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.



GUEST POST: The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

There are few, if any, straddlers on the Wes Anderson Fence.  People either love his work and celebrate his relentless attention to detail and characters or they loathe him for what usually amounts to superficial reasons (‘That stupid font!’ they cry.  ‘Oh, another slow-motion sequence set to a song from the ‘60s’ they moan).  But, whether you adore or despise him, there is no mistaking that Anderson is a director in the truest sense because his films are unmistakably his, a feat easier said than done.  It’s apparent that every frame of his movies are painstakingly prepared for, obsessed about, and executed to match his vision.  How many other directors working today can you say that about?*

I, like the fine editors of this website, love Wes Anderson.  The Royal Tenenbaums is a movie I’ve watched countless times, a cinematic comfort food for my brain.  I’m normally terrible at remembering quotes from shows and movies but I have vast chunks of dialogue from RT safely lodged upstairs for instant recall.

RT opens with Alec Baldwin providing the voiceover for a faux book by the same name.  Here we learn about the ‘family of geniuses’ when they were at their apex, growing up at the house on Archer Avenue**.   In a sprawling, 15-minute montage that opens the film we meet the children – Chas, the business genius, Richie, the tennis savant, and Margot, the budding playwright (shown as ‘grown-ups’ as Ben Stiller, Luke Wilson and Gwyneth Paltrow, respectively).  And, naturally, we meet Royal (Gene Hackman), who makes an immediate impact as the aloof patriarch who would put his foot in his mouth if he was conscious of just how unintentionally offensive he could be (he introduces his daughter as ‘This is my adopted daughter, Margot’ without fail; he chuckles after shooting Chas with a BB gun in an act of backyard treason).  The dream cast is rounded out by: Anjelica Huston as Etheline, Royal’s wife by title only; Danny Glover as soft-spoken accountant and bullshit-sniffer Henry Sherman; Bill Murray, donning a Freudian beard and eyeglasses as Margot’s psychologist husband Raleigh St. Clair; and Owen Wilson (who co-wrote the film) as pseudo-intellectual hanger-on Eli Cash.

And that’s one of the great commonalities in all Wes Anderson films: a wide cast of characters who are simultaneously ridiculous and yet totally relatable.  In the kids, we’re shown the promise of youth; as adults, expectations left unfulfilled.  Eli Cash (co-writer Owen Wilson), the drug-addled friend from across the street who “always wanted to be a Tenenbaum” is jealousy/approval-seeking personified.  Who, as a kid, hasn’t wanted to join another family?***  Royal, a man who just wants to put a nice bow on a life where he misplayed a number of hands, is man’s want for redemption and closure.

The plot finds the entire family back under one roof in a perfect storm of circumstance; Chas is worried about the safety of his sons, Ari and Uzi, an extension of his grief over losing his wife the previous year.  Margot’s severe writers block can’t be salvaged by secretly chain-smoking in the bathtub anymore and needs to recharge.  And Richie, who post-tennis has traversed the world trying to get over his (adopted!) sister, decides to come home as well.

Meanwhile, Royal gets kicked out of the hotel where he has taken up residence for not paying his bill and decides that the only way to get his family back is to fake having stomach cancer.  True to his character, Royal’s intentions are both well-meaning and ulterior; he wants to make things right with his family only because it conveniently coincides with his eviction.  When he’s found out to be a faker, the family is not so much mad or disappointed as they are mildly unsurprised; it’s just Royal being Royal.  It’s only after Richie attempts suicide (forever making Elliott Smith’s ‘Needle In the Hay’ one of the most depressing songs ever since it foreshadowed Smith’s own suicide…. and yes, this is still a comedy) that a switch is really flipped in Royal.   That’s what makes RT  my favorite Wes Anderson movie (a Sophie’s Choice on steroids if there ever was one): seeing Royal finally figuring things out by the movie’s end is proof that an old dog can learn new tricks, but they might take a whole lot of practice to get right.

– Baron

*Here, in the cowardly confines of the footnotes, I’ll make a confession – the first time I saw Rushmore I didn’t ‘get’ it.  I was also a dumb college freshman whose horizons were about as broad as dental floss, still a few years off from realizing there was more to cinema than what the Blockbuster New Releases section had to offer.  Not to mention that so much of really appreciating movies is circumstantial.  The when/where/who with can really effect your perception, especially when your brain is still in kind of an embryonic state.  So maybe half-watching it in a stuffy dorm room was not my best introduction to old Wesley.  Watching it again a few years later I felt ridiculous for not having embraced it immediately, the same way someone who voted for Ralph Nader might feel.

**The Royal Tenenbaums takes place in a weird, timeless Manhattan (save for the tombstones in the cemetery, which let you know that this takes place in the early 2000’s… though everything else in the film would lead you to believe its the 80’s.  That could just be due to the Tenenbaum childrens’ clothing choices [Chas’s Adidas jumpsuits, Richie’s Bjorn Borg-inspired outfits] as an outlet for their arrested development).  The Tenenbaums’ house on ‘Archer Avenue’ (of which there is one in Queens) is actually on 144th Street in Harlem.  Royal recoups after being kicked out of the house at the 375th Street YMCA (no such thing).  Even the shot in Battery Park where Pagoda (the ultimate wingman, if not for the whole stabbing thing) is telling Royal about Mr. Sherman’s proposal to Etheline was done so that he would block the Statue of Liberty (see below).

*** Particularly when you get a narrow glimpse of what it’s like in someone else’s house, where dysfunction is stowed away just enough to make you question your own family’s normalcy (when, it turns out, everyone is a little nuts in the end).

Baron is an editor at the sister website, Music’s Okay (I Guess). Click on the hyperlink to read his thoughts on all things music.