Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
The power of reflection is a curious thing. In the wake of director Tony Scott tragic, shocking suicide Sunday night, various movie blogs across the Internet spent the first half of yesterday, Monday, August, 20th, speedily drafting up passionate reactions, "Tony Scott's 5 Best Films" lists, and educational primers about the successful and quietly impactful career of the 68-year-old England native.
And who can blame them? Looking back on Scott's filmography, his string of beloved blockbuster titles is rather staggering: Top Gun (1986), Beverly Hills Cop II (1987), Days of Thunder (1991), Crimson Tide (1995), Enemy of the State (1998), and Unstoppable (2010). Not to mention, cult favorites amongst hard-boiled male and female lovers of masculine cinema like True Romance (1993) and Man on Fire (2004). The man clearly deserves all of the respect and adoration he's posthumously receiving at the moment, no question.
As always happens when an artist suddenly passes away, though, Scott's death, self-inflicted by way of jumping off of the Vincent Thomas Bridge in Los Angeles, has woken up many sleepers who, merely 30-some-odd hours ago, didn't have his name anywhere near their brains. If you would have asked most, if not all, film bloggers to name their 10 favorite directors two days ago, it's highly likely that Scott's name wouldn't have appeared on any of their lists; his brother Ridley Scott's (Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise, Gladiator) name, however, certainly would have surfaced more than once.
Hell, we're just as guilty as the next movie-covering outlet; a few weeks back, when we put together our controversial list of 10 Movie Directors Who Have Never Made A Bad Movie, Tony Scott was, admittedly, never even in the equation. Why? Because, yes, he turned out several underwhelming, if not altogether shoddy, flicks in his time, the most egregious ones being the Robert De Niro/Wesley Snipes-led fail of a thriller The Fan (1996) and 2009's miscast, dizzyingly overcooked remake of The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3. Critics, for their part, were rarely kind to him, leading to only five of 16 films rating as "Fresh" on the review-collecting site Rotten Tomatoes.
So it's unfortunate that, now in his passing, Scott's gifts to the action genre are getting embraced. As a result, it's painfully apparent that Scott was that rare, sadly overlooked kind of filmmaker who delivered more than a few fan favorites without earning the type of spot-unseen name recognition that's thrust upon the likes of Michael Mann and Michael Bay, two of his boom-crash-explosion counterparts.
Whenever Hollywood churns out a soulless feast of character-free melodrama surrounded by expensive special effects and extended action sequences, the immediate response for critics and movie debaters is to charge the respective director with "going all Michael Bay," or a criticism to that effect. Some consider that a negative, but, if you think about it, that's actually a compliment to Mr. Transformers—in order to earn such a distinctive reputation, the man has to have been doing something right, no? Even if his or her trademarks include CGI robots, chest dialogue, and Victoria's Secret models who are stiffer than teenage boys holding copies of the latest Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue, the fact that a director has established a unique style is something that very few other filmmakers can similarly say.
But Tony Scott absolutely could have said that. Earlier this year, frequent Scott collaborator Denzel Washington (they made five movies together) scored another box office hit with Safe House, which, despite a few thrilling scenes, was a lazy reminder of the star's better, previous action films. That's right, the ones that he and Scott cranked out together during the shotcaller's tenure behind the camera. From its first trailers right down to its cinematography and frantic action, Safe House, directed by Daniel Espinosa, is a blatant rip-off of Scott's signature brand of action moviemaking. Except that Safe House lacked the unpredictability, vitality, and character-driven intrigue that exemplified winners like Top Gun and Enemy of the State. His penchant for ferociously energetic camera movements, whiz-bang edits, and the occasional slow-motion framing of carnage was as distinctive as it was prone to emulation.
Perhaps the saddest thing about Scott's career, seen at this present moment through mournful reflection, is that the word "hack" was often flung around to describe him. The insult was used by those same critics and talking heads who can't seem to grasp the difference between a crowd-pleaser and high art; Scott, at his best, was able to merge those two aesthetics into one, but most of the time his films landed firmly, and unapologetically, in the "crowd-pleaser" camp.
Anyone who's quick to condemn his erratically paced and exceedingly caffeinated films Domino (2005) and Déjà Vu (2006) as brainless exercises in violence and high-concept action does so at their own peril; take another look at those films, as well as every other Scott-directed action fare, and you'll see the works of a director unafraid to experiment with his material's intensity through the means of post-production. In the editing room, Scott and his film-splicers—most often his go-to editor, and two-time Academy Award nominee, Chris Lebenzon—were all about taking risks. Not all of their efforts proved effective, but at least they were wholeheartedly trying to push the celluloid medium forward.
Which all begs the question: Will those same folks who labeled Tony Scott a "hack," or little more than "the inferior Scott brother," sing a different, more congratulatory tune from here on out? Like us, will they take a second to reconsider his contributions to their cherished art-form and afford his resting spirit the respect it deserves? Unfortunately, the conflicted, gun-jumping reports of his possible diagnosis of inoperable brain cancer (which arrived online yesterday afternoon only to be refuted by Scott's family hours later) are going to shroud his name in more confusion and negativity than should ever be cast on a guy who spent his fruitful, oft-ridiculed professional days making the kinds of movies he wanted to and never backing down to critical backlash.
Don't get it confused: None of this is to say that Tony Scott should go down in film's history books as one of the best to ever do it. In terms of the action genre specifically, though, he's definitely a worthwhile name to discuss when it's time to have those heated debates. But his flaws far too often coincided directly with his strengths. It's just a shame that the guy who bestowed Denzel Washington with action star credibility, turned Tom Cruise into a blockbuster machine (via Top Gun and Days of Thunder), and recognized Brad Pitt's beyond-pretty-boy range and depth (True Romance) can only garner his owed props in death.
Terribly, though unstoppably, that's just the way it goes in this pop culture landscape. Damn if it doesn't make us want to start immediately doing random best-of lists dedicated to under-appreciated (by our estimation, anyway) directorial talents like William Friedkin, David Cronenberg, and Rob Reiner. Reaction pieces of this nature will never be as fun to write as those kinds of countdowns.
Written by Matt Barone (@MBarone)