R.I.P. Tony Scott (1944-2012)

I woke up this morning to the tragic news of the passing of one of cinema’s biggest filmmakers of the last 30 years and one of my top ten idols in movie making period, the great Tony Scott. Apparently at around 12:30 pm yesterday Mr. Scott jumped off the Vincent Thomas Bridge in the San Pedro port district of Los Angeles, California, rumors speculate he may have been recently diagnosed with an inoperable brain cancer but as of this post no official statement has been made.

The question of why such an iconic filmmaker would take his own life, especially at the age of 68 and still so many films set to come, is hardly an importance. What matters the most is that Tony Scott delivered decades worth of high profile, summer blockbuster, action packed entertainment. His style in the 1980s and his revised look in the early 2000s has inspired a new generation of filmmakers and will be copied for years to come, although never equaled. Reception to his movies has divided critics and moviegoers alike yet Tony Scott has always held an extremely loyal fan base and the success of his last film, 2010’s Unstoppable (including 167 milllion dollars worldwide and a Certified Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes) shows that Scott was still full of surprises.

Tony Scott first hit celluloid at the same time as his older brother, Ridley Scott. At the age of 23, Ridley Scott made his debut with a short film entitled Boy and Bicycle and cast his then 16 year old younger brother Tony in an acting role. When Tony graduated the Royal College of Art he went to work for his brother at the Ridley Scott Associates television commercial production outfit and began a successful career crafting many celebrated British commercials and television specials.

In the late 1970s an invasion of British filmmakers including Hugh Hudson, Alan Parker, Adrian Lyne and Ridley Scott himself swarmed American cinemas with a new look and voice in independent film making. It is at this time that Tony Scott too would begin receiving offers from Hollywood, it is also at this time the Scott family would suffer a major tragedy in the death of their elder brother Frank from cancer. Tony came to Hollywood attracted to the in development adaptation of Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire and subsequently was assigned the studio’s other vampire themed project The Hunger (1983).  The debut film featured an early look at Scott’s signature style and featured performances by David Bowie, Catherine Deneuve and the launching of actor Willem Dafoe. The film was a critical and financial flop but has since gained a big cult following and held the attention of producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer who would approach Tony to direct the seminal 80s blockbuster Top Gun.

Top Gun was released in 1986 to record breaking box-office numbers and launched the summer action movie and its marketing campaign as we see it today. Essentially a 90 minute promo for the U.S. Navy the film made a box-office star out of Tom Cruise and propelled actors like Val Kilmer, Tim Robbins and Meg Ryan into the forefront. Though notoriously cheesy, Top Gun will always remain one of the best, most talked about films of the 80s and its choreography of aerial action has never been topped. Tony Scott’s camera style, editing and color palette would become the quintessential look and tone for 80s and 90s action movies and surely paved the way for such action directors as Kathryn Bigelow, Renny Harlin and Michael Bay. This is most obvious in Tony’s followup to Top Gun, the 1987 sequel Beverly Hills Cop II. Scott’s version of Axel Foley is a tougher, grittier and much harder take than Martin Brest’s predecessor and still holds strong as one of the greatest sequels ever made.

1990 holds the one-two punch of the ever busy Tony Scott, seeing the release of Revenge, a steamy and brutal neo-noir in which an aviator falls for a crime boss’s wife in Mexico and Days of Thunder, in which Scott reteams with Cruise for a Spaghetti western on wheels set in the world of auto racing. Revenge is one of my favorite Tony Scott films and the best Kevin Costner-starrer I’ve ever seen. Days of Thunder is a fantastic sports epic, features star making roles by Nicole Kidman and John C. Reilly and plays like a NASCAR version of Sam Peckinah’s classic Junior Bonner.

Scott and Warner Bros. purchased Shane Black’s follow up script to Lethal Weapon with a record sum of money and thus the phenomenal The Last Boy Scout was born. Featuring a never funnier Bruce Willis in the ultimate portrayal of a hardboiled, badass cop and the greatest ensemble of action movie henchman to ever grace the screen, The Last Boy Scout is an underrated 90s gem. The combination of writer Shane Black’s characters and tongue-in-cheek, knife-in-spleen dialogue with Scott’s slick portrayal of L.A. is the first of many great writer-director collaborations to come.

