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

Advertisements

Who Can Kill a Child? (1976)

I had never heard of director Narciso Ibáñez Serrador until I read an interview with director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead) sometime late last year in which he discussed some of his own personal favorites when it came to the horror genre. The title of the movie in question didn’t ring any bells either, which was somewhat unexpected given the amount of love he heaped on it; I wondered how I never heard of it, primarily since I had been exploring horror films heavily over the last year.  A quick online search showed that Who Can Kill a Child?  had been next to impossible to locate in the States until a DVD was released via Dark Sky Films back in 2007. Further research showed that the film had distribution issues in other countries outside of my own; apparently, it took close to 40 years for the film to get a proper release in the United Kingdom, and when it finally came out, the movie had various titles, ranging from Island of the Damned to Would You Kill a Child?, oftentimes with its content heavily edited.  Soon thereafter, I brought the film up to the resident horror expert here at Film’s Okay (I Guess), Adam Baldwin, and had a conversation sprinkled with laudatory comments seemingly confirming the greatness of the cult title, and making it abundantly clear that I needed to track the film down and watch it.

Let me go ahead and get this out of the way: Who Can Kill a Child? is not for everyone. If the title scares you a little, I can promise you that the unpleasantness the namesake brings you is only a tiny fraction of what you will come to endure in its 1 hour and 51 minute runtime. Any doubt that the film isn’t for the faint of heart or weak of stomach is laid to rest during the opening credits as the director treats his audience to 8 long, horrifying minutes of newsreel footage from around the world, documenting historical events in which children suffered greatly due to the hubris of adults.  Juvenile victims are shown from the Korean and India-Pakistan wars—areas where napalm scars and malnutrition are commonplace—hell, even Auschwitz makes an appearance, with bulldozers filling holes in the earth with human remains. When friends or acquaintances ask me how I can watch violent films, oftentimes I reply by saying  that I know what I am viewing is fake, which allows me to distance myself from the images I’m taking in. No matter how gruesome the action gets, I always know that the blood is from a squib, or sadly, in this day and age, a terribly rendered computer effect. Conversely, I can’t bring myself to watch those shows on the Discovery channel that show people being operated on. That’s too real and the sight of someone cutting flesh—even for medical purposes—makes me cringe and walk out of the room in a rapid fashion. I tell you this so you have some idea of how hard this opening was for me to watch; most of the time, I had to focus on the credits, never before had I been more interested in who the executive producers on a film were. That being said, the opening is tremendously effective, especially when taking into account the soundtrack accompanying the images is nothing more than children laughing and playing, unquestionably the most haunted lullaby to ever hit this set of eardrums. The tone had been set; would the movie be able to live up to it?

Tom (Lewis Fiander) and Evelyn (Prunella Ransome) are a likeable English couple that decides to take a vacation in Spain—she is 6 months pregnant with their third child and he is a professor of biology. The pair have come to the town of Benivas in hopes to rent a boat and set out for the island of Almanzora for some much needed R&R. Their destination is remote—its 4 hours by boat—a paradise where beaches are free of the sea of bodies that greeted them in Benivas. Most tourists choose not to visit the island, making it a popular choice for duo like Tom and Evelyn, wishing to take part in a secluded getaway. On their approach, the island appears to be practically deserted; only children are seen, laughing and playing on the docks, but it becomes apparent that they are on edge when they see the couple exit their boat. Tom, having been to the island before, remembers that most of the town goes to the other side of the island around this time of year to participate in a fiesta, so they assume nothing is amiss, choosing to ignore the mischievous smiles and, in some cases, icy stares from the children.  Once they make their way to the interior of the town, the husband and wife find not only the stores and hotels empty, but the streets as well. Suspicions begin to rise and are confirmed minutes later when they witness a heinous and violent act perpetrated by a young girl when she mercilessly beats an old man with his own walking stick. Panic begins to set it. With the entry point to the island blocked off by demonic children, the pair must find an alternate route of escape, all the while avoiding kids who wish nothing more than to play their twisted games with them.

What follows their discovery is shocking and unexpected, leading up to a climax that answers the question posed in the film’s title without wimping out one iota. Serrador takes the “killer kid” genre—one that typical is weighed down by cheese—and plays the situation straight, eliminating the guilty pleasure aspect typically associated with this style of film, helping it stand along side The Omen and Eden Lake as the best this cinema niche has to offer. It tackles its chosen theme head-on and examines the morality of defending oneself against children in a violent manner. It should come as no surprise, but several characters remain unable or unwilling to raise their arms in a manner that would hurt or kill a child, even if the child in question is coming at them with a sharp pointy object and their lives are, without a doubt, in mortal danger. And this is what makes the movie work; after all, this is something that most good (maybe even bad—even the most hardened of criminals mention a certain code they live by, and harming kids is a regular tenant) citizens can relate to, few of us would ever wish to hurt a kid, no matter the circumstance. This helps to make the climax of Serrador’s film all the more chilling, heightened by the fact that the audience never gets an explanation as to why the children started to behave in such a fashion in the first place, it’s all left up to our imaginations. Much like Hitchcock’s The Birds or Romero’s Night of the Dead, Who Can Kill a Child? stands as a benchmark in the unexplained horror genre.

Technically speaking, Who Can Kill a Child? is extraordinary. The pacing of the film may turn some viewers off, but those who are patient will be rewarded by a film that knows which strings to pull when, creating a slow build in tension that becomes almost unbearable. The performances are top notch all across the board. The actors look uncomfortably hot throughout, sweating profusely under the hot Mediterranean sun, and the cinematography from José Luis Alcaine (Pedro Almodóvar’s regular DP) is beautiful and captures the sun-drenched Spanish locales in a way that enhances the isolation the characters feel and the script calls for. Serrador made the wise decision to shoot the film on location using all natural lighting, helping to turn his film into a memorable daylight horror effort as well. The movie itself still feels modern outside of a few dated fashion choices and the technology on the island, while archaic, fits since most of the story takes place in a corner of the world that would certainly be behind the times when it comes to modern conveniences.

Serrador made only one other horror film, La Residencia, a.k.a. The House that Screamed, which is also reported to be fantastic. I suppose I will need to track that one down now as the cinematic voice on display in Who Can Kill a Child? is impressive and warrants further investigation into the director’s filmography. This underseen gem is (at long last) starting to bust through the cinema underground with famous directors such as Eli Roth, Quentin Tarantino, Alfonso Cuarón, and Guillermo Del Toro singing its praises whenever they get the chance. A shattering exercise in tension, Serrador’s uncompromising effort stands as one of the best horror films of the ‘70s, not an easy list to crack. Here’s to hoping it finally gets the recognition it deserves.

-David