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The Essentials: The 5 Best Tony Scott Films

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist August 20, 2012 at 11:59AM

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.
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Crimson Tide
"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
"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
"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
"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

This article is related to: Tony Scott, Features, The Essentials


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