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The Ten Best of Tony Scott

Whether one loved of hated his particular brand of cinematic kinetics, there’s a lot that can be said about highly influential director and producer Tony Scott, who died following a tragic suicide yesterday at the age of 68. Some U.S. media sources reported that he had been diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer. (EDIT: his family has since denied the reports.) Brother of equally famous British director Ridley Scott, Tony has assuredly left behind a legacy equal to that of his older brother despite almost never getting the same kind of blanket praise. Tony Scott specialized in a fast paced, quick cutting blockbuster filmmaking long before people like Michael Bay or David Fincher graduated from making music videos to crafting features. Today, in honour of a man who made some of the most entertaining films ever made, let’s look back at some of his greatest achievements. (Please note that this list is a personal one and not purely analytical or list by most influential. Hence what some would deem the almost sacrilegious exclusion of the 1995 submarine thriller Crimson Tide.)

10. (tie) Enemy of the State (1998) – While more than a little silly at times when handling the actual dynamics of a Big Brother styled organization out to terminate the life of an unsuspecting everyman (Will Smith) unwittingly in possession of critical government secrets, Scott elevates the script of David Marconi almost to a form of grand theatre by never stopping to dwell on the actual particulars and by giving the audience a 132 minute chase sequence that rarely lets up. Also of note because next to the Bad Boys films (which owe Scott a huge debt), Smith would never have material this hard edged again.

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10. (tie) Days of Thunder (1990) – Made just as the NASCAR racing league was about to find a huge fan base, Scott teamed up with his most frequent production collaborators outside of his brother, producers Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, to tell the story of brash young upstart Cole Trickle (Tom Cruise, returning to a Scott film following the immensely successful Top Gun) and his rise, fall (due to injury and shell shock), and comeback on the oval circuits of the United States. The popularity of auto racing and particularly stock car racing owes a lot to Scott, who proved through what was then cutting edge camera techniques and scenes filmed during actual races that the spectacle that was often derided for just being a bunch of guys driving around in circles could be far more exciting when viewed through a different set of eyes.

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9. Unstoppable (2010) – Scott’s most recent film also manages to be one of his best by taking what was actually a partially true story, amping it up, turning it into an action extravaganza; placing the focus squarely on the dynamics two men (frequent Scott collaborator Denzel Washington as the veteran and Chris Pine, who has never been better, as the new guy partially responsible for the screw up) trying to stop a lumbering unmanned train gone out of control. The title adequately describes the action in a film that easily stands alongside young upstart The Raid: Redemption as one of the most unrepentant pieces of pure action cinema in this decade.

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8. Man on Fire (2004) – It most assuredly didn’t need to be four minutes shy of being two and a half hours long, but Scott’s revenge narrative about a lone-wolf bodyguard (Washington) looking to avenge the kidnapping of a young girl that was under his protection (Dakota Fanning) hits a lot of excellent character beats amid the beatings and sometimes appropriately icky sequences of torture. If Cannon Films had been a bit more ambitious during their 80s heyday, they might have come up with something close to what Scott manages here.

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7. The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009) – The one film in the works of Tony Scott most deserving of a re-examination outside of the light of the stellar 1974 original, since most audience members didn’t bother or care to realize that Scott was wisely trying to create a completely different film than its forebearer. Tonally, Scott’s actually pretty damned great remake from an era where most turned out to be dreadful, takes a more modern stance on the reasons for an escaped convict (John Travolta, in what might very well be the most misunderstood and unjustly maligned performances of all time) taking a NYC subway car for ransom and the disgraced former operator turned logistics expert (Washington) who has to stop him. Made during a time period of severe financial upheaval in the US, audiences expecting a beat for beat remake of the original were let down, but anyone looking for pure entertainment with a great modern contextualization of what goes into making a criminal can’t deny that this is incredibly strong work.

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6. The Fan (1996) – Largely forgotten about and unremarked upon now, Scott’s adaptation of Peter Abrahms’ pulpy tale of a deranged salesman (Robert DeNiro) stalking his favourite, but slumping San Francisco Giants slugger (Wesley Snipes, in his best performance in the action/thriller genre) works because Scott throws everything he has into making a trashy, tawdry novel into a stylized form of greek tragedy where a man playing God torments a gladiator out of adoration for his very existence. Stylistically this is Scott at his most undistilled (next to the far less successful Domino, of course), but despite how outlandish the film can get (it’s faithfulness to the source material almost becomes the film’s undoing once or twice) Scott can’t seem to restrain himself, which works in the film’s favour especially during the climax which recalls the opening another great film yet to come on the list.

