Acid In The Coliseum: The Films Of Tony Scott (Part One)

A career retrospective of a director who knew what his viewers wanted and always delivered.

On March 25, 2001, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator won Best Picture at the 73rd Academy Awards. Ostensibly a trite revenge picture, Ridley nevertheless was able to capture the brutality of Ancient Rome, and how the wanton bloodlust enjoyed in the Coliseum placated the Empire’s populace at large. It was grand spectacle cinema that harkened back to the epics of the '50s and '60s - namely Kubrick’s Spartacus and Wyler’s Ben-Hur - while never rising to the level of excellence those two classics effortlessly exhibit. All in all, Gladiator was low pulp draped in a loincloth of pretension. Endlessly entertaining yet hollow, the movie never mined the material for subtext concerning how those who thrive inside the Coliseum’s walls struggle with their very existence. The thematic line seemed like fish in a barrel, and Ridley never seemed concerned with setting his sights on it.

Meanwhile, the director’s younger brother had created his own Coliseum at the multiplexes for the last two decades, delivering blood, guts, blazing guns and soaring fighter jets without even a hint of aspiration toward awards glory. Working to define the aesthetics of Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheimer Films, Tony Scott let loose insane violence and over the top showmanship, to the tune of millions in box office revenue. He induced vertigo with Top Gun and deafened you with Days of Thunder. He indulged Tarantino’s affection for crude language and Mexican standoffs in True Romance. He tried to resurrect psycho Bobby De Niro with The Fan. He let Eddie Murphy place his production company credit over Axel Foley’s Speedo-clad cock in Beverly Hills Cop II. As he got older, his movies became less and less lucid, spilling over into the hallucinatory. The speedy editing he and protégé Michael Bay helped usher into mainstream cinema was combined with hand-cranked cameras, reversed film stock and speed ramping on movies like Man on Fire and Domino. It was disorienting and beautiful, but lost none of the director’s trademark brutality. All of the sudden, we were perusing the Coliseum while on acid, watching the tigers maul Maximus as we pitilessly giggled at the carnage under a blazing sun.

The proverbial hired gun is not an artist we usually celebrate. Auteur theory, while undeniably influential and important, has clouded how we view our creators across media platforms and been perverted through years of over and misapplication. Many cinephiles and critics alike often do not consider those who craft “mainstream” popcorn fare as being worthy of serious approach. Yet FrançoisTruffaut and his peers at Cahiers du Cinémachampioned the usage of a commercial apparatus in order for the auteur to colophon a thumbprint on their collective works. Operating under the guidance of big brother Ridley at RSA (Ridley Scott Associates) for fifteen years, Tony became rich while honing his own slick style. Once he wanted to break into feature directing, he teamed with then-fledgling producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who was tired of the traditional, classical style in which most big budget Hollywood fare was made.

Together the two helped change the way audiences viewed the “blockbuster,” as their pictures became adrenaline-charged dashes into a gluttonous future. Wielding his camera as an author does a pen (allowing the critic to invoke Alexandre Astruc’s notion of the caméra-stylo), Tony Scott never wrote a single one of his movies. However, there are still thematic motifs, which can be pinpointed throughout his entire career. Scott was a keen observer of the damaged man, hopelessly searching for any semblance of redemption. Though he may have been motivated by dollar signs, the director still retained an undeniable signature, emblazoned not only on his movies, but mainstream Hollywood in general.

When Tony Scott took his own life in 2012, we lost an unquestionably significant filmmaker. Some dwelled on the whys of his demise (thus leading to the rumor that the man was dying of terminal cancer when he jumped from San Pedro’s Vincent Thomas Bridge), but ultimately none of that matters one bit. Scott was a genius behind the camera, leaving behind a filmography that was unified in tone and consistently flat out entertaining. It’s a shame that his pictures have been regularly dismissed as nothing more than hollow diversions; mindless drivel meant for mass consumption and disposal. While their appeal is most certainly broad, there’s nothing vapid about them.

