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

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

Read Part One

#8. ENEMY OF THE STATE [1998] (w. David Marconi)

“The only privacy that’s left is inside your head.”

Enemy of the State is in the unique position of being a picture that is incredibly forward thinking (in its prediction of post-9/11 Patriot Act Republican privacy hawking), rooted firmly in the cinematic era it was produced (Seth Green’s yellow glasses are a '90s crime against humanity), all while keeping one foot squarely in the past (being essentially a mash up of every paranoid conspiracy thriller the '70s produced). The movie also begins a period in Tony Scott’s career where he rejected the military propaganda he created completely. The politics here are as restrained as they are in Crimson Tide (which expounded upon Hitchcockian discussions of war), saddling an otherwise rote Man Who Knew Too Much riff with a rebellious attitude toward the government. It’s like watching your well-off, already Democratic leaning father-in-law become more radical as he delves deeper into Facebook, shouting into the void about how he’s just not going to let the Man keep him down anymore.

The best part about this is, unlike your real father-in-law (who is just as quick to sling a few racial jokes as he is to vote for Obama), Scott spent a solid chunk of his career creating with black actors. Beverly Hills Cop II saw him working with Eddie Murphy. Damon Wayans was paired with Bruce Willis for The Last Boy Scout, and Wesley Snipes with Robert De Niro for The Fan. He made five movies starring Denzel Washington. With Enemy of the State, he cast Will Smith at the peak of his movie star powers. All of these roles (especially Wayans’ Jimmy Dix, who played a position dominated by white men in the NFL) could’ve easily gone to Caucasian actors. Yet Scott consistently worked with men and women of color. We often complain about how undiversified Hollywood is, but Scott actually used some of the biggest canvases available to exuberantly showcase talented POC. In short, he wasn’t just a progressive in spirit; he put his money where his mouth was.

While certainly not his best work, Enemy of the State nevertheless feels the most indebted to cinematic history. Gene Hackman’s professional surveillance technician, Brill, is a return to his work as Harry Caul in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation. In fact, an NSA file photo of Brill shown in the movie is taken from Coppola’s 1974 masterwork, possibly indicating that Enemy of the State is an unofficial sequel, with Caul living under a phony name years after he’d gutted his own apartment in a paranoid fit. And Hackman’s character isn’t the only historic DNA the movie contains. Jason Lee’s wrong place/wrong time nature photographer (who just happens to videotape a political assassination) feels like family to John Travolta’s sound technician in Brian De Palma’s Blow Out, or David Hemmings’ fashion shooter in Antonioni’s Blow-Up. Scott and screenwriter David Marconi are letting you peruse some of their favorite paranoid picks, splicing together a crowd-pleasing update on the “trust no one” ethos of pictures like The Parallax View.

It’s just too bad that, at least stylistically speaking, Scott seems to be on auto-pilot. This isn’t entirely surprising, since he initially turned down Jerry Bruckheimer’s offer to direct the movie. At this point in the '90s (post Don Simpson, who died in 1995 under an avalanche of cocaine), Bruckheimer’s militaristic fetish had bled into his directors’ output, particularly Michael Bay and Tony Scott’s. This began right before Simpson departed (with Crimson Tide and The Rock) and continued on with Armageddon and Enemy of the State, lending the pulpy thrillers something of hard-edged, metallic homogeny. Only where Bay’s bad men in uniform (like Ed Harris’ psychotic general who seizes Alcatraz in The Rock) were lensed with something of a jingoistic admiration, Scott’s movies oozed distrust for the soldiers. From the trigger-happy sailors in Crimson Tide to the surveillance mercenaries in Enemy of the State, Scott enjoyed delving into the armed forces’ dark side. So while Chris Lebenzon’s editing keeps each picture moving with similar ADD-addled rhythms, it was clear Scott was no longer celebrating the US armed forces, but instead cinematically wondering if we were moving into a corporately run fascist state, where our every move is being monitored by suits. Three years later, his nightmare came true after George W. Bush signed one of our country’s most invasive bills into law.