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5. The Hunger (1983) – With his only foray into the horror genre acting as his feature filmmaking debut, Scott created one of the most audacious vampire films and AIDS parables ever created, and easily one of the most cerebral and thoughtful horror films of the late 20th century alongside Paul Schrader’s remake of Cat People and John Landis’ Innocent Blood. A great example of Scott’s adroitness at creating a menacing atmosphere that’s largely stripped away of the fast pacing he would adopted in the coming years, this tale of a female Egyptian bloodsucker (Catherine Deneuve) living on the blood of her many lovers and the one man (David Bowie) out to reverse his fate before passing away in 24 hours shows the rare side where Scott simply uses a fight for survival to propel his story over carpet bombing the audience with kinetic sequences. It still has the same fast pace, but a decidedly more sombre and at times downright bizarre tone that Scott somewhat sadly never returned to in his career, but one that his brother Ridley would actually come back to in some of his later work.

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4. The Last Boy Scout (1991) – More of a jewel in the crown of acerbic action screenwriter Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, the upcoming Iron Man 3), The Last Boy Scout is lunkheaded action movie bliss, and a great example of how Scott can do wonders with gleefully unhinged and truly out there material. This story of a disgraced cop (Bruce Willis) teaming with an NFL burnout (Damon Wayans) teaming up to solve a murder tied to a points shaving scandal feels almost surreal at times given the amount of one liners and sometimes out of place ultraviolence, but Scott makes the film an enormous amount of fun by positing it all within a world that could never actually exist. For a film with the potential to be exploitative and sleazy at its core, Scott makes it okay to feel entertained by it all by placing the scripts tongue back within its own cheek and making everything gleefully cartoonish.

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3. Top Gun (1986) – Tarsem Singh once said of Michael Bay (in a book about the history of MTV) that when they were both in film school together they were asked to make a music video of a song that really spoke to who they were as people. Singh chose a Tom Waits song, while Bay chose the love theme to Top Gun, Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away.” Singh used that story to highlight claims that Bay somehow “sold out” after film school, but in reality that was always the kind of film that Bay gravitated towards. The film that the song came from also had to speak to the then younger and more impressionable Bay’s love of all things militaristic, and Tony Scott (working under the Simpson and Bruckheimer banner for the first time) crafted one of the most jingoistic American films of an already jingoistic decade. It almost defined and excused 80s excess in one giant swoop, and while it isn’t the best of this bunch, the iconography of the film almost excuses anything terrible to say about it. Oh, and it made Tom Cruise a superstar. There’s that, too.

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2. Déjà vu (2006) – One of Scott’s final films, Déjà vu solidified the relationship between Scott as a storyteller and his work as a stylist. Visually stunning and thematically interesting (the logic of the film’s multiple timelines really does hold up quite well upon multiple viewings), this tale of a conflicted ATF agent (Washington) getting sent back in time repeatedly to stave off a tragedy and save a woman senselessly murdered in the process has a positively sprawling vision and imagination, and some truly underrated action set pieces.  It also has a huge heart and humanity to it that the normally colder and more calculating Scott never really inserted into his other work. It might seem like a jumbled sci-fi thriller, but it’s a technical masterwork.

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1. True Romance (1993) – In what will comes as a shock to very few, Scott’s work with a then budding screenwriter by the name of Quentin Tarantino tops the list of the director’s best work. Essentially nothing more at a basic level than another Bonnie and Clyde styled tale of young lovers on the lam, Scott, much like he did with the work of Shane Black a few years prior, elevates somewhat juvenile material to a form of high art. But unlike the surreal nature of The Last Boy Scout, Scott aims in an almost Shakespearian direction in juggling a script that’s packed full of interesting characters and situations. It revels in the same bad behaviour that permeates most Tarantino films, but Scott works extra hard to make the film look immaculate and to make the characters not so much sympathetic, but at the very least understandable in their motivations. Without Scott, Tarantino wouldn’t be who he is today, and it once again shows just how influential the late filmmaker truly was without every being overly recognized for it.

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