This piece is an attempt to rectify, in even a tiny part, this massive oversight. For Tony Scott built his own Arena, film-by-film, in which we could marvel at bombastic violence while he loudly commented on the desires that drove us mad. The Hunger may have been the name of his first feature, but it could’ve also doubled as an overarching moniker for his entire filmography. He created images of yearning and ambition, all before launching the audience out of a cannon in an attempt to simulate a euphoric rush. In short, Tony Scott knew what his viewers wanted, and delivered time and again. Yet he never lost sight of man’s ultimate prize: fundamental redemption.

#16. THE FAN [1996] (w. Phoef Sutton)

“That’s why baseball is better than life: it’s fair.”

The Fan might honestly be one of the biggest cinematic bummers of all time. The incongruent elements for making a great movie are present. Crazy Bobby De Niro before he began to “lose it”; Scott’s eye for lensing sun-soaked urban landscapes (the fact that this and Michael Bay’s additionally San Francisco set The Rock came out in the same summer is mind-blowing); Wesley Snipes at the peak of his movie star powers; Benicio Del Toro doing an indecipherable accent; Ellen Barkin being incredibly sexy; John Leguizamo just being present. Yet The Fan never really elevates above feeling like a rote mash-up of these disparate pieces – the filmic equivalent of watching a child dump separate jigsaw puzzles onto the floor and try to assemble them into one great collage of unintelligible nothingness. Scott and screenwriter Phoef Sutton (adapting a novel by Peter Abrahams) are attempting to take a stab at a “dark side of America” tale, and that aspect is somewhat admirable. But in the end, it all feels half-assed and half-baked, never amounting to anything more than a slick studio thriller that’s ultimately more somber than scary.

In fact, it’s this frame-invading melancholy which sticks with the viewer far after the end credits roll. De Niro’s Gil Renard is a struggling knife salesman, watching his productivity plummet and his young son slip away as the company his dad helped found is taken over by bottom line-obsessed suits. His wife is three seconds from issuing a restraining order, as she and her new beau (Chris Mulkey, criminally wasted) can’t help but walk on eggshells every time Gil comes around. The only thing keeping the sad sack psycho going are his beloved San Francisco Giants, who just acquired their $40 million man, Bobby Rayburn (Snipes). To Gil, Rayburn is the ticket to a World Series. To Rayburn, the team is just another paycheck, as he’s become somewhat disillusioned by his high price tag and the pawing questions of tabloid journalists like Jewel Stern (Barkin), all of whom would rather talk about his recent messy divorce than how many homers he’s going to hit this season.

Scott and Sutton are delving into the corporatization and sell-out nature that pervaded the 1990s, as tiny businesses are swept away from their forefathers and a National Pastime becomes corrupted by free agency and the lack of a salary cap. Contextualized within his filmography, The Fan feels something like an extension of similar themes the director tackled with Shane Black in The Last Boy Scout, which utilized the black underbelly of NFL gambling as a jumping off point for gonzo action. Only Sutton isn’t one-sixteenth the screenwriter Black is, so all of it comes off as the bullshit navel gazing of an ESPN addict filtered through pulp sensibilities. Once the movie transitions into full-blown thriller territory, De Niro inexplicably transforms into a lumpier Travis Bickle, cackling as he hurls the high heat at Rayburn before kidnapping his son in a rather rote climax.

There’s an argument to be made that The Fan is somewhat ahead of its time. Produced in a pre-Internet world, Rayburn could easily be updated twenty years later as a crazed Internet commenter, stalking his perceived pride and joy with a miserable menace. Only it’s one in a plethora of movies about crazed stalkers, desperately clinging to their only remaining thrill in life (see the German pop star psychodrama Der Fan for possibly the best take). Too bad Scott’s film was outdone by Robert Siegel’s Big Fan, which saw Patton Oswalt donning NY Giants face paint and maniacally hunting down Michael Rappaport’s Philadelphia Phil. Both are perfect examples of obsessives learning that meeting your idols doesn’t always work out the way you plan. However, only one packs a true subversive punch, without ever devolving into rain-soaked Nine Inch Nails scored silliness.

