Today brought the sad news that Tony Scott had died. A man in his sixties, I hadn’t heard of him suffering from any illness and, as I read the newspaper report, I was struggling to work out what had happened. And then in the last paragraph or two they reached the nub of the affair: Tony Scott had killed himself by throwing himself from a bridge in California, half an hour or so from the home he shared with his wife and children. It’s a shocking end to a life and career that, perhaps, more than any other director in the last 30 years shaped the way in which Hollywood films were made.
I haven’t seen every film Tony Scott directed but I have seen a lot and, setting aside discussion of their artistic merits, they were certainly influential. There’s certainly an arguable case that Top Gun laid the foundation for the modern summer behemoths that we see today, even more so than Jaws and Star Wars. Spielberg’s films always had heart to them, they were centred on a human experience, and, while the Star Wars films (original trilogy) may have had an adherence to the principals that Joseph Campbell laid down, they also had complex stories and characters and built an intriguing world. None of these traits could be levelled at Top Gun, which predominantly focussed on visual spectacle, almost to the exclusion of all else, a trend which can, regrettably, be traced through to Michael Bay and the Transformers movies today.
This may sound like a strange way to commemorate a man, but a man cannot be blamed for the way in which his art is interpreted or who or what it influences – just ask JD Salinger, who’s novel The Catcher In The Rye was linked to Mark Chapman (killer of John Lennon), Robert John Bardo (who murdered actress Rebecca Schaeffer) and John Hinckley Jr (who attempted to kill Ronald Reagan). Top Gun had its detractors but it also had a lot to recommend it, not least of which was the level of control exhibited over the visceral, testosterone fuelled action, something sadly lacking from the bloated and boring modern day imitators.
Success with Top Gun was followed up with Beverly Hills Cop 2 and Days of Thunder, but this success was overshadowed by his older brother, Ridley, who was riding high on the critical/cult success of Alien, Bladerunner and Thelma & Louise. But as the 90s developed roles seemed to reverse for a while. Tony was now making the more adventurous films, films which pushed away from the high octane background of their director, while Ridley’s output went through a lull incorporating 1492: Conquest of Paradise, White Squall and GI Jane.
This period represents the one which will stick in the memory for me. Tony Scott direct The Last Boy Scout (1991) – a brilliant take on the buddy cop movie and updating of the noir of the 40s starring Bruce Willis – True Romance (1993) – a brilliant version of a script by Quentin Tarantino featuring a magnificent scene between Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken – Crimson Tide (1995) – a great submarine film which gets standout performances from Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman – The Fan (1996) – Robert De Niro returning to the dark material he was originally known for in a tale of an obsessive fan stalking his baseball hero – and Enemy Of The State (1998) – a quasi-sequel to the great Francis Ford Coppola film The Conversation with Will Smith and Gene Hackman. Each of these films takes something from the arthouse and something from the multiplex and blends them almost perfectly in each case – you won’t find many better runs of intelligent mainstream entertainment on any director’s CV.
Of course, no one can keep a great run going forever but even if they weren’t brilliant, there was good solid entertainment to be found in the likes of Spy Game, Man On Fire and Unstoppable.
Just before publishing this post I read that Scott had been diagnosed with inoperable, terminal brain cancer, and he had clearly decided that he would rather not live than live through a slow and painful death – a difficult and sad choice. It is a very sad end for a man who changed cinema over the course of the last 30 years.
Rest In Peace, Tony Scott.