The Modern Prince Of Pulp: Remembering Tony ScottPosted: August 20, 2015
In storytelling terms, “pulp” has some very specific connotations. It suggests hard-boiled, lewd, violent, visceral, archetypal storytelling that is driven by a base need for entertainment value above all else. With that in mind, I think it’s safe to say that the late, great Tony Scott was one of the premier pulp filmmakers of his time. His films are designed to entertain first and foremost, often in the most aggressive and surface-level ways possible. But while Scott was always known as a style-first filmmaker, I submit that he knew damn well what it took to tell a proper story, and more often than not he told them as well as any of his peers, if not better. Following the third anniversary of his tragic suicide, I thought it was worth looking back at his films and reminding people how good a filmmaker Tony Scott really was.
As I attempted to point out in a failed attempt at satire last year, I really don’t think there is all that much difference between Tony Scott and his esteemed brother Ridley; Ridley just presents himself more seriously and tends to choose more “epic” projects, while Tony leaned towards a more aggressive visual style and making movies that were, y’know, FUN. It was also a great boon to Tony that, unlike much of his brother’s work (not to mention the work of successors like Michael Bay), Tony’s films were actually pretty intimate affairs, built around interpersonal conflict and contained action as opposed to massive destruction or history-shaking stakes. In fact, for all of Scott’s reputation as an action-first director, many of his movies actually place a premium on the characters and their emotional growth. The characters may trend towards archetypes, and the emotional content could easily skew towards cheesy at times, but there is no denying that Scott put his characters first. Besides devoting now-unheard-of amounts of time to developing his characters and giving context to their actions, Scott’s best attribute was the undying earnestness he brought to the stories he told. Even while working within the confines of recurring archetypes and themes, Scott believed wholeheartedly in his characters, making the archetypes feel alive like they’d never been done before. Of course it has to be acknowledged how aggressive Scott’s style tended to be, but even when his style was at its most direct Scott kept the focus firmly on the characters, using his stylistic tendencies to externalize the human conflict and heighten the otherwise low stakes into operatic territory. The end result were movies that were bombastic stylistically but rarely less than endearing narratively, something that many of his imitators lacked.
At this point I’ve seen all but three Tony Scott movies (Beverly Hills Cop II, The Taking Of Pelham 123 and, most disappointingly, The Hunger) and of the ones I have seen there are only three that I would outright write off as being bad (Revenge, Days of Thunder and The Fan). Of the rest, I would say that almost all of them are good, if not great… and in the case of Domino, I would say it is at least interesting and worth a rewatch. However, there are a few films of Tony’s that I would certainly say are a cut above, that I would argue are as good as any mainstream film out there, and I thought I would talk about those here.
Top Gun: A huge part of my continued appreciation of Top Gun is that it was one of my childhood favorites, like a Star Wars/Batman/Spielberg-level favorite. Now in my adulthood the overwhelming cheese of the film could clog even my battle-hardened arteries, but there are still plenty of accomplishments to give Tony Scott credit for in this film. Chief among those accomplishments is that this supposed action movie is actually 40% training montage, 40% romance (the orientation of that romance is up to interpretation) with only the climax functioning as a real, kill-or-be-killed action sequence. And as cheesy as the plot can be, the level of legitimate enthusiasm Scott brings to the table makes much of it endearing instead of grating. He swings from goofy humor to heart-fluttering yearning with total confidence, aided greatly by the undying charisma of Tom Cruise and the stacked supporting cast. While Maverick’s arc is very straightforward and unsurprising, it’s also tackled with an emotional honesty by both director and star that makes him live beyond the parameters of his archetype. Top Gun is ridiculous, and completely lacking in (intentional) subtext, but tackled by Scott & company with an unrestrained commitment, leaving the final film very much resembling its protagonist: aggressive and obnoxious, but ultimately driven by earnest emotion and humanity.
Crimson Tide: Tony Scott knew a good dramatic situation when he saw one, and how to wring maximum tension out of those situations. It’s hard to think of a better dramatic situation than the commanding officers of a nuclear submarine carrying out dueling mutinies against the backdrop of potential nuclear war, so it’s unsurprising that Scott would wind up being the one to bring it to life. Much like Top Gun, this is a film that’s actually built on what you could call faux-action: the majority of the story and conflict involves platonic potential violence amongst the crew of the Alabama herself, as Scott builds tension on the threat of violence on the micro and macro level. The exterior threat of the Russian attack sub exists mostly as a release valve for all the tension built up by the interior conflict of the Alabama’s crew, which is wholly emotional and philosophical. While theoretically the stakes of this film are the highest of Scott’s filmography (nuclear holocaust and all that), those stakes are ultimately just context for the much more intimate battle of wills between Hunter and Ramsey, with all of the flashy action beats and threats of inter-crew violence just externalizes the conflict between our two leads. One could argue that Crimson Tide is the quintessential Tony Scott film — flashy visuals, carefully-deployed action scenes and A-list casts in service of what is ultimately a small-scale character piece — and with this film he did it as well as he ever would.
