How else to explain how Tony (once thought of as a slicker, more sensationalistic version of his older brother and producing partner Ridley) went from being the go-to guy for straightforward, big budget pop entertainments, to someone who, while still playing in the same, mega-canvas studio scale, has created works of increasing weirdness. He started out as a filmmaker whose sole intent was to pump up the volume, max out the sizzle, and drape all of his actors in fabulous clothes. These days, he boldly and fearlessly experiments, creating multiplex fare that is disorienting, abrasive and occasionally, genuinely cutting-edge. Unlike his more critically revered brother, Tony isn't keen on creating imagined worlds, instead preferring to investigate, very much, the here and now. There's an immediacy to his films that you can practically feel, a rawness that betrays the obvious stylization that goes into crafting each arty frame. Tony seems to bring out the craziness in his collaborators too (John Travolta used the word "bunghole," an expression last heard on "Beavis and Butthead," in last summer's "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3"), and his entire creative operation seems fast and loose, hung together by raw enthusiasm and a willingness to test technical and artistic bounds, no matter how fucking outrageous it may seem.
So, on the eve of "Unstoppable," his second runaway train movie with Denzel Washington in two years (who would even attempt such a thing?), we look back at the filmmaker who, while not always succeeding, certainly knows how to push things in some very extreme directions.
"The Hunger" (1983)
While today’s Tony Scott may have reached the decadent apex of his visual output with “Domino,” and has scaled back somewhat in recent years, the Scott of 1983’s "The Hunger” was more than a counterpart to his brother Ridley, but 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 is too strange, too dark and burdened with a vexing finale. 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. [B+]
"Top Gun” (1986)
At this point in our culture, it’s impossible to discuss "Top Gun" with any amount of clear-eyed objectivity. The film is a milestone for all of its key contributors. For director Tony Scott, it’s his early-career masterpiece (it’s also the film that got him out of director jail after his debut, "The Hunger”). For producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, it was the movie that truly solidified them as the uber-producers of the 1980’s. And for star Tom Cruise, it was his first runaway blockbuster sensation, his first taste of global superstardom, and the film that made him a household name. “Top Gun” is a product of its time in a way that so few films can claim to be. Released in the summer of 1986, the film played on the still-lingering fears of war with the Soviets and carried a rah-rah, jingoistic spirit that seems laughable nowadays but probably felt very honest at the time of release. It feels pointless to rehash the plot of “Top Gun” – anybody with a pulse has seen it and knows all about Maverick, Goose, Iceman, Jester, Charlie and the rest of the crew. Sure, the scenes on the ground pale in comparison to the ones up in the air (Jeff Kimball’s gorgeous cinematography is still a lesson in perfection) and most of the dialogue is cheesily pedestrian. But that’s not the point of “Top Gun.” The film is all about machismo and how men deal with expectations, loss, tragedy, acceptance and success. Those classic scenes in the shower (or during a particular game of beach volleyball) seem homoerotic in hindsight (and maybe they did upon first glance…), but what they’re really about is men trying to one up each other, trying to figure out how to best your opponent, and always remembering that there are no points for second place. To say that “Top Gun” is one the manliest movies ever made would be understatement; you can practically smell the testosterone. That’s what’s so fun about it. And when you add in the ridiculously quotable one-liners (who knew that rubber dog shit originates from Hong Kong?) and the high-flying airborne camerawork (still unmatched to this day), then it’s no wonder that the film plays every single weekend on TNT and has become one of the most influential and iconic movies ever made. And if you’re not a fan of “Top Gun,” then just remember, the plaque for the alternates is in the ladies' room. [A]
"Beverly Hills Cop II" (1987)
The first "Beverly Hills Cop," directed by Martin Brest and starring a sensational Eddie Murphy, was a comedy with slivers of action, while the sequel, directed with muscular intensity by Mr. Scott, feels much more like an action movie sprinkled lightly with comedic elements. A lot of the movie feels familiar (the original script was set overseas but Murphy didn't want to travel) and rushed (it was on an unfathomably tight release schedule), but the movie has some wonderful, utterly Scott-ian stylistic tics. Take, for instance, the cramped Detroit police station with its neverending battery of fans (he loves things to be moving in the background) and lighting that seems to cut through a small cluster of indoor cumulonimbus clouds (the man loves to smoke up a room). Also, in the final showdown Murphy has with the assorted villains, Scott chose to stage the thing in a kind of open warehouse, which in his hands feels more like a charnel house with gauzy strips of fabric hanging from the ceiling. It's a bizarre, eerie, otherworldly set and one that only Scott could have plopped into a movie called "Beverly Hills Cop II" and made work. What's most interesting about the movie, though, could be the collision of styles between Murphy and Scott: you can tell that every sequence, every shot, was tightly controlled by the director while the star wanted nothing more than to endlessly riff. Somehow, it works, and makes for the most compelling entry in the franchise. [B+]
A bleak, violent, sexy-as-hell thriller, "Revenge" is one of Tony Scott's true masterpieces. Since "Revenge" has a number of truly surprising twists and turns, we're going to go light on the plot specifics, but will say that Kevin Costner is an ex-aviator who goes to Mexico at the request of his old friend (played by Anthony Quinn, with his "menace-o-meter" turned up to 11). Said friend has a young wife (Madeleine Stowe) who Costner just cannot resist. What follows is a brutal revenge tale that feels, in many superficial and spiritual ways, like Scott's lone Western. Scott has an unflinching eye when it comes to both sexuality and violence, which turned off a lot of viewers when it was initially released (and befuddled the film's producers). In the years since, Scott has constructed a more streamlined "director's cut" for home video, which, surprisingly, comes in at about 20 minutes shorter than the theatrical exhibition. There are a number of reasons to watch and adore "Revenge," from Costner's conflicted performance to Jack Nitzsche's score and the sun-bleached cinematography from Jeffrey Kimball. "Revenge" is Tony Scott's most mournful and humane story, a film that is stylistically admirable but, above all else, emotionally engaging. The fearlessness with which Scott stages the film's finale will leave you breathless; an unheralded masterwork and the most compelling argument against stuck up cineastes who claim the director is "just some flashy hack." [A-]