The Films of T.R. Scott

CH_ridleytonyIn the 30-plus years of his career, Tony Ridley Scott has been one of cinemas foremost visual stylists. His work is packed to the brim with beautiful and visceral imagery, and his distinctive eye has elevated many a straightforward story to a higher level of cinematic achievement. Of course, his visual sense is undermined at least somewhat by that usually unimaginative taste in stories, but his strong sense of style more than balances that out. All told, T.R. Scott may not be among the best all-around filmmakers of his generation, but from Legend to Man on Fire he has cemented his status as one of the most stylish.

When Scott kicked off his career, the most undeniable aspect of his work was the fantastical imagery. With both The Hunger and Legend, Scott provided gorgeous visuals to what were ultimately very blunt stories. While each film addresses some broad, ephemeral themes (immortality, nature, etc) and featured committed performances from future superstars, neither was wholly successful as stories. But as visual experiences, they are both gorgeous and visceral, with Legend in particular standing out as something fantastical and sumptuous, as opposed to Scott’s usual grounded(ish) sensibilities. But of course Legend didn’t really pan out too well commercially, and Scott’s response was as aggressively mainstream as one could try to be.

With Top Gun, Scott presented what still might be his most aggressively obnoxious and accessible movie. The film is awash in blues, oranges, and homoeroticism, the former two establishing a baseline color palette for blockbusters for the next 30 years, and the latter providing a ton of great material for mockery. Snark aside, the carefully-crafted commercial engine of Top Gun should not be underestimated; after all, this is an action movie where 90% of the action is training sequences and yet it is still plenty exciting and engaging. After the unapologetic, in-your-face attitude of Top Gun, Scott made the commendable decision to pull things back for his next film, Black Rain. And while Black Rain might not be the most original or unique story, it still retains Scott’s trademark strong imagery, melodramatic story beats and random moments of context-free adrenaline (Michael Douglas racing motorcycles, anyone?).

After two straight films of unbridled machismo in his action films, Scott decided to mix things up a bit, and in doing so produced what are probably his two best movies. In both Thelma & Louise and True Romance, Scott showed how great the results can be when his visuals are combined with actual stories and characters, rather than just action beats and archetypes. And each film feels like one side of the same coin: they both use some on-the-road elements, make use of noir-esque accidental violence to both set the story in motion and reveal the characters, and both are built on one solid love story in the middle of it all (one more platonic than the other, obviously). These are both films where Scott’s visual sensibilities and action chops supplement the story and characters, rather than overwhelm them, and the final products are much better off for them.

And then, for four of his next five films, Scott went all shock-n-awe on us, as he made four different films about the military. Crimson Tide, GI Jane, Spy Game and Black Hawk Down cut across style and subject, with seemingly the only unifying characteristic being (aside from Scott’s trademark visual craft) a more serious interest in the pressures and dangers of military service than were previously provided in Top Gun. They’re all varying levels of successful (Black Hawk Down is purely a technical exercise for example, even more than most Scott projects) but they all display a great deal of appreciation and respect for the boots on the ground and what they have to deal with… up to and including domineering and clueless superiors. During this same stretch Scott had one minor detour with The Fan, which is mostly forgettable in the end, a film that drowns in its style and allows the story to go off the rails in the worst ways.

In the 21st century, Scott’s output slowed considerably, but that was balanced by the sheer audacity of the movies that resulted. While Body of Lies was a more sober and moody spy thriller for a post-9/11 world, both Man on Fire and The Counselor were two sides of the same absurd coin. Scott took what are essentially basic crime stories of retribution and bad choices and elevated them with his uncompromisingly intense approach. Man on Fire is probably the more grating of the two (the schizophrenic cutting and filtering feels like Scott trying to un-age himself), while The Counselor is certainly the more off-putting in terms of content. It’s Scott at the peak of his stylized powers, building a borderline-nonsensical world in order to externalize the themes at the heart of the story. Once again, we’re reminded of what Scott is capable of when he has the right script (even if this particular script is intentionally mean and unlikable).

T.R. is far from a subtle filmmaker, and the few films of his that do have some thematic depth are still defined more by their style and energy than anything else. Depending on the film, people seem to find his style either beautiful or obnoxious, but to me it’s all the same. It’s flashy, it’s colorful, and it doesn’t hide the fact that many of Scott’s chosen scripts are shallow and/or messy. But regardless of what you think of Scott’s approach, he is very good at his brand of filmmaking, and that brand has resulted in some very good movies. And in the end, that’s what matters.

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I don’t know if you picked up on the joke yet, but Tony Scott and Ridley Scott? Kinda the same sort of filmmaker. And yet they were received in wildly different ways, particularly in the 21st century. Tony was always kind of derided for his ever-aggressive style, and while the Ridley Scott of the ‘80s was usually in a similar boat, he was never (as far as I can tell) treated as low-class in the same way. For some reason Ridley has always gotten more respect than Tony, when many of their movies are very similar in terms of quality. I will fully admit that Ridley has a few movies that are far-and-away better (Alien, Blade Runner, Kingdom of Heaven) and Tony has a couple that are markedly worse (Domino, Deja Vu). But about ⅔ or ¾ of their collective filmography- as I obnoxiously attempted to demonstrate above- seems kind of interchangeable to me.

At the end of the day, I think it’s just that Ridley’s style is much less grating than Tony’s at his worst, so people are less outright offended. His visual compositions are more careful, calm, sometimes even painterly, while Tony’s range from garish to schizophrenic. Furthermore, of late Ridley chooses more Serious subject matter, which makes him seem more respectable (if less potentially entertaining). Meanwhile, Tony always put entertainment before all, and while that attitude led to some very obnoxious and easily dismissed movies, it also produced a lot of fun ones, many of which I’d rather watch over their potential counterparts on Ridley’s side (Spy Game over Body of Lies any fucking day of the week).

While Ridley has always presented himself- even while doing goofy B-movies like Black Rain and GI Jane– as being a Serious Filmmaker, and Tony was always the Punk-Rock Rebel, both brothers still represent the same Style-Over-Story approach that has been abused by the likes of Michael Bay. While the Scott Brothers proved they knew what to do with good scripts (Alien, Blade Runner, True Romance, Thelma & Louise, Crimson Tide, Spy Game) they more often than not let their visual sensibilities and random creative impulses overshadow the focus on good storytelling, which is why many of their films are so disposable to me. Style, be it beautiful and restrained or flashy and aggressive, only goes as far as the stories it’s attached to. For both Tony AND Ridley Scott, as often as not their story sense suffered in the face of their style sense.

And in case you don’t believe me about Ridley, Exodus: Gods and Kings is in theaters now.

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