#15. UNSTOPPABLE [2010] (w. Mark Bomback)

“Don’t get sentimental on me. Makes me think I’m gonna die.”

Unstoppable is a really dumb movie - from the opening titles (which inform us that the picture takes place in “Northern” and “Southern” Pennsylvania – regions of the state this PA native is unfamiliar with) to the basic bitch plot. Scott’s film is just as mindless and barreling as the central runaway train its heroes (played by Chris Pine and Denzel Washington) are attempting to stop dead in its tracks. Screenwriter Mark Bomback attempts to hang thematic window dressing in the form of class warfare to an otherwise routine retread of '70s disaster cinema (think Juggernaut instead of The Towering Inferno), but Tony Scott is self-aware enough to realize that nobody is really going to give a shit about any of that. Thank goodness Washington and Pine came along for the ride because, without the two movie stars, the picture would possess zero momentum whatsoever.

All that being said, Unstoppable is remarkably a ton of fun. Like Scott’s previous train picture (The Taking of Pelham 123 remake) it’s mostly a ‘Ground Control to Major Tom’ movie, where we’re watching characters in a command center help to secure a situation that has nearly spiraled out of human control. Only instead of dealing with Travolta’s sex-obsessed terrorist, the problem here is one of simple physics. A freighter is hurtling full speed ahead, carrying a container of chemicals that could wipe out a major population. Rosario Dawson is the diligent public servant stuck in the control room, communicating via radio to Washington and Pine, bickering sides of the age spectrum who, in between lifesaving tasks, debate the merits of a younger generation replacing a more experienced one. Just as Denzel played Walter Matthau to Travolta’s Robert Shaw in Pelham 123, there’s a whole bunch of dramatic readings delivered into a COM radio – reliance on each actor’s commitment to match the energy of Scott’s swooping camera.

In retrospect, certain thematic elements seem self-evident in the wake of Scott’s suicide. The end of The Taking of Pelham 123 takes on rather chilling undertones in 2015, as one character pleads with another to end his life on a busy bridge. In Unstoppable, there’s a component of torch-passing, as Washington’s elder train operator is asked to possibly make the ultimate sacrifice in order for Pine’s young turk to carry on the craft after he exits the planet. It’s as if not only Denzel (who was pushing fifty-six years of age when the movie was released) sensed the end of his big budget action career, but Scott knew that he didn’t have any movies left in him as well. The entirety of Unstoppable is executed with deadly seriousness, to the point of self-parody. Now, with Scott gone for nearly five years, the title takes on a darkly ironic double meaning. This is the sincerity of men defeated – a truly depressing end to one of cinema’s great creative partnerships.

#14. DAYS OF THUNDER [1990] (w. Robert Towne)

“…and rubbin, son, is racin’.”

If you watch Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby and then Stroker Ace back to back, you instantly realize the somewhat unnecessary nature of Adam McKay’s broad comedy. That’s not a jab or an attempt to rob the brilliant Will Ferrell vehicle of its well-earned laughs. The double bill simply serves to show that both Ferrell and John C. Reilly (who also appears in Scott’s Days of Thunder!) are doing parallel dimension takes on Burt Reynolds, heightened to infinity and beyond. If one’s feeling really frisky, they should transform a double into a triple by adding Thunder as the third feature. Because then you get a trifecta – the tale of ludicrously named stock car racer Cole “Not Dick” Trickle (Tom Cruise) acting as the perfect end to an evening.

This author’s going to be frank (and, in some readers’ eyes, quite brazen): Days of Thunder is a mediocre motion picture. It’s a rebound movie after Scott bombed on Revenge, working for a New World Pictures that was on the brink of going under. Somewhat creatively broke, it’s a reteaming that sees the action director trying to replicate the career-launching success he and Cruise enjoyed together on Top Gun (with the backing of a production house the duo helped construct). So much of Robert Towne’s screenplay and Scott’s direction feels rooted in resurrection; the need for a reinjection of speed at the box office being their sole real creative fuel. By taking the job, Scott traded in a set of literally bankrupt moneymen for a pair of creatively bankrupt financiers.