Spy Game: There are two major recurring tropes in Scott’s filmography: the jaded older mentor with the idealistic young companion and the weary professionals struggling against the faceless System they serve. These two tropes appear individually and together numerous times throughout Scott’s career but I feel they are best personified in the vastly-underrated Spy Game. What’s particularly interesting about combining those two tropes in this film is how the character of Nathan Muir evolves from one trope to the next. In the flashback sequences where the film leans on the mismatched partners trope, Muir is the hard-hearted servant of The System, who tries to force his idealistic student Bishop to accept his cynical worldview, but in the “present day” sequences where Muir is butting heads with his CIA superiors, he flips to trying to undermine The System he once represented so that he can save Bishop’s life. For Scott, it’s a very clever use of his favorite tropes, and the contrast of the two Muirs perfectly demonstrates his character arc through the nonlinear narrative. What drives that character arc is the same unerring sense of humanity that carries through all of Scott’s films, the idea that people matter above all else and that it is better to be idealistic than to succumb to the cold cynicism The System thrives on.
Man On Fire: Perhaps one of the most impressive things about Tony Scott’s career is that he did not mellow with age. Rather, he got more aggressive, more experimental, and more challenging with his style, as if daring his age to catch up with him. This is probably the stretch of Scott’s career where there will be the most detractors, and indeed this was one of his most critically-disliked period. But whatever you think of the films that followed, I refuse to agree with anyone that would argue against the quality of Man On Fire. This is the film where Scott began to define his late-career stylistic rebirth; the rapidly-edited filtered shaky-cam with the white-outs and the text on the screen became his new favorite trick, and one that many hated. But in Man On Fire it is used sparingly, and with clear purpose, something that makes all the difference. While Scott has always put more consideration into his characters than he was ever given credit for, Man On Fire stands out as being one of his most heartfelt and tragic films. We spend a lot of time getting to know Creasey and his pain, and the soothing emotional balm that his relationship with Pita becomes. And when Pita is taken and Creasey sets off on his bloody rampage it is keenly felt, because we’ve spent so much time exploring the characters first… and because Scott’s jarring new visual style drags us kicking and screaming into Creasey’s hell with him. To me, this style is perfectly utilized by Scott, the exact tool needed to externalize Creasey’s darkness and keep the action from being “cool” or “badass”. It’s ugly work that Creasey does, and Scott makes sure we never forget it, or the love and sadness that motivates it.
True Romance: I mean this should go without saying, right? A filmmaker like Tony Scott working from a screenplay from the inimitable Quentin Tarantino? Indeed, some might give enough respect to the film on QT’s script alone to render Scott’s contributions irrelevant… but that would be a mistake on their part. Ironically I might consider this one of Tarantino’s best films precisely because of Scott’s directorial contributions to the end product. Tarantino has always been a maestro of dialogue and a virtuoso of genre-busting plots, and often in doing so he winds up with a very heightened sensibility that permeates the entire film. But with Scott at the helm, Tarantino’s dialogue and meta-textual references are blended with Scott’s blue-collar, world-weary aesthetic to create something that is still plenty heightened (this is a Tony Scott film after all) but much more tangible, not to mention much more emotionally engaging than most of Quentin’s other stories. Funnily enough, the best summation of Scott’s contributions to True Romance is also the most classically-Tarantino sequence, the famous Sicilian Scene (provided above). While QT’s dialogue certainly shines brightly here, Scott brings it to life in a way that is wholly his: the tired, frustrated tone that Walken and Hopper share is closer to Redford or Hackman in their aforementioned collaborations with Scott, and the swirling cigarette smoke and evocative classical music lends the intimate-yet-operatic vibe that is a Scott trademark. This is ultimately what makes True Romance so awesome to me. While you can certainly see Tarantino’s fingerprints on the film, you can FEEL Tony Scott in every nook and cranny of it, in a way that makes the film wholly his without undermining Tarantino’s voice at all, and the end result is a heady brew that I flat-out love, and always will.
Tony Scott is not a filmmaker for everybody, on that I’m sure we can all agree. He rarely crossed over to the mainstream the same way some of his more shallow successors have, nor did he make films that appealed to the arthouse crowd. What Tony Scott did was make films his way, in hopes of making something that would entertain others. As far as artistic goals go, I can’t think of a better one, and he achieved it with ease. The film world is a poorer place without him, but a better place for the work he left behind.