Tony Scott was never an Oscar winner nor did he ever lift the Palme d’Or.
He wasn’t that sort of filmmaker.
He wasn’t a critical darling like his elder brother, Ridley.
But he was one of the most successful Hollywood studio directors of the past three decades in terms of box office – taking his place alongside Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Michael Bay, Christopher Nolan and Peter Jackson.
Like his brother, Tony Scott made bombastic and technically accomplished thrillers.
And like Ridley, he made his name as a director of television commercials.
However unlike his brother he didn’t shift genres. He tended to stick to what he knew best, directing slickly made, big budget, frenetically paced, violent thrillers that generated huge box office in return.
His feature film debut came in 1983 with the vampire love triangle flick, ‘The Hunger’ starring David Bowie, Susan Sarandon and Catherine Deneuve. The movie achieved notoriety for a lesbian seduction scene in which Sarandon’s therapist is wooed by Deneuve’s vampire.
By his own admission, he was still coming to terms with feature filmmaking and he was too focused on the image than on pace or effective storytelling.
But it was ‘Top Gun’ in 1986 that really announced the Geordie director as a cinematic force to be reckoned with.
Producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer hired Scott on the strength of a TV commercial he directed in which a Saab car raced a fighter jet.
A reluctant Scott eventually agreed to direct the Tom Cruise-Kelly McGillis fighter pilot movie and it earned $353 million at the box office.
‘Top Gun’ has remained a cult classic to this day with its cheesy 1980s and slightly camp script (“I feel the need for speed”), its hit theme song performed by Berlin (‘Take My Breath Away’) and its flashy action sequences.
An attempt by Cruise and Scott to recreate the magic with the stock car movie, ‘Days of Thunder’ may not have been to the critics’ liking but it still made a handsome profit of $157 million worldwide.
As has been widely reported, Scott had been planning recently to shoot a long awaited sequel to ‘Top Gun’ with Cruise.
After the success of ‘Top Gun’, Scott worked with some of the biggest actors in Hollywood – among them Kevin Costner, Eddie Murphy, Nicole Kidman, Gene Hackman, Gary Oldman, Will Smith, Robert de Niro, Keira Knightley and John Travolta.
But his most fruitful working relationship was with Denzel Washington with whom he made five films from 1995′s submarine drama ‘Crimson Tide’ to the 2010 freight train thriller ‘Unstoppable’.
Scott explained the lure of Denzel Washington in an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 2010: “More than any other actor, he always surprises me. He always manages to pull out a different aspect of Denzel.
“On (The Taking of) Pelham (1,2,3),’ he was the guy next door out of his depth. And then you look at ‘Man on Fire,’ and he was this capable but complicated CIA agent. He’s able to never repeat himself.”
Each collaboration made a significant profit for the studios.
But while Tony Scott was a hugely successful movie director, he was also a smart television and film producer.
He formed Scott Free Productions with his brother Ridley which produced the successful FBI drama for CBS, ‘Numb3rs’ and the current hit, ‘The Good Wife’.
Few people realise he also produced the quirky, acclaimed Andrew Dominick western ‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford’ with Brad Pitt and Joe Carnahan’s survivalist drama ‘The Grey’ with Liam Neeson in the lead role.
But will Tony Scott be remembered for being more than a studio hack?
Yes. While his big screen adaptation of Quentin Tarantino’s blood soaked screenplay ‘True Romance’ was arguably his best received film, Scott proved he was an accomplished and stylish director with the underrated Will Smith espionage drama ‘Enemy of the State’ and several Denzel Washington thrillers ‘Man On Fire’, ‘Deja Vu’ and ‘Unstoppable’.
And while he may have lacked the bravery of Ridley in switching genres and remained wedded to giving audiences violent thrills, he instinctively understood the importance of a strong plot and a good cast.
Regardless of what motivated Tony Scott to jump from the Vincent Thomas Bridge in LA (there have been reports that he was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer), his suicide has rocked Hollywood to the core.
But more tragically, it has robbed twin boys of their father.
FIVE GREAT TONY SCOTT MOVIES:
TRUE ROMANCE (1995)
In the wake of Quentin Tarantino’s stunning debut heist movie, ‘Reservoir Dogs’, Hollywood executives sought to gobble up all his screenplays.