Still, the level of engagement Scott displays with the material is astounding, proving that he was a chronic professional. His camera gets into the Down South tracks and hugs their curves with the gaudily painted cars as each careen toward losing control. The movie never reaches the insane visual heights of Top Gun (let’s face it, circling cars are intrinsically less interesting than dogfights), but Scott amps up the sound design to eleven, drowning you in a roar of stock car motors. The golden photography captures the essence of the “Real America” locales and leers at the brutish locals who fetishize these glorified go kart races. All the while, Hans Zimmer goes HAM on the wailing guitar, trying his hardest to hit those Harold Faltermeyer notes.

Perhaps most telling is the reasoning screenwriter Robert Towne gave for taking the job scripting Day of Thunder. Following his divorce from actress Julie Payne and the ensuing custody battle over their daughter, Towne was hard up for money and talked into writing the movie after touring racetracks with Tom Cruise. Thunder is the first in a string of collaborations between the scribe and actor, all of which were produced by Paramount. Together they attracted Scott and other high profile filmmakers, like Sydney Pollack (The Firm), Brian De Palma (Mission: Impossible) and John Woo (Mission: Impossible II). When interviewed by Michael Atkinson for The Guardian in 1999 (for his Steve Prefontaine picture, Without Limits, which was backed by Cruise and Paula Wagner), Towne simply said: “you got to do what you’ve got to do.” This blunt truism feels like it could double as the NASCAR movie’s manifesto. The father and son relationship generated between Cruise’s driver and Robert Duvall’s racing guru is only distracting garnish on a main dish prepared by a bunch of chefs who, more than anything, needed you to devour it, pay the check, and vacate the table for the next guest. That’s one of the main problems about being a pro (which is key to a commercial director’s career): many times money trumps art.

#13. REVENGE [1990] (w. Jim Harrison & Jeff Fiskin)

“Fuck you, amigo.”

Revenge is an ugly movie. In some ways, it resembles Sam Peckinpah, but only if a filmmaker took away the vilest lessons from Bloody Sam’s hyper-violent filmography. Always the brilliant stylist, Scott manages to capture the escapist nature of the Mexican landscape and what it represents to white-bread Americans – a need to get away from the purified normalcy of consumer existence. But instead of lensing the country and its people with reverence, there’s almost a deep-seated racism in how every Mexican caricature is portrayed. Each heavy is a drug dealer or other nefarious type, with Anthony Quinn leading the pack with a blazing shotgun. Even the “helpful Mexicans” are steeped in working class, South of the Border stereotypes. Scott’s preoccupation with Madeleine Stowe’s form and all other things “sexy” (there are so many candles in this movie you’re waiting for the whole place to burn down) seems to have blinded him to the fact that he was making nothing short of hard-core exploitation, suitable for drive-ins and dives instead of mainstream movie houses.

There’s something of a send-off contained in the movie’s opening moments. Seeing Navy Pilot Cochran (Kevin Costner) finish his flight duties in the hazy desert heat feels like Scott trying to wave goodbye to the movie that gifted his mercurial rise. With a popped bottle of champagne and a hurrah from fellow officers, Scott is not only sending Cochran out on a lurid, harsh adventure, but also attempting to bid his days of helming high-speed insanity for Simpson/Bruckheimer adieu. While the film would tank at the box office (and be recut to the director’s shorter, preferred, version in 2007), you can sense Scott trying to break free and make something unlike the high-octane action pictures he’d become known for. He’d return to the Simpson/Bruckheimer machine in 1990 in order to make Days of Thunder, nearly two years after wrapping Revenge for producer Ray Stark (whose squeamishness regarding the subject material kept both John Huston and Orson Welles from making the movie). It was a precursor to pictures that would come much later (see: Man on Fire), which would find Scott indulging a visceral bloodlust that had, up until this point in his career, been absent from his flashy, crowd-pleasing filmography completely.

