Even if the contents of his suicide note are revealed to the public, we may never understand why Tony Scott jumped off a bridge on Sunday. There are no clues to be found in the 68-year-old director’s career, which was successful by every measure except critical acclaim.
Indeed, his movies were critic-proof blockbusters, usually action sagas that were ruthlessly entertaining. His aesthetic was not a subtle one, with its rapid-fire editing and sun-kissed visuals, but it was blunt and effective. Having learned his craft by filming thousands of commercials, he made movies that were essentially advertisements for themselves, selling whatever shiny hardware was on display, whether it was state-of-the-art military weaponry or the pearly grins of Tom Cruise or Denzel Washington. The gleaming surfaces of his pictures were no place to look for deep thought or rich character development, but they did result in some of the most unforgettable and iconic movies of the last 30 years. Here’s a list of some of the ones that Scott fans will remember most fondly.
“The Hunger” (1983)
Scott’s feature debut was all slick surfaces, but what surfaces! Many years before vampire chic, Scott gave us lesbian bloodsucker kink, a rare English-speaking part for Catherine Deneuve, and a sexy role for Susan Sarandon (helping her break out of the housewife/mom ghetto she was in at the time).
“Top Gun” (1986)
If you had to pick one movie to represent the 1980s in a time capsule, this would be it. Jingoistic, flashy, superficial, proudly displaying its mighty and expensive weaponry in every major scene, it’s also a fun, mindless rush from beginning to end. It boosted the careers of everyone involved, particularly Scott and Tom Cruise, who took from it a blueprint for nearly every movie he made for the next 20 years. (No wonder the pair were said to be scouting locations for the sequel as recently as last week.)
“Days of Thunder” (1990)
Virtually the same movie as “Top Gun,” but with race cars instead of fighter jets. Extra props for being the film that introduced Nicole Kidman to Hollywood, to American audiences, and to future husband Tom Cruise.
“True Romance” (1993)
In which Scott showed what he could do if given a really good script (this one by a then-barely-known young screenwriter named Quentin Tarantino). The film features perhaps the most passionate and poignant romance in any Scott movie, even though it’s a lovers-on-the-lam movie full of bloody violence. Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette are immensely appealing, but Scott also overstuffs the cast with overqualified thespians (Gary Oldman, Val Kilmer, Brad Pitt) and just allows them to run wild for a few minutes and step aside. Best is the quiet, unbearably suspenseful kitchen-table confrontation between Christopher Walken and Dennis Hopper, a sequence that proves Scott really could direct actors.
“Crimson Tide” (1995)
More proof of Scott’s surprising skill with dramatic actors came with this film, which, for all its shiny military gear, is essentially a talky drama, an update of “The Caine Mutiny” in which the stakes are nuclear Armageddon. Most of the movie is just a battle of wills and words between Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington (in the first of five films he starred in for Scott). That Scott could make this chamber drama play as an action blockbuster is a tribute to his unique gifts.
“Spy Game” (2001)
Another chamber drama that plays like action gangbusters, in which veteran spy Robert Redford has to bust protégé Brad Pitt out of a third-world prison halfway across the globe while he himself is trapped in a Virginia office with nothing more than a phone at his disposal. Again, that Scott could make this material work is proof of his rare skills.
Once more, Scott shows what he can do with an unorthodox script by a artsy rookie (in this case, “Donnie Darko”‘s Richard Kelly). There’s very little about this biopic of bounty-hunting babe Domino Harvey, with its fractured reality-vs.-fiction narrative, showbiz self-parody, and gritty visuals, to mark it as a Scott film – very little, that is, except for its relentless kinetic energy. It’s certainly not every director who could make a credible action heroine out of tiny Keira Knightley.
Nothing special about this runaway-train thriller, merely the work of some expert craftsmen (particularly Scott and Denzel Washington) who know each others rhythms and who are firing on all cylnders. Washington shone as the old hand teaching a few tricks to young pup Chris Pine (perhaps that’s how Scott saw himself at this late stage in his career). Ultimately, the movie, like Scott, was all about relentless forward motion.