Scott was the surprise choice to helm Tarantino’s gory tale about a Detroit prostitute, Alabama (Patricia Arquette) who falls in love with an Elvis fanatic, Clarence (Christian Slater) and absconds with him and her pimp’s highly prized stash of cocaine.
The movie is packed with memorable sequences and performances – the epic showdown between Christopher Walken’s mobster and Dennis Hopper’s security guard, Bronson Pinchot bursting a bag of cocaine, Gary Oldman’s weird accent as the pimp Drexl, Brad Pitt’s stoned flatmate, James Gandolfini’s vicious torturing of Alabama.
Morally questionable but hugely entertaining, Tony Scott’s movie in many ways served as the appetiser for Tarantino’s equally star studded, morally dubious but entertaining Palme d’Or winner ‘Pulp Fiction’.
CRIMSON TIDE (1995)
A good addition to the submarine genre, this taut post Cold War drama centres on the stand-off between Gene Hackman’s tough Captain and Denzel Washington’s second in command.
Faced with the threat of a nuclear strike on America by rogue elements of the Russian military, there is a clash of styles between its two lead characters – Hackman’s battle hardened Captain Ramsey who relies on gut instinct and is trigger happy and Washington’s Lieutenant Hunter who is analytical but lacks combat experience.
When Hunter refuses to launch a missile strike on a Russian nuclear installation because of a radio failure and attempts to arrest Ramsey for breaching protocol, its splits the crew and results in a mutiny.
Scott stylishly handles the action sequences but also wisely lets his actors shine and rise above the script – that also includes the accomplished supporting cast featuring James Gandolfini, Viggo Mortensen and George Dzundza.
ENEMY OF THE STATE (1998)
Gene Hackman returns in Scott’s most underrated movie which serves as a kind of unofficial sequel to Francis Coppola’s surveillance masterpiece ‘The Conversation’.
He plays ‘Brill’, a shadowy surveillance operative who has been on the run from the Federal authorities, but is tracked down by Will Smith’s labour lawyer Robert Clayton Dean after he unwittingly stumbles on a cover-up by rogue elements in the CIA of the murder of a Congressman (Jason Robards).
With its frenetic pace, dazzling editing and exhilarating stunts, Scott constructs a gritty urban ‘North By Northwest’ as Dean is pursued throughout Washington by the rogue CIA team led by Jon Voight. They intend to kill him and retrieve incriminating evidence in his possession (a computer disc with video footage of the murder).
Smith makes an engaging lead and there are strong supporting turns from Voight, Robards, Jack Black, Lisa Bonet, Tim Sizemore and Regina King. Watch out too for a fantastic cameo by Gabriel Byrne but ultimately the movie belongs to Hackman’s grouchy operative.
MAN ON FIRE (2004)
Denzel Washington’s second collaboration with Tony Scott is a violent thriller set in Mexico City about a former CIA operative turned bodyguard who is devastated when the nine year old girl he is looking after, Pita (Dakota Fanning) is kidnapped by a crime syndicate.
Wounded during the kidnapping, Washington’s character John Creasy, who is an alcoholic, sets out to find the girl and kill those responsible. With the help of a former CIA colleague, played by Christopher Walken and a journalist (Gina Gershon), he starts to hunt down those responsible but as he unleashes bloody acts of vengeance, he is drawn into a complex web of betrayal and brutality.
Brilliantly shot by cinematographer Paul Cameron and intelligently edited, Scott’s movie visually recalls Fernando Meirelles’ gritty Brazilian street gang drama ‘City of God’ and is packed with strong performances from Walken, Giancarlo Giannini, Gershon, Marc Anthony, Fanning, Radha Mitchell and Mickey Rourke as a sleazy lawyer.
But it is Washington’s performance as the emotionally scarred and venegful bodyguard which makes the most impact – even if the violence is sometimes hard to take.
Denzel Washington and Scott’s final collaboration is a high octane adventure about a runaway unmanned half mile long freight train.
This is a masterly thriller with Scott expertly cranking up the tension as the rail employees realise the train carrying hazardous waste is speeding full throttle towards Scranton, Pennsylvania.
Washington plays veteran engineer Frank Barnes who is breaking in a cynical new colleague Will Colson (Chris Pine) but they soon find themselves at the heart of efforts to avert the disaster.
At a running time of around 95 minutes, Scott’s final movie is once again expertly paced, impeccably acted with a supporting cast that includes Rosario Dawson and Kevin Dunn, breathtaking in its technical execution and simply never lets up.