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Tony Scott - A personal tribute

Tony Scott, director of Deja Vu

Feature by Rob Carnevale

TONY Scott epitomised all that was great about action movies. But he was also a much more intelligent filmmaker than a lot of critics gave him credit for.

Known for his fast-paced editing and distinctive visual style, Scott nevertheless had something special about him… and he regularly knew how to surprise and inspire.

Take the sweaty, claustrophobic Crimson Tide as a fine example of the director regining in his style to create something that was genuinely tense and performance-driven.

The film marked the first of his collaborations with Denzel Washington and it was easy to see why the actor wanted to continue working with him. The scenes between a young Washington and a wily, ageing Gene Hackman offered two powerhouse actors to go at each other in blistering fashion – and Scott’s camera refused to flinch from the verbal fireworks that ensued.

If Scott had hitherto been synonymous with disposable blockbusters such as Days of Thunder and Beverley Hills Cop II, then this was an example of how he made critics think again.

Crimson Tide also boasted a great supporting cast, including Viggo Mortensen, James Gandolfini, George Dzundza and Ricky Schroder, providing further evidence of how the director was able to attract great ensemble casts. And he made sure most, if not all, left their mark.

Going into Crimston Tide, Scott had also just directed two more of the films that will stand the test of time as classics… albeit for different reasons.

The Last Boy Scout, in 1991, remains one of the best Bruce Willis movies outside of the original Die Hard. It’s a hard-assed, smart-talking, buddy-action comedy par excellence that is chock full of pithy put-downs, scathing one-liners and even smarter action sequences.

The film boasts some of the most quotable dialogue in Scott’s repertoire (supplied by Shane Black) as well as a distinct style that – again – has been ripe for copying.

Then came the seminal True Romance, written by Quentin Tarantino, and boasting some of the finest scenes commited to modern film-making. The film starred Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette as two young lovers who fall foul of a crime lord while attempting to get rich quick. But it’s the supporting cast that’s enough to make any true fan of cinema drool: Christopher Walken, Dennis Hopper, Gary Oldman, Brad Pitt, Samuel L Jackson, James Gandolfini, Val Kilmer…

And the scenes just dripped with style and the slow-building tension that would come to define Crimson Tide.

Take the verbal exchange/torture sequence between Hopper and Walken, set against the backdrop of Léo Delibes’ Sous le dôme épais où le blanc jasmin as a prime example of Scott at his absolute best: great performances, crackling tension, shocking violence and laugh out loud comedy as Hopper’s protective dad leads Walken’s vengeful mobster a merry dance, all the while knowing that his own card has been marked. It just gets better and better each time you see it.

And that’s not all: for sheer ballsy excess, witness the breathtakingly brutal exchange between Gandolfini’s hitman and Arquette in a motel room as the former attempts to persuade the latter to tell him where the stolen drugs are. Few directors could make a scene like that appear more cool than gratuitous, even though it remains one of his hardest to watch.

And then there’s the final three-way shoot-out, which has been copied relentlessly ever since (twice by the director himself, in both Enemy of the State and Domino). It’s bonkers insane but every bit as balletic as John Woo in his prime.

My own first memory of watching one of Scott’s films came earlier than any of those films, when I rented Top Gun as a 15-year-old teenager. It was nothing short of exhilarating, capturing everything that was awe-inspiring about blockbuster films at that age.

The aerial sequences took the breath away, while everything else – from casting to soundtrack – was absolutely spot-on.

Tom Cruise shot to super-stardom by playing one of blockbuster movie-making’s true Mavericks, combining cocky charisma with belated humility, while Kelly McGillis’ gutsy flight instructor and love interest was a poster girl in waiting for a generation of men and boys.

And the songs continue to hold a special place (which is no mean feat for a soundtrack constructed in the ’80s), from Kenny Loggins’ Danger Zone and Playing With The Boys to Cheap Trick’s Mighty Wings, through Maverick’s take on You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling right down to Harold Faltemeyer’s Top Gun Anthem.

Top Gun offered a seamless blend of the best parts of blockbuster movie-making and remains a classic movie.

In more recent years, I’ve also been blown away by the likes of Man on Fire, which offered another of Denzel Washington’s finest performances (and some more hard-hitting scenes of violence married to deep-rooted emotional episodes), and the disarmingly clever Spy Game, which paired Robert Redford with Brad Pitt to supremely satisfying effect and twisted and turned its way through a well-worn genre.

Enemy of the State, too, provided another fine example of how Scott was able to balance the demands of a star-heavy ensemble cast with the needs of the action genre (providing Will Smith with one of his finest roles, as well as a sly nod to a former Gene Hackman classic in its update of The Conversation).

And even his final film, Unstoppable, showcased a director still at the top of his own game. As ever, the central pairing worked great (Washington again, this time with young buck Chris Pine), while the action sequences provided the required bang for audiences’ buck (complete with old school ‘how did they do that?’ kind of stunts).

It’s for all of the reasons listed above (and several more besides) that the loss of Tony Scott is so deeply felt. He was a true one-of-a-kind director whose films have – and will continue to – delight and inspire.