For all of the rain-soaked, wind-blown romanticism in the film’s first act, it’s the wanton brutality aimed at Stowe’s philandering wife that really marks the movie as being an uncomfortable watch. After betraying Quinn’s powerful beast of a man with his All-American pal, she is drugged, cut, raped and sold to a Mexican brothel, to be violated “fifty times a day.” Revenge is by no means a movie for the squeamish, as Scott has no problem with delivering every moment of misogynistic torture with an unflinching eye. To make matters worse, Costner’s ex-Navy pilot is portrayed as nothing more than a cocky schmuck, his punishment well deserved for sleeping with the wife of his generous benefactor. When we’re supposed to cheer him on as he delivers the titular comeuppance, it’s a bit of a head-scratcher in terms of basic narrative. This guy’s an asshole and got what he deserved. How is he our hero? A better movie would’ve given Stowe the gun and let her mutilate all of these awful men.

It should come as no surprise to anyone to learn that Revenge was originally made for New World Pictures, the once prominent house of exploitation whose assets were broken up and sold off to various companies following a financial slump in the late '80s. At first, the movie feels like a complete outlier in Scott’s filmography, while still retaining all of his trademark visual tics (extreme close-ups, hazy arid landscapes). This is grindhouse fare given a substantial budget increase, relentlessly bleak and un-PC. The movie inadvertently gives you a glimpse into what Scott’s career could’ve been, had Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson not taken a chance on him following The Hunger. If anything, it’s a great example of how the director had a nose for editing that trumped his producers’. The original 120+ minute theatrical cut was a product of Ray Stark, who felt the need to pad out the picture in order to try and water down the violence. The results were an interminable slog, while Scott’s preferred 2007 Director’s Cut shortens the movie by twenty minutes, rendering it a whole hell of a lot breezier, if no less brutal.

#12. DOMINO [2005] (w. Richard Kelly)

“With each passing second, reality eclipsed into the asphalt horizon…”

Domino is when the drugs peak. An overdose of the visual tricks Scott toyed with making Man on Fire, his chronicling of the titular bounty hunter’s life (played with boyish sexiness by Keira Knightley) is far from being what anybody could consider a completely cohesive work. It rambles and wanders, chain-smoking cigarettes while caught in an LSD daydream, carrying the trademark stuffed-to-the-gills framework screenwriter Richard Kelly specialized in with Donnie Darko and Southland Tales. The overwhelmingly negative reaction the film initially (and still does) enjoy is completely fathomable and somewhat justified. Nothing quite sticks, as the movie jumps from one feverish scenario to the next, Scott superimposing images on top of one another and repeating dialogue, creating a veritable cinematic cacophony that is just as claustrophobic as it is cluttered. Yet the movie’s energy is effervescent, joyously embracing the filmic spilling of id and carnal, violent fantasy. One could argue that Scott’s whole career was leading up to this point, for better or worse, and the audience is only left to buy the movie wholesale or reject it outright.

There’s something to be said for a picture whose perusing of the cultural gutter is led by a man who found most of his art to be disregarded in any serious sense. Domino is, weirdly enough (as she’s a model and daughter of Manchurian Candidate actor Laurence Harvey), our surrogate for this insane ride through tabloid America. She’s a woman who had every privilege given to her at birth (beauty, wealth, a forced-upon education), but instead opted to enter the rough and tumble world of LA bounty hunting. As the girl herself puts it, “I wanted to have a little fun.” Scott and Kelly then load her into the director’s usual cinematic shotgun and send her hurtling 1000 MPH through a Jerry Springer-soaked world. Here she finds a father (Mickey Rourke, actually delivering a somewhat interesting take on his lug persona as legendary bounty hunter, Ed Moseby) and potential suitor (Edgar Ramirez, stealing the whole movie as the volatile Choco). They’re a dysfunctional unit, but loyal to the very end. Their apocalypse comes in the form of a jackrabbit reality TV producer (Christopher Walken, practically having a stroke on screen) and a shady bail bondsman (Delroy Lindo) who gets the crew mixed up in a Mexican standoff with the mob. None of it makes a whole lot of sense, but then again, none of it is really supposed to. There’s a reason the opening title card cries “This is a true story…sort of.” Reality and fiction become interchangeable, as Scott washes the frame out and drags it through the piss-stained streets, creating an aura of filth that is, from an insider’s perspective, a glimpse into what our perception of American pop culture had become at that point in time.

