Adventures In Celluloid

Film critic Dominic Corry celebrates, clarifies and justifies his love for all things film.

Dominic Corry: The genius of Tony Scott

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Tony Scott talks to actor Denzel Washington while filming his 2004 movie Man on Fire. Photo / 20th Century Fox
Tony Scott talks to actor Denzel Washington while filming his 2004 movie Man on Fire. Photo / 20th Century Fox

Every now and then, the death of a famous person really hits me in the gut. Past examples include Phil Hartman, Walter Matthau, Alan J Pakula and Michael Jackson.

Such was the case earlier this week when news emerged that director Tony Scott had taken his own life.

His work brought a ridiculous amount of joy into my life, so I thought I'd write a blog post about why I love him so much.

Along with his older brother Ridley, Tony Scott led the charge of commercial directors who invaded Hollywood in the early '80s, bringing with them an unprecedented commitment to stylish visuals and visceral filmmaking.

The younger Scott's devotion to a hyper stylised visual palette was evident in his debut feature, the 1983 lesbian vampire drama The Hunger, but his style really popped with his follow-up film Top Gun.

For anyone who was a boy in the '80s, Top Gun was the most undeniably awesome military film ever made. We finally had our own gung-ho movie to embrace unreservedly, the way our father's generation revered films like The Great Escape, The Dirty Dozen and Where Eagle's Dare.

Even as maturity made the shameless patriotic fervour that seeps from every frame of Top Gun more apparent, I found it impossible to pull away from my love for the film. It was just so damn cool.

The elements that would come to define Scott's career were all present in Top Gun: Sunset-drenched action scenes; shafts of light poking through dusty shadows; and over-the-top macho posturing and a fetishistic appreciation for shiny hardware. I still love every minute of it.

Scott's aesthetic skills remained in fine form for his Top Gun follow-up Beverly Hills Cop II, and he applied them to a more dramatic story in 1990's underrated Revenge. That same year's Days of Thunder was slick as all heck, but never overcame its 'Top Gun with cars' feel.

Following Days of Thunder, Tony Scott directed the film I will forever hold up as the pinnacle of his career: The Last Boy Scout. A moderate success which went on to become a cult classic, The Last Boy Scout is both the pinnacle and the end point for the '80s action movie.

Bruce Willis has never been better as a quip-spouting, self-aware private dick who teams up with a disgraced NFL player - played by Damon Wayans - to take on high level political corruption.

The slick ease with which Scott told this story elevates Shane Black's witty script to create a wonderful collision of high-octane shoot outs, endlessly quotable one-liners and off-colour jokes. It was old school bad-assery in a modern context. The ultimate knowing buddy action film. The film deserves to be canonised for the "Touch me again and I'll kill ya" scene alone.

Die Hard director John McTiernan would close the door forever on this kind of action film a couple of years later with Last Action Hero, but Scott deftly navigated himself into '90s relevance by taking on a hot script from an up-and-coming writer/director named Quentin Tarantino.

Unlike The Last Boy Scout, 1993's True Romance took no time in acquiring its cult classic status, and was perfectly timed to ride the crest of the zeitgeist-capturing Tarantino-wave of coolness. This association with Tarantino would lead to something of a shift in the way Scott was perceived by cineastes, who had previously tended to write him off as a studio hack. Tarantino's public lauding of the director's previous work brought about something of a reassessment and lent Scott an edge he hadn't previously enjoyed.

This was enhanced when Tarantino did a script punch-up on Scott's next film, the submarine-set Crimson Tide, which re-engaged the military machismo of Top Gun in a more updated context. It remains an awesomely tense thriller.

Scott's subsequent films - The Fan, Enemy of the State and Spy Game - all possessed the filmmaking mastery the director had become known for, but weren't exactly up there with his best films, impact-wise. By the late '90s, the glossy style he had pioneered had become de rigueur for Hollywood blockbusters, as evoked by heir apparents like Michael Bay (Bad Boys, The Rock, Armageddon), Simon West (Con Air) and Dominic Sena (Kalifornia, Gone In Sixty Seconds, Swordfish).

While Bay infused his early work with endless Scott-isms, the resulting movies proved there was more to what made Tony Scott films work than a bunch of flashy shots. Bay remains the principal purveyor of this kind of filmmaking, but he's never managed to balance visuals and drama with any of the fist-pumping gravitas of Tony Scott films.

And Scott REALLY showed the new school he was still the action boss when 2004's Man on Fire was released. The hardcore kidnapping/revenge thriller was unmistakeably a Tony Scott film, but it possessed a washed-out colour scheme and a hard edge that evoked the grittier crime flicks of the '70s. For the third decade in a row, Scott showed himself to be an innovator in genre cinema.

While 2005's Domino was truly unique, Scott's next few films (Deja Vu, The Taking of Pelham 123) were solid genre efforts from a master of the form. I particularly enjoyed last year's runaway train thriller Unstoppable, which now stands as Scott's final film.

Representing Scott's fifth collaboration with Denzel Washington, Unstoppable is a gimmick-free action thriller with little of the director's visual manipulation, but plenty of his knack for generating big tension. It's definitely worth a rental.

Although he was rarely the recipient of critical acclaim or awards glory, several generations of action film lovers are forever indebted to Tony Scott. Thanks Tony.

* Were you a Tony Scott fan? Favourite Tony Scott film? Favourite Tony Scott moment? Comment below!

Follow Dominic Corry on Twitter.

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