Todd McCarthy: How Tony Scott Finally Won Me Over

Tony Scott
Tony Scott
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His death has been shocking, unlike any other of someone of prominence, putting one in mind, as much as anything else, of the climax of his brother's Thelma and Louise. Awful, especially for his family, but nonetheless stone cold sobering even for those of us who knew him only by reputation and through his work.

PHOTOS: Tony Scott's Films: From 'Top Gun' to 'Unstoppable'

Tony Scott's films were never my cup of tea -- until, finally, one very much was. Ever since he burst on the scene three decades ago, Scott was known for shooting the hell out of nearly every sequence to achieve maximum sensation. This aesthetic, which he and his brother Ridley had pushed to new levels in commercials, dovetailed perfectly with the style Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer were pursuing at Paramount in the 1980s, so when Tony and the producers they found each other for Top Gun, it was a perfect testosterone-fueled Hollywood marriage.

From that point on, however, the discussion becomes entirely a matter of taste. For many (it was the biggest-grossing film of 1986), Top Gun was fun, exciting and sexy. For me, it was hollow, phony and dispiriting, subtextually about and by macho guys who'd found something even bigger and more impressive than Ferraris to show off in. Ultimately, the best thing about Top Gun was Quentin Tarantino's hilarious “gay way” analysis of it in the otherwise forgettable 1994 film Sleep With Me.

Having found his commercial niche as a brash, flashy, sometimes vulgar action painter on celluloid, so it went for quite a while for Tony Scott on Beverly Hills Cop II, Days of Thunder, The Last Boy Scout, True Romance (written by Tarantino) and, maybe worst of all, The Fan. Uniformly, these are films that possess flair of a prodigious but particularly narrow sort that precludes the co-existence of any genuine emotion, ideas or substance; all that counts are the facile feelings and impressions generated by the carefully orchestrated combination of images and music.

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Tucked in amongst these projects was Revenge. Jim Harrison's great novella held as much promise for a terse, disturbing, sexy and suspenseful film as anything I had ever read, and it might have lived up to its potential if either John Huston or Walter Hill -- two of the directors who wanted to do it -- had ended up making the film. That Tony Scott so completely missed the opportunities inherent in the text convinced me that he, unlike his brother, actually was averse to material that had any meaning, seriousness or weight to it; when presented with a glorious opportunity, he seemed to nearly go out of his way to thwart its potential.

Thus disenchanted and mostly having avoided Scott's films for some years, I was mildly surprised by how the authentic power and the strength of the performances overshadowed the superfluous stylistic gimmicks in Man on Fire. The Taking of Pelham 123 was OK too, and when you factor in Crimson Tide and, to a lesser extent, Deja Vu, it's clear Scott had a pretty good thing going with Denzel Washington. The actor was never preening, noble or self-serious in the five films they made together, usually just a working-class guy trying to deal with the matters at hand.

Which leads to their final collaboration and what, sadly, was the director's last film, Unstoppable. Given my earlier aversion, I was astonished in 2010 to find myself putting a Tony Scott film on my 10 best list for the year. This Rust Belt thriller had its director's fingerprints all over it: the commitment to extreme action, frenetic cutting, stripped-down dialogue and all the rest. But it was also a great blue-collar action movie with a social critique embedded in its guts; it was about disconnected working-class stiffs living marginal lives on society's sidings, about the barely submerged anger of a neglected underclass. This was the kind of extra dimension that, it seemed to me, always had been lacking from Tony Scott's work, some connection to the real world rather than just silly flyboy stuff and meaningful glances accompanied by this year's pop music hit.

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While successful enough, Unstoppable was not as widely recognized for what it was, even by Scott's usual supporters, as I thought it should be. But even if the film didn't inspire me to reassess the director's earlier work -- I'm not convinced there's any subtext there I missed the first time around -- it did provide a measure of hope that his gritty view of life, and a way to express the nature of human impulses through screen action, would continue to be so naturally and expressively conveyed in his work. Alas, it came too late. But it was a great way to go out.

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