Whether or not this works for the viewer is more than likely going to depend on their delicate sensibilities. Domino is loud, abrasive, fucked up and ugly. It’s the product of an artist who didn’t really seem to give a shit if the audience was game for the ride or not. This marks a first in Scott’s career, as even Revenge (which would probably be the film’s closest cousin in terms of sheer purposeful hostility) offers something of a linear track for the ticket-buyer to follow, resulting in a moral parable. Domino presents no such easy in or out. It’s a perverse “grand statement” picture that is practically waving its finger in the viewer’s face as they watch Choco sever a man’s arm with a shotgun. “You wanted filth, well you got it,” the movie is saying, rubbing your nose in not only a self-created culture of easy celebrity, but also the embracement of ignorance. That’s ballsy and harsh and not for everyone.

Still – even with all of the viciousness and social antagonism contained within Domino, there are also moments of overwhelming beauty. Tom Waits emerging from the ether to act as a dirt-smeared angel, prophesizing in the middle of the desert following an RV crash is divine filmic genius. And when Scott needs to stage the violence at the film’s finale, he does so with his usual operatic flair for the senseless, letting bullets tear flesh before an explosion launches gunmen into outer space. For all of the movie’s bizarre critiquing of a trash media obsessed society run amuck, Scott never loses sight of being an entertainer. He might be interested in mining truth from this mescaline-fueled shit storm, but he certainly has no time for reality. In the end, all that remains is one of the weirdest, most indulgent big budget productions ever projected onto the silver screen. You might not like it, but the sheer commitment to vision contained within Domino is impossible to deny.

#11. SPY GAME [2001] (w. Michael Frost Beckner & David Arata)

“Don’t ever risk your life for an asset. If it comes down to you or them…send flowers.”

If Tony Scott’s original bond with Jerry Bruckheimer was forged in the name of changing the way big budget Hollywood motion pictures were supposed to look and feel, Spy Game is the antithesis to their commercial revolution. While the stylistic tics he’d honed making blockbuster after blockbuster for the mega-producer are still present (ugh, those freeze frame time cards), there’s something of a regression going on in how he handles both his two movie stars (Robert Redford and Brad Pitt) and the overall story of a former Cold War operative’s final mission to save his protégé. This generational meeting is most readily apparent in the way he cast Redford and Pitt as two peers colliding and working together, all in the name of a tale that felt antiquated by 2001. More indebted to John le Carré than James Bond, the distrustful paranoid streak that began with Enemy of the State and Crimson Tide ends with a treatise on how the American government views those who work in the shadows on its behalf, ready to sell the assets out rather than own up to the work they did in the name of global competition.

Scott’s overt rejection of 007 tropes (“I thought spies drank martinis?”) in favor of a more character-driven approach clashes with his tendencies as a born and bred action filmmaker. Each mini-set piece he constructs within the movie (as Redford’s analyst grooms Pitt’s Vietnam sniper throughout a twenty year span) clashes with the lengthy dialogue scenes, resulting in something of a herky-jerk rhythm as the movie jumps back and forth between time periods. It wouldn’t be unfair to count Spy Game as being possibly his sloppiest effort, as a beautifully framed and cut interrogation scene is quickly followed by an on the nose music cue. To make matters worse, brown filters add video game cut scene ugliness to his usually lovely composition. That said, Scott also recognizes that having Redford and Pitt share the screen at the same time does most of the heavy lifting for him, as the director’s uncanny sense of subatomic movie star allure oozes from the picture.