Quentin Tarantino sold his first feature script True Romance to help fund his own debut Reservoir Dogs and with a great admiration for Revenge and Days of Thunder Tarantino felt completley safe with his very personal script in director Tony Scott’s hands. The result is Tony Scott’s (and by many degree Tarantino’s) masterpiece. I’m dying to write a post on this one as it features my favorite scene, my favorite moment in cinema, of all time. This of course would be the “Sicilian and Moors” conversation between Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken. More on this in an upcoming post. Eggplant!

Scott and Tarantino became such a great pairing that even after winning an Oscar for Pulp Fiction, Tarantino came on to do a final script polish on Scott’s next film Crimson Tide. Tarantino left much of the naval drama and military lingo intact while punching up sequences with his signature dialogue and references from everything from the Silver Surfer to the classic WWII submarine film Run Silent, Run Deep. The 90s blockbuster featured stellar performances from two actors who would become synonymous with Tony Scott films, Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman.

The 1996 film The Fan was a critical and box-office flop starring Robert De Niro as a crazed fan obsessed with a famous baseball player (played by Wesley Snipes) and came at a time when all three parties (Scott, De Niro and Snipes) seemed confused on where their careers should go. While still not good, the movie does hold its share of fine moments and Tony Scott trademarks. Scott was able to bounce back in 1998 with the box-office hit Enemy of the State, an all-star paranoia thriller featuring Will Smith on the run from CIA surveillance and Gene Hackman reprising his signature role in Francis Ford Coppola’s classic The Conversation. Between Enemy of the State and his 2001 film Spy Game starring Robert Redford and Brad Pitt, Scott’s camera movements and editing style would change considerably and create a new way of shooting action set pieces.

Starting with 2004’s Man on Fire, Tony Scott films would feature the signature orange and yellow sunsets and color schemes as before but now with a more frenetic imagery. His films are now filled with quick edits, lens flares, shaky cam, and jump cuts that would detract many cinema lovers, but keeps this viewer visually blown away. The hallucinatory style applied to Man on Fire, 2005’s Domino and 2009’s The Taking of Pelham 123 makes Tony Scott’s films their own unique beast.

He plays with soundtracks more and more and this creates a roller coaster ride of entertainment in each film. When Denzel Washington extracts bloody revenge on the men who kidnapped Dakota Fanning in Man on Fire and Nine Inch Nails blares on the soundtrack as Washington strolls across the street wielding a shotgun is fucking movie bliss. Same goes for the bloody shootout in a trailer park that leads into an ass-kicking, Xzibit soundtracked opening credit sequence in Domino. Or even the opening of Taking of Pelham 123 that intercuts the sounds of Travolta and his gang hijacking a train with the famous Rick Ross beats of Jay-Z’s 99 Problems.

What’s more is that Tony Scott continued to make smart action films in a time when the genre only seemed to be getting dumber. 2010’s Unstoppable is a masterclass in momentum and suspense. Pelham 123 is a smartly scripted remake of a beloved film and Brian Hegleland makes it his own and very original. Man on Fire is one of the coolest revenge movies of the last 20 years and saved Washington’s post-Oscar career from disasters like Out of Time. Domino is sheer, adrenaline fueled mayhem. The only misfire is 2006’s Deja Vu which collapses on its self from flawed, overly complicated time travel logic. Its still a very invigorating visual experience despite its confusing plot.

Now to my dismay there will always be a gaping void in cinema today. A missing piece to the movie going experience. The style and technique that Edgar Wright parodied so lovingly in Hot Fuzz will never be matched. Action movies will rarely be this smart or this much fun ever again. Mr. Scott is up there with Sam Peckinpah, Akira Kurosawa, John Milius, Shane Black and Quentin Tarantino as my action movie idols. I’ve always dreamed of one day writing a screenplay for Tony Scott. Even though he’s no longer with us, I will continue to write screenplays for Tony Scott. Through myself and the rising filmmakers of today, perhaps the legacy of Tony Scott will continue to live on in Hollywood. My condolences to the Scott family, his wife and twin sons, and thank you for the many memories and epic pictures  you’ve given me. Cheers, sir.

