Monday, August 20, 2012
Critic's Take on Action Auteur
from Daily Variety, Aug. 6, 1996
by Michael Dare
It’s hard not to see it as one of the most public displays of sibling rivalry in all of show biz. Ridley and Tony, one a master of the cerebral, one a master of the visceral, both absolute masters of the technical. As children, they must have played games together, gotten in scrapes, challenged each other, and done arts and crafts. The competition between them was inevitable. One makes films that are artsy, one makes films that are crafty.
Despite their equal technical proficiency, the overall philosophy of their films couldn’t be more different: Ridley’s nihilistic and pessimistic outlook is in direct contrast to Tony’s exuberant optimism. Tony couldn’t make a film in which the two main characters end up flying off a cliff any more than Ridley could make a film in which the two main characters end up cavorting on a beach with their baby. One fights for happy endings, the other for sad. Ridley fought hard to prevent “Bladerunner” from being released with an ending that had even the slightest glimmer of hope. He lost, but the film’s cult following enabled him to eventually release a director’s cut with a much more depressing denouncement. Tony fought hard to prevent “True Romance” from being release with an incredibly depressing ending penned by Quentin Tarantino. He won, and the film’s ultra-happy fantasy ending helped elevate the film to cult status.
By the time Tony Scott made his first film, “The Hunger,” (1983) his older brother Ridley had already established himself with “The Duellists” (1977), “Alien” (1979), and “Bladerunner” (1982). Deciding to become a film director with such an older brother is like deciding to become an architect with Frank Lloyd Wright as an older brother. Quite a challenge for anyone to live up to.
“The Hunger” doesn’t seem to fit into Tony’s filmography at all. Watching it is less like watching a movie and more like flipping through a movie. With equal amounts of vampires, lesbians, rock music, and more hip sunglasses than Melrose Ave. on Saturday, it’s as though MTV and Vogue Magazine conspired to remake “Dracula” as soft core porn. Starring Catherine Deneuve, Susan Sarandon, and David Bowie, if your memory of the film consists of more images than plot, your memory is serving you well. “Hollywood hated ‘The Hunger,’” said Scott at the time. “They said it was arty and indulgent, which it was. After that, I couldn’t get arrested. It took me two years to get another movie.”
Luckily, Simpson and Bruckheimer saw his commercial reel and hired him to direct “Top Gun,” which erased all memories of his premiere experimentation in storytelling. Anybody who can’t follow the plot of “Top Gun” is brain dead. A cocky Navy pilot (Tom Cruise) gets sent to a special school to learn dogfighting. After a torrid affair with his flight instructor (Kelly McGillis), he gets to prove himself in a final confrontation with the Russians. Though the plot is standard, the action is superlative. Time Magazine called it “Shamelessly entertaining,” and even Roger Ebert had to admit that “The remarkable achievement in ‘Top Gun’ is that it presents seven or eight aerial encounters that are so well choreographed that we can actually follow them.” The film was an enormous hit, which must have felt good for several reasons. Big brother had just bombed with “Legend,” another seeming sure thing starring Tom Cruise.
Scott continued his lucrative collaboration with Simpson/Bruckheimer with “Beverly Hills Cop II” (1987), another ode to momentum with wall-to-wall action sequences. Though not as funny as the original, it was an enormous commercial success, establishing Scott as one of Hollywood’s premiere action directors.
“Revenge” (1990) starts out as a female fantasy. What woman married to Anthony Quinn wouldn’t consider having an affair with Kevin Costner? Not Madeleine Stowe, who jumps at the chance. Then the film switches sides as Quinn moves in on the lovers, giving the movie it’s well deserved title. With his now trademark stylish photography, an amazing performance by Quinn, and virtually no action sequences, “Revenge” got good reviews but did no business. It was, however, Quentin Tarantino’s favorite film of Scott’s, inciting him later to recommend Scott as a director for his script of “True Romance.”
With “Days of Thunder,” Scott returned to a formula he knew well, the Tom Cruise action flick. Set in the world of stock-car racing, it follows the archetype of “Top Gun” almost exactly. Unjustly maligned at the time for it’s budget and very public behind-the-scenes bickering, it has actually aged quite well. The races are top-notch, and the dialogue by Robert Towne full of surprises.
“The Last Boy Scout” follows the Bruce Willis archetype as strongly as “Days of Thunder” follows the Tom Cruise archetype. Willis is a down and out private detective who teams with Damon Wayons to stop a plot to legalize gambling that somehow involves blowing up a football stadium. Scott integrates the laughs in a much surer way than he did with BHC2, with Taylor Negron as a particular standout among a large crew of villains.
Scott totally hit his stride with “True Romance” (1993). In his quest to perfectly integrate plot and action, it turns out that all he really needed was a script by Quentin Tarantino. Scott took Tarantino’s backwards and sideways script, straightened it out, and gave it a miraculously happy ending that Elvis would have loved.
It’s also the one that got him in the most trouble. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole accused the film, and others, of crossing the line “not just of taste, but of human dignity and decency,” and of threatening to “undermine our character as a nation.” All this because Tony Scott changed the ending. Perhaps if he had gone with Tarantino’s ending, where the hero dies a horrible death, the film wouldn’t have been excoriated as another one of Hollywood’s “nightmares of depravity.”
“True Romance” is in many ways his most satisfying film, due in no small part to the brilliance of Quentin Tarantino’s first script, especially in the treatment of the minor characters. As Tarantino explains, “Clarence and Alabama keep running into all these people, and when they do, the movie becomes the story of the people they meet. When they’re with Clarence’s father, I treat him as though the whole movie is going to be about him. When Vincezo Coccotti, the gangster that Christopher Walken plays, comes in, the whole movie could be about him. The same thing with Drexl, the Gary Oldman characters. But particularly the father. You just figure he’s going to play a central role. Then I rub Dennis Hopper out.”
Next was “Crimson Tide,” (1995) the best submarine movie that Tom Clancy didn’t write. Rolling Stone called it a “powerhouse action thriller acted to hell and back by Denzel Washington as St. Cmdr. Ron Hunter and Gene Hackman as Capt. Frank Ramsey.” It’s an intense, claustrophobic, and very serious version of “Dr. Strangelove” underwater, a monument to testosterone.
Seeing his work as a whole, it’s not just his expertise at action that draws in the male crowds, but his fascinating penchant for creating miraculous fantasy babes. What student pilot hasn’t daydreamed that his flight instructor will not only look like Kelly McGillis, but will actually fall for him? What survivor of a car wreck doesn’t have the fantasy that his doctor will not only look like Nicole Kidman, but will actually fall for him, giving him “a thorough physical examination?” And breathes there a clerk in a comic book store who hasn’t fantasized about meeting a whore with a heart of gold at a kung-fu film who not only looks like Patricia Arquette, but falls for him? As adolescent as these fantasies might seem, the purity of their nonsense cuts right to the male heart, if not a lower organ.
RIP Tony Scott