The Tony Scott Retrospective – The 1990s

Okay, we’re back! This time, the focus is going to be on Tony Scott’s output from the 1990s, which sees the establishment of his key themes and a gradual change in style, as well as his increasing focus on digitisation and governmental power. This is a long one, so you might want to prepare a cold, or hot, drink for this.

Revenge (1990)

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Tony Scott burst into the 1990s by making two of his better films within months of each other. Revenge was the first of the two, (unsurprisingly) a revenge action thriller starring the great Kevin Costner (the more I see, the more of a fan I am of his 90s work!). This seems to be one of the least popular of all of Scott’s films, despite the fact that it has been released twice (once in the cut of producer Ray Stark, which was critically maligned to what feels like a genuinely unfair degree, and later as Tony Scott’s leaner cut… we’ll be discussing the former here!), and yet I think it is one of his best. Surprisingly finely tuned, and loosening up on his usually very held together visual style to make way for pure narrative momentum, Scott changes lanes here for a moment and seems to almost accidentally make one of his finest films in doing so. This isn’t to say that his normal style is bad, of course, but the way that he adapts to this change and follows through with it is not only endlessly fascinating but serves this specific film beautifully. 

It feels quite abrupt and stilted, but for good reason, with the performances seeming to stick to each other rather than suavely slide around and bounce off of each other, and it all creates this quite uncomfortable tension from the very start of the film. Of course, the editing supports this, as does the grim nature of the characters as none of them is really innocent in the grand scheme of things. The form seems to almost be screaming at the audience to be noticed, with these glistening oranges and yellows almost always followed by deep blues and reds in contrast, with sharp editing, almost gratuitous gore during the action scenes and such a fierce visually attacking style, and of course when matched with the rather grizzly themes of indifference and patriarchal oppression in the modern world, it all becomes quite condemning. It’s the first Scott film where there is an anger bubbling away under the surface, or maybe more of just a burning passion as opposed to an outright anger, and maybe this comes through due to it not being his cut of the film, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t make for one of the leanest and meanest thrillers of recent memory. 

Costner and Madeleine Stowe (also great in Unlawful Entry!) are both excellent in their own way, managing to make their stilted chemistry work somehow. Scott apparently set up three cameras and simply told them to improvise their sex scenes, so it’s not difficult to imagine how awkward the set would have been, and yet they make it work in spite of their lacking chemistry as it is this chemistry that makes that uncomfortable feeling so hard to ignore. And that uncomfortable feeling at the core of the film is exactly what informs the rest of it, the film seems to be fuelled by its own intense discomfort and makes phenomenal use of it, too. It’s a film that seems to rot the brain somewhat, but leave you feeling all the better for it. It’s brutally violent, really quite harsh, and paints the world in a grim, despicable light that most mainstream films seem quite afraid of… maybe this explains why many critics tossed it to one side without giving it too much thought…

Days of Thunder (1990)

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Letting the shackles off for his next film, Scott returns to his usually quite jolly self with Days of Thunder, definitely the only film I’ve ever laid eyes on to feature a scene with a race between two people in wheelchairs. For the most part, Days of Thunder is a surface level re-telling of the story that seems to corrupt just about every sports related film that exists, that of some seemingly insurmountable hurdle getting in the way and subsequently being torn down before a great victory… you’ve heard and seen it all before, without a doubt, but thankfully between Scott’s electrifying direction, his visual panache and Tom Cruise’s damn good performance, this one is far from a chore to sit through even if you can’t quite shake the idea that you’ve seen the film before. I can’t help but wish that Scott did break the mould a little more here and dared to step outside of the zone of sports films a little more, however, as soon as those driving sequences start, it’s difficult not to be completely overwhelmed by the sheer kinetic power of it all… and the romantic melodrama (as well as the psychological one) at the centre of the film also works quite well. It’s a film that is incredibly light on its feet, and one that is as slick as blockbusters can get.

The Last Boy Scout (1991)

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Scott’s only stand-out comedy film (as in, a film that stands out as a comedy above any other genre, not his best comic work) is 1991’s The Last Boy Scout, starring Bruce Willis and Damon Wayans… however, to dismiss this as a simple action comedy would be really quite ignorant. This is the one of Scott’s most clearly anti-establishment films (he would go on to make a successive string of these through the 90s, most of his films from The Last Boy Scout and onwards focus on this same theme to differing extents.), and it really lays out the blueprint for a lot of what his later work would be focused on. Maintaining its light tone in spite of the politically vile ideas focused on throughout, The Last Boy Scout is a flawed but still quite enjoyable film focused on corruption and the fight against corruption in the hope of living in a better world… and it’s also really funny.

True Romance (1993)

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As someone who was once a big Tarantino fan but has since found progressively less to like in his work, I have to admit I was quite hesitant to look back at True Romance when I focused in on Scott’s work. There’s a reason that so many people remain certain that Tarantino directed this, his directorial fingerprint lays all over it as if he ghost directed the project, but this only goes to prove the stylistic power of his scripts, I suppose… Anyway, the point is is that I was trepidatious about coming back to see what this has in store for me, but was pleased to find that for the most part, some grating scenes aside, it’s a good story and one that is generally quite well handled.

