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The Films Of Tony Scott: A Retrospective

The Playlist By The Playlist Staff | The Playlist November 10, 2010 at 7:49AM

One thing we know for certain: Tony Scott is bold to the point of absurdity.
10

"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” 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 “The Hire,” 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 sense of humor out of any of the movies in “The Hire,” which is why it’s one of our favorites. [B+]

"Man on Fire" (2004)
Released in spring 2004, “Man on Fire,” a remake of a Scott Glenn actioner, arrived in the midst of a revenge picture mini-renaissance. Sandwiched between “The Punisher” and “Kill Bill Vol. 2,” Tony Scott’s action movie vocabulary definitely left an impression. At the heart of his experimental phase, “Man on Fire” mangles and rearranges a standard direct-to-DVD plot about a disillusioned mercenary forced to take up arms against crooked kidnappers in the hellhole of Mexico City. With local law enforcement useless, Denzel Washington becomes the modern Mandingo in a post-9/11 world, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the criminal element to return lilywhite Dakota Fanning to Radha Mitchell in spite of her crooked Hispanic husband Marc Anthony. Scott’s belligerent editing and action movie vocabulary suffers at the hands of a traditional revenge narrative, one that feels the need to spend a good half hour of Denzel’s Good Negro befriending the diminutive Fanning, but opts for restraint in obscuring the visual of Mickey Rourke beheaded by a samurai sword. Oooh, too harsh? Maybe, but the film’s queasy, deeply questionable racial politics are as much a distraction in the film as Scott’s inept visual blitzkrieg. [D]

"Domino” (2005)
Perhaps the apogee of Tony Scott’s off-the-rails-ness and perhaps the closest thing he has ever made to Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers,” "Domino " is either the height of cinema or the the near willful destruction of it, depending on your point of view. Loathed by most, and adored by a select few (including one of our writers here, who we had to pin down and not let write this review), perhaps another reason it’s completely absurd is that it’s written by filmmaker Richard Kelly (“Southland Tales,” “The Box”), who now seems incapable of making a coherent film (and indeed, who took the magic right out of “Donnie Darko,” and perhaps revealed himself to be a charlatan with the release of the far-worse TMI director’s cut). Onto the film itself, which has an early post-career rehabilitiation performance by Mickey Rourke and is wise enough to utilize the great Edgar Ramirez pre-"Carlos.” It also makes a poor decision in casting Keira Knightley as the lead, a supposed-to-be-tough bounty hunter. More importantly, the film has cinematic autism/dyslexia and basically barfs up every piece of film technique grammar known to man on the screen, with a particular fondness for green/yellow filters, for no apparent reason. Visually, it’s a mess and it feels like an ADD nightmare come to life: just too much damn style (you’ll see the reverse argument herein somewhere). Kudos to some of the too-ridiculous-it's-funny comedy, including the “90210” and DeVry institute references, plus Mo’Nique who is just pretty damn hysterical in her non-sequitur cameo about creating new racial profiles (Chi-Negroes is our fave). So some points for just batshit lunacy, but otherwise, kind of one of the worst films ever made... and the most brilliant. [D]

"Déjà Vu” (2006)
Tony Scott's kicky time-travel thriller seemed doomed from the outset: originally set to film in and around New Orleans, Katrina struck and all but shattered those plans. Eventually, the film regrouped and the city rallied to have filming return to the bayou city, with frequent collaborator Denzel Washington playing an investigator who gets involved in high-tech surveillance (and later, with dubious scientific backing, time travel) to stop a terrorist from blowing up a tourist-filled ferry. Of course, the drama didn't stop after the film was completed and released, with both credited writers taking to the Internet and badmouthing the director, saying that he was less interested in plot cohesion than he was in getting the detonation details just right. To which we say: duh. Scott, working from a similarly wiry, conspiratorial place as "Enemy of the State," does a great job creating a sense of working class sci-fi, in which a bunch of dudes sit around a room and dream this shit up. Of course, his stylistic embellishments are even more pronounced in the playing field of science fiction, the greatest example of which is a car chase that takes place across two dimensions at the same time. There's also a kind of perverse genius in casting Jim Caviezel, the artist formerly known as Jesus, as a deranged terrorist killer. But unlike the disgruntled screenwriters, we think that the film's ambiguities and loopholes make for compelling speculation and post-film discussion. "Déjà Vu" may not be as tight as it could have been, but it is just as fun. [B]

This article is related to: Films, Feature, Tony Scott, Retrospective, Features


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