#7. BEVERLY HILLS COP II [1987] (w. Danilo Bach & Daniel Petrie Jr.)

“Fuck Rambo.”

The first Beverly Hills Cop is pretty much perfect. It hits every beat effortlessly, allowing each character a moment to shine and find themselves, all while Eddie Murphy says “fuck” a lot (he used to be really good at that). One could argue that Martin Brest never bested it (though Midnight Run comes pretty damn close). With Axel Foley, Murphy refined the movie star charisma he’d discovered on set with Walter Hill in 48 Hrs., resulting in the best big screen character of his career. All that being said, a return to perfection is never a solid proposition (unless your name is Francis Ford Coppola). But that’s what Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer had in mind after Cop combined with Top Gun for over $400 million in American box office between the years of 1984 – 1986. The Simpson/Bruckheimer action aesthetic was now cemented and, in turn, they brought along the director who helped bolster the producers as being a household names, hoping against hope to replicate the smash success of Axel’s original adventure.

Beverly Hills Cop II feels like it was directed by an extraterrestrial. That’s the only way to explain it, as the entire film plays like psychotic symphony, composed by outer space beings who only learned how to speak human via copious weekends at the cinema. While we’ve come to laud Lord & Miller for lampooning the look of the Simpson/Bruckheimer genre factory with their 21 Jump Street movies, it’s hard not to love the insincere steamroller that was Murphy/Scott Unlimited. Everything is awesome? Hell yes. Just give Judge Reinhold a missile launcher and Brigitte Nielson a case of killing tools. Sit back and watch the world burn as we enter another dimension of anti-reality, courtesy of '80s excess. Beverly Hills Cop II is arguably one of the most apathetically made pictures in the history of Hollywood, and that’s not a knock at all.

There are certainly rough patches, but watching Eddie Murphy become a black superhero is something to behold. Besides, whenever you get tired of watching Foley impersonate whoever the fuck else is on screen, Dean Stockwell shows up with a ridiculous mustache and gets punked by a sneering Jürgen Prochnow. Nothing in this movie makes a lick of sense, right up to the point where Hugh Hefner himself throws the entire production out of the Playboy Mansion. Where Brest was all about the laidback camaraderie of men, Scott is creating an adult cartoon. Yet when Allen Garfield’s pompous new Police Chief gets tossed from his inexplicably refurbished department (where was the Beverly Hills municipal budget before?), you want to cheer on our irresponsible heroes. Beverly Hills Cop II is ego run rampant; Raw to the original’s minimalist Delirious. It’s glorious.

However, if we must break it all down into technical accomplishments, Beverly Hills Cop II was the blueprint for everything Simpson/Bruckheimer would do from here on out. Where the super producers were enabling idiosyncratic stylists like Michael Mann in the early part of the decade, Scott’s hazy, monolithic vision of LA is a fever-dream both he and Michael Bay would be attempting to replicate throughout the rest of their careers. From the bombastic, Tower Records-ready soundtrack to the elaborate heist set pieces, shot and cut to put you directly inside of chaotic discord, Scott’s film is blazing a new visual trail. There’s no denying that this movie helped enable future glut mavens who, because of Scott’s rip-roaring success, were able to expound upon his already ludicrous portraits of men with guns run amuck. The Bad Boys movies were practically born from Foley’s destructive means of detecting.

For better or worse, Beverly Hills Cop II became the first in a string of Tony Scott pictures that hinged on anarchic weirdness. Say what you want about the director, he was a guy who got considerably weirder as he got older, and Beverly Hills Cop II feels like his gateway drug. This is that first line of coke, promising that the party is only getting started (and is probably going to end up with you somehow crashing a Mercedes through a storefront display on Rodeo Drive). So while the sequel may not have been wholly successful in delivering “more of the same” for audiences who wanted to revisit the original’s modest masculine sweetness, it stands on its own as a glossy, testosterone-drenched shoot ‘em up. Cue the Bob Seger and start spewing bullets into oblivion.