To me, the star of this film has been and probably always will be Hans Zimmer’s beautifully bouncy score, the familiar jingle of which I often find stuck in my head… Second to the score is of course the wonderfully dynamic duo of Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette, who not only have great chemistry (Scott must have learned from his handling of Revenge, or he just got more lucky with the casting this time) but also individually give very charismatic and entertaining performances perfectly fit to the tone of the film. Of course, the script being Tarantino’s, it features all of his usual traits with speedy dialogue and plenty of vulgarity and even the usual sprinkle of politically ambiguity, but on the whole Scott manages to direct this in such a way that the dialogue falls back somewhat and the main focus is shed on the story and characters (My God, Gary Oldman, Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken kill it in this!), so it isn’t as much of a Tarantino effort as many make it out to be. I do think that this is one of Scott’s less ambitious works, and that it feels like one of his minor works despite it being his most popular and maybe his most generally acclaimed film, but it still serves as a good reminder of his ability to harness the style of a film and to make it how he sees fit. It helps that most of it is good fun, too!

Crimson Tide (1995)

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Returning to the pre-established focus on anti-establishment and corruption within organisations that we generally trust to respect safety, Crimson Tide looks at the conflict on a submarine between Lieutenant Commander Ron Hunter (Denzel Washington, in one of his most energetic performances) and Captain Frank Ramsey (Gene Hackman, who plays a villain so well it’s hard to believe) of whether to attack or to try to survive without using violence where unnecessary, to hunt or leave a larger chance to be hunted. With arresting red lights that coat the metallic scenery throughout and the claustrophobic surroundings, this one starts off with the making of a terrific thriller based on its premise alone, and it pleases me to say that it absolutely delivers on that front, as well as many others. The script for this one is razor sharp, consistently impressive with the whip-smart back and forth dialogues of conflict shared between the two leading men who both tear up the screen and damn near set it alight with their energy, and the cinematography is surprisingly beautiful considering the restrictive surroundings they’re forced to work with. 

It’s a step up in severity for Scott to, as the majority of his work up to this point (with the exception of Revenge) had been quite joyful for the majority of its runtime, but this one has a surprisingly sharp and harsh bite to it should you underestimate it. This really marks a transformation from Scott from his more fun and free-wheeling films to his harsher and more adventurously serious later works.

The Fan (1996)

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The Fan is another in the string of more serious and violent Scott films in the 1990s. Whilst this one is less focused on organisations and establishments, it is focused in on sports in a similar way to The Last Boy Scout, looking at the darker side of the sports industry which of course is so pervasive in everyday American life (American especially, but the rest of the world is also effected by this of course). And, on top of that, it casts Robert De Niro alongside Wesley Snipes… how can this not be great? The simple answer is that it’s not… but the longer answer looks at the way that Scott manages to take yet another rather cliched story of an avid fan turned rabid stalker and subverts it enough to make it feel as fresh and exciting as if it were a novel concept. De Niro really gives the film his all, too, channelling the same energy into The Fan as he did on Martin Scorsese’s wonderfully bombastic Cape Fear remake in 1991, just a few years before this. I always seem to have a blast seeing De Niro let loose, and here is probably when he does just that more than any other performance in his career… it’s an absolute marvel to see him interact with Snipes and even with himself and his surroundings, his performance is just brilliant. And Snipes manages to stand up to him very well too, giving one of his more grounded and serious performances as the sports star wrapped up in De Niro’s obsession. 

Thankfully, we see the film from De Niro’s perspective, and so we don’t realise early on how his character will transform in front of us from a struggling father to a man hell bent on destruction and causing chaos for others. Scott leaves a place for sympathy for his character early on, and it is this conflict within his character that makes this film so exhilarating to watch. He gradually becomes progressively unhinged and unpredictable, until it feels like only the smallest wrongdoing would make him snap. 

Scott’s visuals also seem to take a step up here, with the finale being shot in dim rain but somehow still looking inexplicably beautiful. This is where his visuals became more over the top, more hyperrealistic (see Baudrillard’s theory of hyper-reality) and really started to almost fight against his film’s sense of reality to serve a more fantastical version of events. It’s a really beautiful film at a fair few points, and other than that, it is incredibly intense and certainly deserves to be seen for its wonderful tension alone. A personal favourite thriller of mine, and a wonderful film that anyone should see! It makes for great entertainment and truly thrilling filmmaking – the best of both worlds rolled into one!

Enemy of the State (1998)

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Enemy of the State is really the film to be talked about when it comes to Scott’s general theme of anti-establishment, corruption and modern paranoia. Running hot with the tagline that clearly states “It’s not paranoia if they’re really after you.’, and from there it only gets more afraid and more concerned about the power that the government have over the everyman. Will Smith surprisingly gives a really good performance in this, but really the most interesting thing about it is the focus on how the government can take ahold of everyday people if they want to and essentially force them into doing anything because of the power they are given. Scott questions who decides who gets this power, and what do they do to earn this trust from everybody else, and it is his asking of these questions that makes Enemy of the State so interesting from the get-go.

It’s also still not afraid to be thrilling in a fun way, which thankfully doesn’t detract anything from its generally anxious statement about the government’s power (especially as technology advances and more can be done to people directly through it – the film’s problem starts due to a digital camera, and the technological focus only increases from there. Scott’s focus on tech seems to become more fearful for a moment here, which is really interesting considering that he would be one of the pioneers of Hollywood digital filmmaking less than a decade later! But we’ll talk about his digital work next time…), but only makes this more fun to watch and admire. The choreography of these chase and fight sequences are absolutely electrifying, and the dialogue is equally thrilling, to the point that it’s really quite difficult to not be on board with this one. It’s great, it’s angry, it’s anxious, it just hits the mark so beautifully and acts as a perfect way to close Scott’s work for the 20th century.

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