When faced with a suicide, it is impossible for even those close to a person to fully understand what it is that pushed them to such a final solution, and I certainly don’t intend to speculate about what might have led Tony Scott to take his own life this weekend.
Instead, let’s look back at his body of work and the mark he left on modern filmmaking. While I will not pretend to suddenly love everything he directed, his filmography is defined by an ever-shifting sense of style and by the way he successfully reinvented himself many times. With his brother, Ridley Scott, he created a company that has been responsible for successful film and television projects for decades now, and he had dozens of projects in development. Obviously, it’s impossible to guess what work he might have done in the future, so the best we can do now is look back at the highlights of the work he leaves behind.
I was thirteen when “The Hunger” was released, and even if that was the only film he ever directed, I would have owed him a hearty handshake. For thirteen year old me, “The Hunger” set the bar pretty high. Nudity from both Susan Sarandon and Catherine Deneuve? David Bowie as a vampire? Good lord, what part of that does thirteen year old me not like? The thing was, even at that age, I was aware that the film looked better than it played, that the style was overwhelming even if the story wasn’t. It was a gorgeous movie that had the pulse of a perfume commercial, a charge that would follow Scott through much of his career.
Not that he cared. After all, his second film was a pop culture phenomenon, and “Top Gun” is still thought of as one of the defining films of the ’80s. Its soundtrack, its cinematography, the way it married an MTV sensibility to an underdog story… it wasn’t released. It landed on pop culture like a bomb going off, and it not only made him a suddenly bankable director, it made him arguably a greater commercial property than his brother. He was given the sequel to what was at that time the most successful R-rated comedy of all time, and while “Beverly Hills Cop II” was a big hit, it was a pretty radical departure from the first film. Meaner. More profane. Slicker but without the scrappy charm of the original. That seemed to be a sign of things to come, and his next few films started to define him more clearly. “Revenge” was a raw little noir tale with Kevin Costner playing one of the least likable leads of his career. “Days Of Thunder” was basically “Top Gun” with stock cars. And “The Last Boy Scout,” while not a major hit, was the most faithful rendering of what Shane Black did on the page so far, giving Bruce Willis a chance to push his rumpled and world-weary act to the breaking point.
For many people, “True Romance” represents the very best of Tony Scott’s work, and any fan of Quentin Tarantino’s work owes Scott a debt of gratitude. While “Reservoir Dogs” came out first, it was the purchase of “True Romance” that really kickstarted Tarantino’s career and gave him the financial freedom to dive into his career as a writer full-time. I can’t imagine how much tonight’s news must have hurt for any of his collaborators, and Tarantino in particular must be feeling it. Scott obviously valued Quentin’s ear for dialogue, as he had him do a production polish on “Crimson Tide,” his next film, and I’d argue that no matter what you think of “True Romance” as a whole, you have to respect the way Scott staged the classic sequence between Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken, one of the best pieces of writing that Tarantino’s ever done and perhaps the best scene that Scott ever shot. Amazing. One of the most electric sequences in Scott’s career, and it’s just two guys talking in a room.
Scott certainly had misfires, like “The Fan,” but he also managed to bounce back again and again. “Enemy Of The State” and “Spy Game” were interesting enough as big slick movies about modern espionage, but the film nerd side of Scott’s personality asserted itself in the way he made nods to the films serving as unofficial sequels to ’70s classics “The Conversation” and “Three Days Of The Condor.” I think my favorite of his later films was “Man On Fire,” but it was also the film where his work took on the aggressively hyper visual stylization and editing rhythms that distinguished much of his work afterwards. In “Man On Fire,” there’s something appropriate about the disjointed, almost psychotic filmmaking. It did a wonderful job of dropping us into the mind set of Creasy, the character played by Denzel Washington. It felt like the best version of the sort of thing Scott had tried to make before, like he revisited the same subject matter as “Revenge” but far more successfully overall.
He only made four more features after that, and now is not the time to debate how well “Domino,” “Deja Vu,” “The Taking Of Pelham 1 2 3,” and “Unstoppable” worked. All that really matters is that he continued well into his 60s to work with an energy and a voice that filmmakers decades younger couldn’t equal. Like Ridley Scott, Tony Scott got what seems like a late start on things. So often today, filmmakers are fully defined before they turn 30, and there’s an unnatural emphasis placed on the idea that young storytellers are somehow more vital. I think the Scott Brothers both refute that idea quite successfully, and I am greatly saddened to think of someone who had a personality as large as Tony Scott’s opting out by his own hand. He seemed to work constantly, and he was well-liked by his collaborators, often working with the same people over and over, both in front of the camera and behind the camera. His extended filmmaking family and his actual immediate family are all grieving tonight, and the best tribute that we as film fans can pay him is to celebrate the work he created and the influence he had. I had a few opportunities to cross paths with him over the years, and each time, I walked away struck anew by just how huge his life-force was.
This is a terribly sad moment, and he will absolutely be missed. Tony Scott was 68.