#6. THE LAST BOY SCOUT [1991] (w. Shane Black)

“Friday night’s a great night for football…”

Considering how many catastrophes occurred behind the scenes on The Last Boy Scout, it’s a minor miracle the movie turned out as good as it did. It was the first time Tony Scott helmed an action film for mega mogul Joel Silver; an over-the-top personality he would parody in his next picture (what the hell did you think Saul Rubinek was doing in True Romance?). The production was a tumultuous one, with Silver publicly calling it “one of the three worst experiences in [his] life.” Silver had just won a bidding war to bring Lethal Weapon wunderkind screenwriter Shane Black’s next potential blockbuster to the big screen. Then Bruce Willis, fresh off the farcical bomb Hudson Hawk, signed on. Damon Wayans went from being a bit player to having quite the rising stock price, making minor appearances in major motion pictures (like the original Beverly Hills Cop) while blowing minds on small screens as Homey the Clown. On paper, it seemed like a terrific formula.

By all accounts, Wayans and Willis hated one another, as Bruce joined forces with Silver and hijacked the shoot. They rewrote sections of Black’s script and threatened to fire Scott when he would raise objections over scenes he disliked, forcing him to film them under the danger of losing his salary. Composer Michael Kamen hated the first cut of the movie, and only agreed to score it because he had close personal ties to the star and super producer. In the end, the real hero became Stuart Baird, who re-cut the film from what was reportedly a borderline unwatchable work print. Truth be told, you can still feel many inconsistencies in the edit (there are logic errors via numerous scene transitions), but Baird’s workmanlike splicing keeps The Last Boy Scout chugging along at such a breakneck pace that it’s impossible not to get caught up in its freight train of testosterone-juiced storytelling.

This Frankenstein style of movie construction probably also accounts for why it feels least like what had become thoroughly defined as a “Tony Scott Film” by 1991. Ward Russell reteamed with Scott after shooting Days of Thunder (marking the last time the two would work together) and catches all of the billowing curtains and Willis’ hazy cigarette smoke. But Scott’s trademark close-ups are fragmented in the cutting, as the film jumps from loving profiles quickly to eyes, never allowing your gaze to linger on a frame like it does in his very best movies. That’s one of the main differences between Scott and Michael Bay – Scott didn’t usually throw his compositions into a blender with quite the same devil may care attitude. He would hold his camera longer, letting the actors work within the frame, utilizing their most valuable tools. What doesn’t suffer at all is the bombastic violence and tough guy noir he’d started to flex his visual acumen for on Revenge. When paired with his Peckinpah riff, Scott’s Shane Black at bat feels like a one-two that signaled a significant trend that lasted for a good portion of his early filmography. When working with Simpson and Bruckheimer, the end product was much more readily accessible and downplayed the carnage. Once left to his own devices with other producers, Scott often reveled in ultra-violent crime cinema with a mean streak. The aesthetics unifies them (and you can certainly feel Scott bucking against Silver’s oppressive want to mold the man into Richard Donner), but the schism is still rather defined.

Perhaps the coolest element of The Last Boy Scout is the fact that the picture is proof of the theory of artistic collection. Should you gather this many talented folks in a room, they’re more than likely going to give you enough great material from which to source a damn good time at the movies. Though they may have despised each other, Willis and Wayans still manufacture incredible chemistry. Their disdain for and annoyance with one another is palpable in the early scenes, as Wayans’ disgraced NFL quarterback, Jimmy Dix, wants nothing to do with Willis’ drunken has-been, Joe Hallenbeck. Willis, in particular, gives it his all. Hallenbeck isn’t simply a John McClane riff (though there are certainly aspects of the Nakatomi hero present). The star taps into the man’s sad core while still remaining incredibly funny. Shane Black’s trademark quips (“I like ice. Leave it the fuck alone…”) are perfect for Willis’ shaggy dog delivery. Best of all is a late in the game scene-stealing turn from Taylor Negron, whose murderous henchman, Milo, becomes the star of the show. Negron runs wild with the character, creating perhaps the greatest bad guy in Black’s canon (which is full of them). So while the entire production may have constantly felt like it was seconds from full collapse, you can hardly tell watching the badass action picture The Last Boy Scout turned out to be. Though there’s no official confirmation, it wouldn’t be surprising to find that Scott danced a jig when the movie turned out to be a minor success financially, and a bigger killer on home video.