Scott’s love of romanticism essentially guides the second half of Spy Game. Not only is the movie an amorous story between two men on various missions, it finds Pitt’s younger operative risking it all for a noble doctor (Catherine McCormack). Their relationship becomes a beating heart, driving a picture that could’ve easily fallen apart under its own continent-jumping weight. Like Michael Mann, Scott enjoys a solid, smoldering affair, lending Spy Game a soft core. Even when he was working within genre confines and attempting to play classicist, the filmmaker was able to find a human element he and his audience could connect to. The final frames of Spy Game are heart-swelling and lovely – a stolen glance between two helicopters taking on an almost elemental representation of sheer devotion.

However, there’s a staleness pervading Spy Game that cannot be shaken, as Scott feels somewhat bored behind the camera. It’s no wonder his next film, Man on Fire, would see him shaking up his style completely in service of his favorite themes (guilt, revenge, redemption). By 2001, the director had come to truly define a certain essence of saleable filmmaking that no longer seemed to interest him. None of this is to say that Spy Game is a bad movie. It’s just that, contextually, it’s the lag in a filmography where a choice had to be made by the creator. He could either stay doing the same thing over and over again, or reinvent himself completely in an effort to reinvigorate those creative muscles. Thankfully, Scott chose Option B and ended up giving us one hell of a masterwork with his favorite leading man.

#10. THE TAKING OF PELHAM 123 [2009] (w. Brian Helgeland)

The Tarantino Connection with Tony Scott is strong (the young director copped colored character code names for Reservoir Dogs from Joseph Sargent’s original Pelham). However, Scott doesn’t seem all that interested in the taut funkiness of the 1974 Walter Matthau v. Robert Shaw joint. Instead, the director appreciates that the film he’s remaking is a complete actor’s piece, capitalizing not only on Matthau and Shaw’s rumpled handsomeness, but also brilliant performers like Martin Balsam, Hector Elizondo and Jerry Stiller. Sargent loved his actors and let them play and define their characters in small, understated ways. Instead of going with subtlety, Scott’s direction favors overblown machismo. Denzel Washington and John Travolta replace Matthau and Shaw as the MTA dispatcher and the hijacker seeking revenge on a city for doing him wrong, each thespian hiding movie star moxie underneath a peach dress shirt and neck tattoos.

Like Sargent’s film, Tony Scott’s Pelham acts as a compelling portrait of New York City during the times in which it was made. Shot partially on location, the original Pelham joins a pocket of pictures like Taxi Driver and Manhattan that are both incredibly diverting and invaluable as time capsules – portraits of an NYC that was grimy and dark and dangerous. Once David Shire’s infectious main theme is laid over the images, we’re transported back to the days of Blue Magic and 42nd Street; ominous overtones punctuated with wah wah pedals and heavy bass. Scott’s film takes place in the Disneyland that NYC later became, after Giuliani cleaned up the gutters and Bloomberg embraced the corporate fat cats. James Gandolfini vividly brings his Mayor caricature to life, combining the two bureaucratic titans of aughts New York (and is joined by a team of character actors similar to Sargent’s that includes John Turturro and Luis Guzman). Often the movie feels like an overt critique of the Big Apple’s industrial scrubbing, while still replicating the old school thrills of the 1974 original.

But let’s face it; this is Washington and Travolta’s movie through and through. One of the great joys of cinema is watching movie stars who absolutely own their respective wattage facing off without any kind of inhibition. Both play men accused of financial crimes that they committed for completely different reasons. Where Washington’s started-from-the-bottom man behind the boards hides a smartest guy in the room aura beneath the slumped shoulders of shame, Travolta portrays his $10 million demanding terrorist with a hypersexual flair. His white-collar crimes led to a life on the inside of a prison cell as an “ass man.” Not only does he say that Denzel Washington’s character would’ve been his bitch in prison, his character is first introduced with a Jay-Z song, the lyrics acting like a fighter’s entrance music: ‘I got 99 problems but a bitch ain’t one.’ What do any of these choices mean? It’s not entirely clear. Is it a response to the tabloid rumors pervading Travolta’s personal life? Is it a strengthening of the dichotomy between his Wall Street hijacker who stole for money and Washington’s college-tuition starved family man? Or is it simply a semi-homophobic dimension added to give the character “depth”?