-John

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GUEST POST: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)

For me, the genius behind Wes Anderson’s films isn’t the ornate sets and detailed costumes, or the cinematography and beauty of the worlds he creates, or even the underlying themes highlighting the importance and need for family and community and personal connection.  While those are all great things that give his films meaning, relevance, and feeling, what sets them apart, what makes them hilarious, is the silence.  The pauses.  The absence of reaction and drama in dramatic moments. It is what I love the most and what I expect when I see a Wes Anderson film.  Especially one with Bill Murray in a leading role (Bill being the master of deadpan and pausing for effect).

“I’m right on the edge… I don’t know what comes next.” 

-Steve Zissou

And while a pause or outright silence seems simple, it is super rare in TV and movies… someone stopping to think before they say something.  A lack of repartee.  A calm and calculated response. Someone in the crowd asks Steve Zissou (Bill Murray) what the purpose of killing a shark that ate his friend would be, and he pauses, looks at the speaker, and says, “revenge”, without a hint of emotion. Super funny. Oddly honest and heart felt.  The conversations in Anderson’s films, but especially in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, often feel, at least to me, the way most conversations are… often awkward and hilariously painful (at least in my head), with the struggle of how to appropriately respond to the people and events happening around  you being constant.

And that is the struggle that Steve Zissou has throughout the movie…responding and reacting to the insanity that is happening around him… an aging oceanographer/documentary filmmaker who is suddenly introduced to Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson), a young pipe smoking co-pilot for Kentucky Air, and allegedly, Steve’s previously unknown son.  Oh, and Steve’s best friend was just eaten by a giant spotted shark right in front of him, his marriage to Eleanor (Anjelica Huston), who is also the “brains behind Team Zissou”, is falling apart, and he’s broke.  So, that’s a lot of stuff to respond to when you aren’t someone who is good at responding to things (which is a direct quote from a graduate of the Derek Zoolander Center For Children Who Can’t Read Good And Wanna Learn To Do Other Stuff Good Too).  When he first meets Ned and hears for the first time that he might have a son, he simply says, “I’ll be right back”, and walks away to Bowie’s, “Life on Mars” to smoke a joint alone.

But ultimately, the film is about the need to have other people close to you, and the difficulty of overcoming personal flaws to achieve that end.  And it’s about David Bowie songs in Portuguese.  And poorly maintained helicopters.  And silence.

***

Okay… so I’m not the greatest film analyst, and there are a bunch of thoughts that I wanted to mention but that didn’t really fit into my narrative above, so here is just a list of some other things that I love about The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou:

-The music.  First, there is Seu Jorge’s character, safety expert Pele dos Santos , who is continuously playing the aforementioned live acoustic Bowie covers. Then there is the score composed by longtime Anderson collaborator and Devo member Mark Mothersbaugh. And of course there is the climatic finally of the film, which is set to Sigur Ros’ beautiful and intensely building,Staralfur (a track oddly absent from the official soundtrack, despite its significant and memorable role).

– Jeff Goldbum.  He plays Alistair Hennessey, nemesis and ex-husband of Zissou’s wife Eleanor.  Self-described as “half gay”.  His character is one of the best in the movie.

– Costumes.  From the custom vintage Addidas that said ‘Zissou’ above the stripes, to the matching wetsuits, pajamas, speedos, beanies, and Glock handguns, Team Zissou rocks only the finest attire.

– The Belafonte.  A former long-range sub hunter for the Navy, the Belafonte gave Anderson an opportunity to create his smallest and most detailed world yet….crafting an intricate and fascinating mini-universe from a shitty old blue boat.  I want a poster of the cut-through map of the Belafonte when Steve gives the ‘tour’ of the boat.

– The last line of the movie.  “This is an adventure.”  -Steve Zissou

JMG

John-Michael Gillivan is a professional insurancer and amateur Batman from the Midwest who now lives in North Carolina. In his free time, he writes about music, his favorite fruits, and bears over at MusicsOkay.tumblr.com. He owns socks with tiny anchors on them.