Just a few weeks ago, I was making the case for preferring Tony Scott to his brother Ridley Scott. Sure, at the top of Ridley’s filmography you have classics and masterpieces—Blade Runner, Alien—and the divisive but fascinating Prometheus. I even adore his non-sci-fi Matchstick Men. But once you get past those four, what’s left? I’d take any number of Tony Scott pictures any day. I was sorry to hear that he died on Sunday—a suicide, rumored to be brought on by a diagnosis of inoperable cancer—because now a particular sort of Hollywood moviegoing pleasure is lost.
His 30 year feature directing career produced 16 movies. Several of his earliest gigs, like Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop II, were massive hits and helped define slick 80s excess of the Bruckheimer/Simpson school. But for me, Scott’s career took its most interesting turn in the mid-nineties. In 1993, he released True Romance, from a Quentin Tarantino screenplay. It has the distinction of being the only Tarantino script made semi-faithfully without Tarantino involved in some broader capacity. (Oliver Stone, who has some aesthetic overlaps with Scott, turned Natural Born Killers into something else entirely.) It’s also—in large part because of Tarantino’s script, but also because of Scott’s terrific facility with his cast—Tony’s best film. Separated from Tarantino’s own work by Scott’s relentless slickness and an extra sheen of fairy-tale exploitation, True Romance features stand-out work from Christian Slater, Dennis Hopper, Christopher Walken, Patricia Arquette, Gary Oldman, and Brad Pitt. In his earlier films, Scott worked with established stars like Tom Cruise, Eddie Murphy, Kevin Costner, and Bruce Willis. In True Romance, he helped to bestow a bunch of brilliant character actors (and in some cases, future stars) with movie-star magnetism.
Scott’s other big turning point came with his next film, Crimson Tide: it was his first collaboration with Denzel Washington. They’d go on to make five movies together; in recent years, Scott has been more or less in charge of Denzel’s solid, dependable genre work, and some of his best movie-star performances. I know that Man on Fire has its fans, with its Denzel Washington fury, Walken scene-stealing, and Scott’s ultra-stylized, MTV-cut, crazy-subtitle aesthetic pushed to its limits (well, at least until he followed it up with the even crazier Domino, sans Washington—a movie I couldn’t help but admire despite its being a hot-mess). But I have a soft spot for the time-travel thriller Deja Vu, which dials down some of Scott’s abstractions into a sort of classical trippiness, and the entertaining crowd-pleaser Unstoppable, with Denzel and Chris Pine as blue-collar heroes trying to stop a speeding train.
Scott’s movies have their hallmarks, which have been endlessly called out, parodied, and sometimes admired: the quick, restless cutting; the swirling helicopter shots; the half-paranoid half-fantasy MTV surveillance; the green- and blue-heavy cinematography; the piles of crunched-up cars. His movies didn’t always have substance, but he was an expert at tinkering around with that influential style. In fact, for most of the 90s and aughts, he was a stronger stylist than his older sibling—and any number of imitators biting his populist bombast (Michael Bay!) or his cutting-and-blurring-into-abstraction editing-as-art-project (Paul Greengrass!). Scott may have influenced a lot of hackwork, but I never got the sense the he was phoning anything in. Rather, a love of filmmaking permeates his work. He made unpretentious, sometimes technically ambitious pulp movies: A-list hamburgers.
As such, I always anticipated the next Tony Scott picture with some hunger, especially whenever he announced a new project with Washington. I’d joked countless times about the imperative that Scott and Washington must re-team to complete their Denzel-on-a-train trilogy following The Taking of Pelham 123 and Unstoppable. But with his passing, that regret turns serious: I would’ve loved to see that movie. I bet I would’ve had a great time.