#5. DÉJÀ VU [2006] (w. Bill Marsilii & Terry Rossio)

If Enemy of the State is an old man staring into the future in wide-eyed terror, Déjà Vu is that same weathered soul gazing back at the past with a tinge of melancholic regret. Inside of all the movie’s sci-fi technobabble involving wormholes and the ability to monitor the bygone is an incredible human story about a man wrangling with the inability to accept that he cannot change what has already happened. The simplistic view of Déjà Vu is a post-9/11 War on Terror fantasy, in which those hoping to stop extremist violence before it even occurs can do so via astrophysics. Expounded into a universal ethos, it’s a movie about accepting that you must live with certain tragedies, no matter how hard you try and avoid them. Death and disaster are inevitable byproducts of existence; occurrences every human being must endure.

All that being said, for each big, brainy idea Bill Marsilii and Terry Rossio pack into the script, Scott still capitalizes on every opportunity to blow up a few vehicles. The inciting ferry bombing is a flurry of flaming, flailing bodies and automobiles, launched from a ship’s deck into the Mississippi. A chase across a bridge becomes a rocket into the past, all while Denzel Washington’s ATF Agent, Douglas Carlin, crashes cars in the present. Both are some of the most thrilling, dynamic moments of action in Scott’s entire career, as he utilizes the movie’s thematic concepts to craft impeccable set pieces, creating a unified tone. The ferry bombing evokes not only real life terrorist attacks, but also highlights the film’s post-Katrina New Orleans setting; a constant reminder that sometimes nature will take its course, bulldozing all humanity in its path. Still certainly easy to peg as an “action picture,” Déjà Vu packs an emotional wallop more potent than most of its genre peers.

If there’s a serious criticism to be lobbed at Déjà Vu, it’s that the movie stops being as relentlessly engaging once it transitions into being a traditional ticking clock terrorist action movie in the final third. Sure, Jim Caviezel is great as the self-proclaimed “patriot” bomber, fighting for his own twisted form of freedom. But the further we move away from Val Kilmer and his team of time-bending scientists, each trying to change the way we view surveillance forever, the clearer it becomes that Scott almost seems uncomfortable with some of the more heady aspects of his movie. That’s not to say he doesn’t embrace them while they’re happening (with deft use of an HD Genesis Camera), it’s just that his sandbox was so defined at this point, and it’s quite clear that he enjoys playing in it. Still, even though the concepts might outweigh the shootouts in terms of excitability, Scott still proves that he was one of the very best at staging a thrilling climax that is as brutal thematically as it is stunning in terms of sheer pyrotechnics.

Adding an extra layer of sadness is the fact that Déjà Vu would be the last time Scott teamed with Jerry Bruckheimer, the man who ostensibly gave the director a big screen career. Together, they helped change the way we look at the blockbuster entirely. It was a brand of action cinema that defined a decade and raked in millions upon millions worldwide. In hindsight, one can’t help but picture this movie acting as the cinematic representation of Scott and Bruckheimer looking into the past themselves and seeing Déjà Vu as a culmination of their work together. They had altered the filmic landscape entirely, and there was nothing they could do about that now but look forward to a lifetime of opportunity to improve upon what came before. Unfortunately, Scott didn’t see himself in that future, marking Déjà Vu as something of a major film in a Bruckheimer canon. Their original “sure thing” was gone, and with him went the producer’s status as a genre staple. It doesn’t seem like coincidence that Bruckheimer quit making action films after Scott took his own life, instead opting to bring Disney theme park rides to the screen and dabbling in reality TV. The maestro was gone, and all that remained was their past together.

