" quite like Scott, who installs not only a dramatic freeze frame but also a time stamp that practically smashes the screen apart. It's a fitting stylistic flourish, though, for a picture that's all about time: the film shifts back and forth, liberally, from the modern day stuff with Redford running around his high tech office trying to make amends, cash in every favor he's collected, and block his superiors' boneheaded attempts at diplomacy, to various immaculately production-designed sequences of Pitt and Redford throughout their career (Vietnam, Cold War, etc). It's in these flashback sequences that Scott really shines, tasked with the double duty of creating captivating suspense set pieces while also delivering important character beats, and he pulls it off marvelously. It's a quieter, lower-key kind of picture than the kind of one he normally made, more John Le Carre than James Bond, and a celebration of old-fashioned spy craft and values. Redford gives his last great performance to date (and probably his best since "The Natural," crafty and playful), while Pitt, long his natural heir, is brash and charismatic, and the supporting cast is stuffed with interesting character actors, from Stephen Dillane and Marianne Jean-Baptiste to Charlotte Rampling and David Hemmings. It was a little languid to become a runaway hit on release, but years of airing on TV have seen it's reputation restored somewhat.

"Unstoppable" (2010)

Scott's last few movies saw him experiment more and more with filters, shutter speed and a generally visceral approach that's been much copied, but rarely matched. It was impressive in "Man On Fire," totally bonkers in "Domino" and distracting in "The Taking Of Pelham 123." But it was his second runaway train movie in two years, "Unstoppable," that he finally found the perfect synthesis, a film where the style helped the material, and yet also an extraordinarily entertaining action-thriller that's one of the most entertaining films the director ever made. An exhilarating experience, and his best film in nearly a decade, "Unstoppable" is a rare actioner without a villain; the only evildoer is human error and a faceless train that’s rolling out of control ("A missile the size of the Chrysler Building," in the words of Rosario Dawson's character) and threatening to decimate a rather big and populated town. Other advantages include over-the-top Fox News reports, oily corporate assholes making margin-loss based decisions, and goofball, inept track workers who precipitate this entire mess. Usually these plot devices in Tony Scott films are black-and-white and make your eyes roll because they’re so forced. Here, they’re a form of delightful comedy and often so ridiculous, they’re a good laugh. Of course, the only two who can stop it are being-out-to-pasture engineer Denzel Washington (his fifth and final collaboration with Scott), and cocky rookie Chris Pine, two highly charismatic leads happy to take the back seat to a runaway train.  Big, dumb, thrilling fun -- plus simply just genuinely nail-biting and intense -- “Unstoppable” is an undeniably enjoyable film, the disaster movie done right. Sadly, it was Scott's last film, as it turned out, but given that the film closes on the sound of applause, a somewhat fitting one.

BONUS - WATCH NOW
"Beat the Devil” (2002)

Tony Scott’s late-career, ultra-impressionistic style took root with the gloriously hyperactive “Beat the Devil,” his contribution to the BMW film series, “The Hire,” which was a series of extended BMW commercials in the guise of slick and exciting short films with serious Hollywood pedigree. The talent in front of and behind the camera on “The Hire” series was staggering. Directors included John Woo, Wong Kar-Wai, Joe Carnahan, Ang Lee, Alejandro González Iñárritu, Guy Ritchie, John Frankenheimer and Scott, with an acting lineup featuring the likes of Don Cheadle, Mickey Rourke, Madonna, Stellan Skarsgård, F. Murray Abraham, Ray Liotta, Dennis Haysbert, Maury Chaykin, and Marilyn Manson. And for those of us who hoped to see Clive Owen as the next James Bond, we’ll always have this series of shorts, where he plays the nameless Driver, an expert behind the wheel (always a BMW, naturally) who is tasked with various life-threatening missions with differing degrees of difficulty. The one linking thread between the different films, Owen brought a manly command to the lead role that helped solidify the entire series. “Beat the Devil” is the most out-right entertaining film of the bunch, and it’s the one that seems to be having the most fun. It centers on the idea that James Brown (who played himself), back in his youth, sold his soul to the Devil (a hysterical Gary Oldman in make-up and costume that has to be seen to be believed) in exchange for the chance to have a legendary career. But now that the rocker is getting old, he wants to renegotiate the terms of his deal so he can go back to being young, so he suggests that his Driver (Owen) will race Lucifer’s driver, Bob (Danny Trejo), from the Vegas strip out into the desert. Winner takes all. For roughly 10 minutes, Tony Scott makes cinematic rock ‘n' roll love to his camera -- every image is cranked, every sound effect is juiced, every edit is sharp as a tack. His fragmented, cubist style that would be seen in future efforts like “Man on Fire” and “Domino” was being first experimented with here (overlapping subtitles, a washed out and desaturated color scheme, staccato editing patterns and skewed camera angles). “Beat the Devil” exists primarily as a sensory blast but it’s also got a great sense of humor (probably the best out of any short in the series) which is why it’s one of our favorites.

- Drew Taylor, Mark Zhuravsky, Erik McLanahan, Oliver Lyttelton

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11 Comments

  • 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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