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Tony Scott: Our favourite films

Will Perkins
Wide Screen
August 20, 2012

The sudden death of famed filmmaker Tony Scott over the weekend shocked Hollywood and the world.

Younger brother of director Ridley Scott ("Gladiator," "Prometheus"), the 68-year-old Britain-born Scott started his career as a painter and commercial director. He subsequently enjoyed a long and successful career in Hollywood, carving out his own distinct corner of the action and thriller genres and setting the bar extremely high for those who would tread there.

When you watched one of his movies, you knew you were watching a Tony Scott movie. The director's unmistakable visual style and real knack for on-screen action set him apart from many of his early contemporaries who faded in the 1990s. He was never interested in just action for action's sake  -- at the heart of every Scott movie were heady themes, unforgettable images, and interesting and believable characters whose connection to the audience made that action so much more compelling.

Here are some of our favourite Tony Scott movies.

"True Romance" (1993) - Sporting a script by a then-barely-known Quentin Tarantino ("Inglourious Basterds"), Scott's "True Romance" is probably the film the director will be most remembered for decades from now. A modern Bonnie & Clyde tale, the film follows young lovers Clarence (Christian Slater), a comic book store clerk, and Alabama (Patricia Arquette), a call girl, on a Michigan-to-Mexico crime spree that involves movies, murder, mayhem, and a suitcase full of drugs.

Worth watching for the sprawling and superb supporting cast alone (an ensemble that includes Brad Pitt, Christopher Walken, Val Kilmer, Gary Oldman, James Gandolfini, Dennis Hopper, Samuel L. Jackson, and even Bronson Pinchot), "True Romance" walks a brutally violent and strangely romantic tightrope. Scott's expert -- and at times subtle -- handling of the fairly rowdy source material makes "True Romance" the Tarantino movie that Tarantino himself could never have pulled off.

"Top Gun" (1986) - Do you feel the need for speed? The film that made Tom Cruise a star also established Scott as one of the most capable action directors in Hollywood. Hired on as director mostly because of a 1985 Saab car commerecial that prominently featured a Saab jet, Scott was an unlikely choice for the movie given his previous feature film, the sexually charged 1983 horror movie "The Hunger." Producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson would not regret their choice however.

The film secured unprecedented cooperation from the United States Navy, and Scott created the most realistic and compelling depiction of modern military aviation ever seen. It's one thing to direct actors in the relative safety of a sound stage (or, in the case of "Top Gun," a sweaty beach volleyball court), but it's another thing entirely to direct $40 million fighter jets flying close to the speed of sound.

"Top Gun" is ostensibly the story of a hot shot fighter pilot, Maverick (Cruise), competing to become the best jet jockey in the US Navy at the elite Top Gun school, though many - including frequent Scott collaborator and fan Quentin Tarantino - have seriously argued that the movie is really about a man struggling with his own homosexuality. Scott always denied that was his intent, but called Tarantino's reading of the film "brilliant."

"Crimson Tide" (1995) - What ever happened to action-thrillers like "Crimson Tide?" This submarine flick has got everything you could possibly ask for in a movie like this: claustrophobic sets combine with dynamic camerawork and taut editing to set the stage for a well-acted, well-written story (the script was punched up by Quentin Tarantino) full of extremely intense action and thought-provoking intrigue.

An American nuclear submarine commanded by the pugnacious Captain Frank Ramsey (Gene Hackman) and his new executive officer Lieutenant Commander Ron Hunter (Denzel Washington) heads to hostile waters during a time of high tensions between the US and Russia. But when an act of aggression by a rogue submarine makes the crew believe that a full-scale war may have broken out between the two countries, Ramsey and Hunter butt heads over whether or not to unleash the sub's nuclear missile arsenal. Hackman and Washington are both in top form under Scott's direction, and the filmmaker never lets the possible end of the world distract from the men's extraordinary battle of wits. Smart, terrifying, and engrossing, with "Crimson Tide," Scott turns in what is easily one of the best sub movies of all time.

"The Hunger" (1983) - Visually arresting and highly controversial for the time, Scott's debut feature film, "The Hunger," is a far cry from his subsequent, more mainstream work like "Top Gun." Initially derided by critics, the vampire film has since become a cult classic mostly due to its dreamy appearance, memorable score, and highly erotic sex scenes.

"The Hunger" stars French actress Catherine Deneuve and English musician David Bowie as Miriam and John, a pair immortal vampires living in New York City, subsisting on the blood of young men and women they take as their lovers. However, when John starts unexpectedly aging, the two seek the help of a doctor (Susan Sarandon) who specializes in premature aging and put her under their spell. The film is a glossy, gory, and oversexed affair, but it really showcased Scott's highly visual directing style. It's amazing to think that the same filmmaker made "Beverly Hills Cop II" just four years later.

"Unstoppable" (2010) - This movie about a runaway train and the men trying to stop it is far more entertaining than it has any right to be, and that is thanks wholly to the direction of Tony Scott. For "Unstoppable" the filmmaker re-teamed with frequent muse Denzel Washington for the fifth and final time, putting the actor in the role of Frank, a veteran railroad engineeer who decides to try to halt the unmanned train.

"Unstoppable" is a trademark Scott film; worthwhile for its surface merits but also visually and thematically interesting. The director creates a wonderful visual dichotomy between the grease-covered, steam-pipe world of the speeding locomotive and the comparitive natural beauty of the rural Northeastern United States that it threatens. There are also timely economic themes being played upon, with big businesses literally railroading through small suburban communities. But at the end of the day "Unstoppable" is simply a very solid and thoroughly action-packed affair.

Extra: "Beat the Devil" - Special mention must be made of Scott's 2002 short film "Beat the Devil," from automaker BMW's series of commercial shorts "The Hire," starring Clive Owen as a mysterious wheelman. The delirious short film features off-the-wall performances from the godfather of soul himself, the late James Brown, and Scott's "True Romance" collaborator Gary Oldman -- who is equally unrecognizable in this role.

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