#4. TRUE ROMANCE [1993] (w. Quentin Tarantino)

“You’re so cool, you’re so cool, you’re so cool…”

Sometimes two people are just meant for each other. That’s the hook of most great romances. And like the hipster hepcat lovers on the run at the center of True Romance, Tony Scott and Quentin Tarantino were perfect for one another’s freakout, weirdo pop sensibilities. There’s a vibrancy on screen that was absent from even the best of Scott’s filmography up until this point. The life that radiates from Tarantino’s wholly fictional yet still semi-autobiographical screenplay is translated via Scott’s lens, as the would-be icon’s love of comic books, Asian cinema and rockabilly just bleeds into every scene. Scott’s infatuated with the rookie screenwriter’s “fuck the world” attitude, to the point that moments in the picture feel like the cinematic distillation of reckless youth.

An equally vital collaboration is Scott’s reteaming with director of photography Jeffrey L. Kimball. Kimball shot Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop II and Revenge, his hazy, opaque frame just dripping with atmosphere. Scott employed Ward Russell on Days of Thunder and The Last Boy Scout, lending both of those movies a similar smoky aura. But Kimball’s eye borders on impressionistic at times, as with True Romance he improves on the blue and black-silhouetted love scene from Top Gun, capping it with a poignant tableau of the amorous couple holding hands at the edge of the bed. When the violence explodes, Kimball layers on neo-noir brutality; sweat and blood mixing together beneath shadows and shafts of light that beam in through a dive Hollywood motel’s openings. A final shootout emulates the bombastic, gun smoke-littered air of the John Woo films Clarence (Christian Slater) and Alabama (Patricia Arquette) watch together before embarking on their insane, murderous journey. It’s an amalgamation of pastiche, topped off with a drizzle Quentin Tarantino’s dizzying, motor-mouthed dialogue.

Perhaps most impressive of all is Scott’s eye for a great face; the recognition of “movie star” qualities years before the rest of the general population would wise the hell up to an actor’s presence. Seemingly every role in True Romance is filled with a mug audiences would come to know and love over time. Samuel L. Jackson, Gary Oldman, Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini; each of these performers are allowed to create dynamite characters in mere seconds of screen time. The story goes that Brad Pitt was the one who suggested his roommate from hell, Floyd, would never leave the couch or be more than arm’s length from his bong. Meanwhile, seasoned pros like Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken are given the picture’s most memorable (and uncomfortably un-PC) showdown, in which Hooper slings racial slurs at the legendary actor more penetrating than any bullet fired during the movie’s runtime. At times, True Romance almost plays like psychotic black box theater, rushing from moment to moment, completely out of breath as a barely-tested Tarantino flexes every “cool” muscle he’s got for the world to witness. It’s exhilarating.

In the end, True Romance is undoubtedly Tony Scott’s movie. Between this and The Last Boy Scout, it was clear that, as much as Scott thrived in the Simpson/Bruckheimer machine, he was at his best when turned loose and given a great script by a young, brash writer who fancied himself a tough guy. Shane Black and Quentin Tarantino freed Scott to really go apeshit, allowing his pictures to become unhinged slices of male fantasy. Even when True Romance stumbles a bit, the unbridled élan is a joy. This is a pop auteur finding his kindred spirits, and who was more than happy to tell the tales of likeminded, vulgar cinephiles. It’s the best kind of love affair – where one partner enables the other to discover an appreciation for life that wasn’t fully present before they came into contact. No wonder Scott would hire Tarantino to do a ghost polish on Crimson Tide – he just adored the kid that much.

#3. THE HUNGER [1983] (w. Ivan Davis & Michael Thomas)

“Bela Lugosi’s dead.”

The performer prances before the camera, trapped behind a designer cage as he pouts and poses. He chants the aforementioned mantra over and over, as if beckoning us into an arena that we don’t quite understand. In the crowd around us, sex starved cretins, all of who have donned their best leather (the better to catch a strobe light with). This is 1981. This is the night. These are the modern, monochromatic lost souls who call it home.

