Last week, the entertainment business was shocked by the news that successful director Tony Scott had committed suicide for reasons that aren’t yet clear. Immediately, cinephiles all over the world began discussing the merits of his work and whether or not he ever emerged from the shadow of his brother and fellow director, Ridley Scott. Your Humble Reviewer’s response was a mixture of shock and sadness: Tony Scott had been his favorite mainstream film director for a long time.
Indeed, there are several Tony Scott films that are big favorites around Schlockmania headquarters. Like many a director of commercial fare, he was at the mercy of how good his current script was but when he got the right material, the results were always impressive. Scott was a fine visual stylist who brought music-video stylization to the Hollywood blockbuster, had a flair for crafting compelling action setpieces and, unlike some of his contemporaries, wasn’t averse to taking chances with offbeat, edgy material.
The following five films represent a highly subjective “best of” list, one that caters to Schlockmania’s preference for the tough and unusual in cinematic entertainment. Though the films listed here weren’t always his most commercially successful, each offers a strong example of the aforementioned qualities that Your Humble Reviewer admired in his work — and each of these titles has its own cult following.
If you find a film on this list that you haven’t seen before, check it out. No one did multiplex fare quite like Tony Scott.
The Hunger (1983): Scott’s directing debut was a commercial flop during its original release but has become a major favorite with vampire film cultists, not to mention a touchstone of goth culture. This adaptation of Whitley Streiber’s vampire novel essentially plays like a chic 1980’s update of the lesbian vampire film trend that was so popular in the 1970’s and boasts a cast that includes Susan Sarandon, Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie and Ann Magnuson. Look out for some stunning makeup effects by Dick Smith and an amazing opening sequence in a post-punk rock club that features Bauhaus performing “Bela Lugosi’s Dead.” It’s also worth noting that one of Scott’s future hits, Beverly Hills Cop 2, ends with a sequence that pays tribute to The Hunger in a big way.
Revenge (1990): using a Jim Thompson novella as source material, Scott helped Kevin Costner — then in the full throes of matinée idol stardom — get in touch with his dark side. Costner plays an ex-Air Force man who goes to Mexico to live the easy life working for a crime boss friend (Anthony Quinn) but ends up falling for his arm candy, played beautifully and soulfully by Madeleine Stowe. When Quinn discovers their betrayal, the second half goes into full-tilt noir/revenge tragedy territory, layered with big helpings of neon sleaze and brutal violence. Scott’s mixture of luscious visuals and hard-hitting pulp storytelling gives this one a queasy kick and as a bonus there are also swell supporting turns from Miguel Ferrer and Sally Kirkland. Legend has it that when Quentin Tarantino found out that Scott was going to direct True Romance, he told his pals “The guy who made Revenge is doing my script!” — if that ain’t a recommendation for Schlockmaniacs, what else is?
The Last Boy Scout (1991): Scott teams up with screenwriter Shane Black and star Bruce Willis to create an action blockbuster that wraps all the gloss of Hollywood around a twisted, violent and strangely heartfelt feat of baroque popcorn-movie storytelling. Willis plays a burnout detective who rediscovers his mojo when he investigates the murder of a client and discovers a crazy conspiracy that involves politics, assassinations and football. Scott and Black inspire each other to go for broke as they push the envelope as much as an early 1990’s action flick will allow, both in terms of story content and style, while Willis provides the cool center that holds all their perverse flights of fancy together. Endlessly quotable, endlessly rewatchable and so much fun you’ll wish Scott and Black had teamed up again.
True Romance (1993): once Quentin Tarantino lit up the arthouse circuit with Reservoir Dogs, Hollywood was knocking itself over to make his older scripts. Scott did the honors with True Romance and it’s easily the best example of another director handling a Tarantino narrative. Christian Slater toplines as a loser who becomes an outlaw hero when he falls for a lovely hooker (Patricia Arquette), rescues her from her pimp and steals his coke stash to finance their future lives together. Of course, it doesn’t work out that easy and the remainder of the story crams in an epic array of dreamers, killers and various lowlifes as it hurtles towards a John Woo-inspired finale. Scott’s sleek visuals and Tarantino’s quirk-shock-pulp style create fireworks and the all-star cast (Dennis Hopper, Christopher Walken, Brad Pitt, etc.) allows Scott to show off his underrated skill with actors. Easily the biggest crowdpleaser on this list and a great example of how Scott could transform edgy material into grand pop-Hollywood filmmaking.
Man On Fire (2004): the only remake on this list is the best vigilante movie Hollywood produced during the 2000’s. Denzel Washington, who starred in more than one Tony Scott flick, toplines as Creasy, a former military man whose cold exterior thaws when he takes a bodyguarding gig for a little rich girl in Mexico. However, things get dark when the girl is kidnapped for a ransom and Creasy takes a scorched-earth approach to getting her back. Like Taken, this film takes time to carefully build the relationship between Washington and Fanning so when the revenge part kicks in, it packs a real punch. Scott is really on top of his visual game in this film, including a dazzling titles sequence depicting how kidnap-ransoms work south of the border and some inventive use/depiction of subtitles. That said, it’s the emotional core of the film that makes it a keeper: scripter Brian Helgeland sets up the film’s key relationship beautifully and Scott gets stellar performances from Washington and Fanning. The end result is as gritty as it is heartfelt, the kind of one-two punch that Scott had an underrated skill for.