Tony Scott, the blockbuster director and producer who has died at the age of 68, began his career as an actor – sort of. His first film credit, aged 16, was as the star of his brother Ridley’s student short, Boy and Bicycle. He cycles down to the docks, puffs a fag and contemplates the water. A monologue lets us in on his thoughts – about the joy of skiving school and chasing the sun round the sky. It’s geographically grounded, chimneys belching in the background, yet it’s also universal: a portrait of a groovy, hungry youngster, looking west.
And indeed Scott defined himself by his Yankophilia, shedding his roots fast. He was a director with a great enthusiasm for the business of quickening pulses and pushing buttons, flogging popcorn and ringing tills. Unlike his brother, he wasn’t concerned with peddling an intellectual agenda, or with provoking more than fleeting deep thought in his audience. This won him less critical acclaim, but it arguably also freed up his films – at best glorious, hedonistic Hollywood entertainment.
His directorial debut was something of an anomaly, however. The Hunger (1983) was an electro gothic noir about an elderly vampire called Miriam (Catherine Deneuve) who preys on ravers with her undead lover, John (David Bowie), who himself falls for Susan Sarandon’s medic. This opening sequence is incredibly stylish and exciting – the work of someone who knew how to shoot an ad, and how to have fun in a nightclub.
The film flopped; lucky that Scott scored arguably the biggest, brashest hit of his career with his next one off the runway: Top Gun.
As this talky trailer shows, it was sold mostly as a Jerry Bruckheimer film, and indeed their sensibilities dovetailed lucratively through the rest of Scott’s career. The legacy of the film is hard to underestimate – even 2012 movies such as Peter Berg’s Battleship and David Ayer’s LA cop drama End of Watch take their cues from Scott’s pop masterwork.
He followed it up by taking over the reins on another maverick lawmaker hit: Beverly Hills Cop II.
Then came Scott’s first stab at a darker thriller, Revenge (1990), set in a maximum-sweat Mexico and starring Kevin Costner, Madeline Stowe and Anthony Quinn. This making-of video shows the logistical legwork involved in such a production, and has Scott explaining his own stylistic tics that were developed in the film.
The same year, he collaborated with Cruise again on Days of Thunder, another high-octane vehicle with a fabulously overblown title. The stock-car nailbiter brought home the box-office bacon and introduced Cruise to his second wife, Nicole Kidman.
The 90s were golden years for Scott, with one smash succeeding another. Second out of the blocks after Heaven was The Last Boy Scout, starring Bruce Willis. The film had a troubled inception – producer Joel Silver said that making it was “one of the three worst experiences of my life” – but it’s now recognised as the one of Scott’s ouvre that’s aged best.
He took a budget cut for his next project, True Romance (1993), shot for $13m from a script by Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary. This face-off between Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken showcases Scott’s deft way with dialogue, as well as detonations. He was a man who knew that the best-paced action flicks need shoring up with space and ballast.
Scott’s interest in crunching bits of enormous hardware continued with Crimson Tide (1995), a submarine drama starring Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington.
It then took a swerve into the psychological with stalker flick The Fan, starring Robert De Niro and Wesley Snipes.
In 1998 he teamed up again with Hackman for Enemy of the State, a loose North by Northwest spinoff starring Will Smith. It’s testimony to Scott that he was able to refresh his style over three decades – each film feels perfectly of its time, neither stuck in the past nor unwisely pushing the envelope.
Spy Game from 2001 teamed Robert Redford and Brad Pitt for a globe-hopping conspiracy thriller – one with more moral complexity than the exploding helicopters and big brass soundtrack might suggest.
Man on Fire (2004) was his third and final collaboration with Walken and his second with Washington, with whom he was still to work three more times. Featuring a performance from the then-precocious Dakota Fanning, it contained just enough grit to steer clear of the shameless.
Scott followed it with Domino (2005), less of a surefire hit, starring Keira Knightley flexing underdeveloped action chops.
A year later, he combined with Washington again for Deja Vu, about a cop who heads into a time-travel wormhole to try and prevent an explosion on a ferry and to romance a hot babysitter who would otherwise be murdered. It was one of Scott’s rare forays into sci-fi, but it remained frank, no-nonsense entertainment.
In 2009, Scott and Washington got together for a remake of The Taking of Pelham 123, also starring John Travolta. Scott spoke to the Guardian at the time of release, wearing his trademark pink cap, as perky and pragmatic as you can get.
One more movie, Unstoppable, again with Washington – this time trying to prevent a toxic freight train from crashing – was released in 2010.
At the time of his death, Scott had 39 projects in pre-production.
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