This ambiguity is actually part of the problem, and why the film ranks so low on this list. Scott and his Man on Fire screenwriter, Brian Helgeland, only really seem to be playing completely on the surface of this giant pond. The Taking of Pelham 123 remake reeks of “first draft,” no matter how escapist the end product may actually be. The third act of the film ends up almost tanking it completely, as the anti-climactic ending of the original is eschewed for Scott’s usual action picture bombast. It’s a weird amalgamation of an old world style of movie and the modernity of 2009 multiplex cinema, coming together for something of a muddled mess. There are joys to be extracted from Scott first boarding a train in the name of delivering a “high-octane thrill ride,” but they are much more simplistic than Sargent’s masterful original.

#9. TOP GUN [1986] (w. Jim Cash & Jack Epps, Jr.)

“I feel the need. The need…for speed.”

“Game changer” is usually a bullshit term; a Pete Hammond pull-quote fit for hacky, floating head one-sheets. However, with Top Gun it feels wholly appropriate, as Tony Scott’s landmark Don Simpson/Jerry Bruckheimer piece of pop military fetishism helped define the aesthetics of the action picture for years to come. Though it has since gone on to become a punch line to cineastes (aided in no small part by Quentin Tarantino’s infamous Sleep With Me monologue dissecting the picture’s homoerotic elements), the fact remains that it is one of the decade’s defining motion pictures, helping to launch Tom Cruise into the upper stratosphere of movie superstardom.

Though the involvement of the US Navy (who required approval on the script in exchange for aid on the production) cements the movie as being the best 100-minute recruitment video ever made, it also lends an aura of authenticity that cannot be recreated in the modern era of CGI glut. These are real dogfights, captured on film without the help of overbearing effects. The aerial photography in Top Gun is dizzying, lifting the viewer up and flipping them around, over and over, until an intense sensation of vertigo sends you running for the theater exit. When the movie was re-released in IMAX 3D in 2013, the “ride” aspect of the picture was enhanced tenfold, transforming what at first seemed like a crude money grab into a must see six-day cinematic event.

Roger Ebert famously quipped in his semi-positive review: "Movies like Top Gun are hard to review because the good parts are so good and the bad parts are so relentless.” That’s bullshit. Tony Scott again indulges in his diegetic use of music, expounding upon the experiment he began with Bauhaus in The Hunger. The ensuing ubiquity of the movie’s soundtrack is no mere coincidence. Tony Scott transforms Kenny Loggins’ pounding Top 40 radio ready ridiculousness into a Greek chorus, cheering on Maverick (Cruise) and Ice Man (Val Kilmer) as they engage in death-defying aerial battles. Meanwhile, Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” becomes a cacophonous sonic cave painting, erotic and engulfing as an ice cube is trailed down Kelly McGillis’ tummy. To deny Scott’s union of music and moving image is a foolish endeavor, as it negates the very essence of hit-making. In these moments, Scott is playing cinematic Phil Spector, utilizing a knack for recognizing the perfect “hook.”

The movie’s enormous success (it raked in nearly $180 million in US box office alone) has since made it an easy target for those ready to turn their nose up at what is essentially a confection ready for mass consumption. But the skill employed to create such a masterpiece of consumerist cinema is undeniable, as the muted drum machines, roaring rock guitar and eye for iconography blocs into the platonic ideal for the mall crowd blockbuster. Top Gun is testament to the fact that just because something is populist doesn’t necessarily mean it’s bad. In the modern era of factory-line action toy commercials, a defined stylist like Scott is a severely missed commodity (could you imagine his Iron Man movie?). Sure, the finale might be the most forgettable (and frankly preposterous) bit in the entire movie, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an absolute joy to behold. Though he would go on to make much better motion pictures, Top Gun granted Scott the keys to the Hollywood kingdom, and the action genre was much better off for it.

Read Part Two

Comments