The opening of Scott’s debut feature is not only visually striking, using dissonant, industrial drums and editing rhythms to throw us off completely, but is also an immaculate slice of visual storytelling. His usage of Bauhaus created a goth anthem, becoming diegetic, thematically trumpeting what’s to come. This is Ziggy Stardust’s Vampire Playground; a post-human piece of horror that captures an already soulless MTV motif and repurposes it to comment on a decade we hadn’t yet lived through in 1983.

In an American Wasteland, human scientists like Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon) want this New Wave party to keep raging into infinity, and that’s just what posh, pompadour-sporting vampire John Blaylock (David Bowie) needs. John has a disease, given to him by his Egyptian wife, Miriam (Catherine Deneuve). It’s the illness of eternal life. But now Miriam is bored with her centuries-old lover, yet John isn’t ready to leave quite yet. Where most vampire tales romanticize the notion of interminable love (think Bram Stoker’s Dracula), The Hunger is more infatuated with how all things end. Scott’s use of cold mise-en-scène keeps us at a distance, while alternately creating a carefully curated tableau of existential dread. All of this will die. Feelings. Flesh. Time itself. Age is a plague.

The Hunger is a fascinating filmic breed. The picture reveals just how skilled Scott had become in creating arresting frames during his days helming commercials. Simultaneously, the movie displays the brash confidence of a painter; an artist Scott always fancied himself being following his attainment of a Masters at the Royal College of Sunderland. There’s something tactile and beautiful he finds in each frame, draping the edges in grey, highlighting the Maple of a violin, or the faded Pernambuco of John’s cello. But Scott’s focus and fascination with music, and how it connects us both to the now and then, are the thoughts of a scared middle-aged man, teetering on the edge of forty. The Dick Smith makeup (which suddenly transforms Bowie into the British counterpart of the grandpa from Texas Chain Saw) adds a tangibility to it all; a façade that the viewer can feel in their palms. All of these elements combine into an intoxicating concoction, distinct in any body of work.

Above all else, The Hunger is a grand announcement of a cinematic talent to watch. Every scene is immaculately designed and executed, with editing flourishes that harken back to Nicholas Roeg’s elliptical cuts in Don’t Look Now. The way a curtain billows in slow motion around a newly entangled pair of vampire lovers is just as important as the way blue light reflects off of the toilet when one of said paramours feels the sting of her new disease take hold. The Hunger is, without a doubt, as dazzling as anything to come out of the gluttonous mass that was the '80s. No need to apply any semblance of superfluous genre label. This is simply one of the decade’s great, great films.

#2. CRIMSON TIDE [1995] (w. Michael Schiffer)

“…in the nuclear world, the true enemy is war itself.”

In the Star Trek episode “The Doomsday Weapon,” the crew of the USS Enterprise encounters a planet destroyer that has decimated systems L-370 and L-374. Upon reaching their sister ship, the Constellation, Captain Kirk discovers Commodore Matt Decker, whose vessel was attacked by a conical shell, miles in length, one end filled with dazzling energy. Spock theorizes that the machine simply travels from system to system, breaking down planets and consuming their energy. Kirk compares the drifting beast to the hydrogen bomb; a weapon invented to decimate both sides in a conflict. These munitions were never actually supposed to be utilized, instead serving more as a threat to prevent war from ever arising. But once it was activated, the machine destroyed its creators and then everything else in its path. In essence, scientists had crafted mechanized death, and were foolish enough to use it.

During the climax of Crimson Tide, Executive Officer Ron Hunter (Denzel Washington), invokes Star Trek in an effort to motivate a nuclear submarine’s young radio officer to fix their communications. If he doesn’t, Captain Ramsey (Gene Hackman) is going to launch the boat’s nuclear payload straight at Russia, effectively kicking off World War III. Hours before, the sub had received an Emergency Action Message that was cut short. Hunter believes that it was a transmission meant to stop the launch order that had been sent over just minutes previous. This pop culture reference doesn’t seem haphazardly inserted, as Tony Scott’s tense, brilliant fictional update on the Cuban Missile Crisis has much more in common with Gene Roddenberry’s televised magnum opus than it does Run Silent, Run Deep (which is also referenced by the sailors aboard the USS Alabama). Michael Schiffer (with a ghost assist from Quentin Tarantino) ostensibly has written a feature length Trek episode set fifteen hundred feet below the ocean’s surface. The same philosophical concepts regarding war and man’s desire to destroy his fellow man are explored; all while Captains are relieved of their duty and mutinies are staged in order to take over the ship. Should you beam this tale aboard the Enterprise, it wouldn’t for a second feel out of place.

Unlike Top Gun, Crimson Tide was made without the aid of the military (the US Navy has actually condemned the picture’s depiction of submarine life), and is all the better for it. While Scott, Schiffer and Tarantino are certainly interested in realism, utilizing numerous military technical advisors in order to ensure the claustrophobic aura of the Alabama, what really fascinates them is how military men react to the extraordinary. For Ramsey, order is essential during times of trial - chain of command becoming absolute. Hunter instead believes that it is up to the individual to question the system, for if protocol negates logic then the world may truly end. Schiffer’s script positions these men on opposite sides of the philosophical spectrum. Ramsey is much more conservative; a lifer military man who has earned a reputation for being a no-nonsense hard-ass, running drills immediately after a fire breaks out in the galley. It wouldn’t be completely out of line to hypothesize that Ramsey is a Republican, exemplified via his “up from your bootstraps” mentality regarding the superiority of combat tested soldiers who didn’t have time to study theory in college. They were out winning the wars while Hunter was reading about them, educating his elitist mind to that point that, to Ramsey, he’d probably be more use in front of a lecture hall than he would on a ship’s bridge.

Crimson Tide also approaches the race of the two men vying for control as something that distances them from one another. Ramsey is constantly jabbing at Hunter, antagonizing the XO. While the two wait for the final transmission to tell them whether or not the planet is going to end by their hand, Ramsey and Hunter discuss Lipizzaner Stallions. Ramsey insists that the horses – the most highly trained in the world – are white. Hunter tells him that he’s wrong; at birth the steeds are black. Ramsey can only chuckle and comment on how simple it is to train the beasts: you simply stick a cattle prod up their ass. It’s an odd exchange that is all subtext, as Ramsey is relishing the animals’ torture and practically cracking a proverbial slave whip at the young black officer. It’s an incredible scene that tells you everything you need to know about the Captain and his subordinate, and both Hackman and Washington sell it with remarkable poise.

Beyond being his most stylistically restrained film (it’s basically a few whip pans away from being classically framed), Crimson Tide is the ultimate example of how great Scott could be with actors. It’s no wonder he essentially discovered his De Niro on the picture in Denzel, as he gets solid work out of everyone from the two leads to an eclectic cast that features Viggo Mortensen, James Gandolfini, Matt Craven and Jason Robards, all in parts both big and small. Scott and Schiffer allow each character a moment to shine, with Scott’s camera constantly positioned in the director’s trademark three quarter close-up to let the thespians shine in the frame. Meanwhile, Tarantino supplies a bevy of poppy punch-up, letting loose with Silver Surfer references that still somehow feel organically integrated. It’s the perfect paradigm of a mainstream movie that was polished to perfection (Robert Towne was even called in to rewrite a key scene that’s quoted at the top of this entry), yet the many cooks in the kitchen combine to serve up a unified flavor. It’s fine that the Navy finds Crimson Tide completely objectionable, as by aligning his film more with heady sci-fi instead of patriotic propaganda, Scott crafted one of the best commercial works of the 1990s.

#1. MAN ON FIRE [2004] (w. Brian Helgeland)

“Forgiveness is between them and God. It’s my job to arrange the meeting.”

In the stellar Esquire exposé "Whatever Happened to the Hollywood Action Hero?", Kevin Maher attempts to pinpoint just who, in the current crop of literal screen superheroes, represents a “last stand for masculinity.” The results were none of the Marvel Cinematic Universe elite, but rather the men who represented an “old school” essence – a sagacity the audience could sense just by looking at the crow’s feet around their eyes, and the smashed bridges in their beaks. Talking with Antoine Fuqua (who helped guide Denzel Washington to an Oscar in 2001 with Training Day), Maher got a key quote from the seasoned action helmer. “I’m constantly having this conversation with my agent”, Fuqua says, “‘How many guys am I going to see in spandex, who are flying around and saving the world at 23 years old? ’I don’t believe them. I don’t believe they have the life experience to do one per cent of the things that they’re doing or saying."

It’s safe to reason that Tony Scott felt the same way when it came to casting bodyguard John Creasy in his stellar remake of the under seen Scott Glenn vehicle (remember when those existed?), Man on Fire. Denzel plays a soldier who carries the sins of his murderous past like blocks around his ankles, slowly dragging his soul toward Hades. He’s a man on the brink of non-existence, drinking himself into oblivion while he plays with his pistol, silently wondering if today’s the day he puts one in his mouth. Brian Helgeland’s script only gives us scant clues as to what exactly plagues Creasy, as he asks his only friend left standing, the mysterious Rayburn (Christopher Walken), if God will forgive them both for what they’ve done. The rest of the burden is placed on the performer, whose stoic stature and iconic, handsome visage is softened and warped until we see the miles this man has trudged, leaving bodies in his wake. This isn’t just “life experience.” This is what it looks like to be haunted.

The biggest criticism lobbed at Scott’s return to Mexican revenge when it was first released in 2004 was that the movie took entirely too long to get to the bloodletting. But to deny the borderline Sirkian melodrama that Scott crafts in service of bringing Creasy back into the light is to reject cinema itself. Scott isn’t just building character here; he creates a hyper-saturated atmosphere of heightened emotions. Every scene is scored with bluster, the baroque architecture of the mansion in which Creasy’s employers (Radha Mitchell and Marc Antony) reside becoming a backdrop to Brechtian dramatics. At the center of it all is Peeta (Dakota Fanning), the cherubic angel who takes Creasy by the hand and teaches him that “it’s alright to live again.” Yes, the dynamics are amplified to the point of silliness, but it’s Scott rejecting the structure of traditional action pictures in service of transforming your heart into a harp that the movie effortlessly strums and strokes. The director is making you feel the lows of depression and the highs of discovering joy again, all in the service of setting you up to hate the fact that anybody would ever want to rob a human being of that sensation. It’s brilliant, manipulative cinema.

When Creasy does finally take his revenge, the violence is flat out Biblical in proportions, and the director relishes every chopped finger and blood squib. The religious iconography that dominated much of Revenge returns nearly fifteen years on, only our drinks have been spiked with a heavy dose of hallucinogens. Scott superimposes images onto one another, reverses the film stock, ramps speed and plays with exposure, all in the name of righteous fury. Man on Fire is angry and alive, a filmic resurrection of an artist who was wallowing in paranoid techno thrillers for far too long. Only with his rebirth comes a near deafening expounding upon the themes that have always fascinated him. Creasy becomes the ultimate representation of redemption – a man broken by the world, who rises from the ashes with a pistol in his belt. We are witness to a Second Coming, which can only end in the death of a thousand evildoers who tried to rob him of his spirit.

It’s presumptuous and arrogant to even try and ponder why anybody would take his or her own life. For any living creature, suicide is the most personal choice one can make: the decision regarding how an individual’s existence will end. But if there’s any film that seems like it might shine light onto how Scott saw himself as a human being while on this planet, Man On Fire might very well be that window. It was the movie that saw him reinventing his style again, trying to push the limits of what a commercially-minded movie was meant to look like. Yet it also tasks itself with examining the spirit of a man who survived against all odds, hoping to redeem the craft he’d slaved his whole life in service to. For all of its graphic violence and flaming explosions, it’s the simple human elements that come to define the movie at its core. Because that’s what Tony Scott was best at: not only giving the people what they wanted in terms of sheer entertainment, but also allowing them a moment to understand that showbiz could operate as more than just elementary distraction. It could be a glimpse at our own goodness, hidden deep beneath a veneer of diverting pageantry.