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Wednesday, August 22, 2012 12:45 pm
Reading the Screen: Tony Scott
Posted by: David Pitt

I don’t know what his reason was, but I’m sure there was one. Film director Tony Scott took his own life recently, and the news came as quite a shock to pretty much all of us. Scott directed a lot of popular films (Top Gun, Crimson Tide, Days of Thunder) and some very good ones (Enemy of the State, Spy Game, Man on Fire). He turned a few books into movies, too.

The Hunger (1983), Scott’s first film, is based on a novel by Whitley Strieber. The movie is dark and moody– a lot of critics say it’s too dark and moody, but I’m not sure I agree — and focuses on the relationship between an immortal vampire and her consort, who has suddenly begun to age at an accelerated rate.  I haven’t seen it in several years, but I have a real fondness for it, due mostly to the chances Scott took. And I’m not just talking about casting David Bowie in one of the principal roles; I’m talking about the way the movie looks and feels. Give it a watch, you’ll see what I mean: of all Tony Scott’s movies, it’s by far the least Tony Scott-like.

Revenge (1990), an early Kevin Costner movie, is based on Jim Harrison’s short novel of the same name, one of three novellas that appeared in the book Legends of the Fall. It’s not one of Scott’s better films, but then it might have been a bad idea to make it in the first place: turning a 100-page novella into slightly-more-than-two-hour movie is a difficult challenge, especially when the novella isn’t exactly “filmic” to begin with. And, to be fair to Scott, his director’s cut of the movie, released many years later, is about 20 minutes shorter, and a lot tighter. (There were stories that Costner, credited as an executive producer, wielded his brand-new star power — he had just done The Untouchables, No Way Out, Bull Durham, and Field of Dreams back-to-back-to-back-to-back– to soften his character and pad the movie with several unnecessary scenes. I have no idea if this is true, although it’s worth noting that in Scott’s leaner  director’s cut Costner’s character is considerably darker .)

The Fan (1996) is a tight little thriller based on Peter Abrahams’ novel. It bombed at the box office, with something approaching twenty million dollars earned on a budget of nearly three times that, but I like it a lot. Robert De Niro plays a guy who really, really likes a certain baseball player — likes him to the extent that he’ll go to rather, um, extreme lengths to protect the man’s reputation and career. If you asked me which of Scott’s movies I’d consider my “guilty pleasure,” the one I like even as I know I probably shouldn’t, it’d be this one. Even though, like The Hunger, I haven’t seen it in years.

Man on Fire (2004) comes from the 1981 novel by A.J. Quinnell, a British thriller writer. Denzel Washington is Creasy, a former CIA agent who reluctantly signs on as bodyguard to a young girl, played by Dakota Fanning. When she’s abducted, he goes after the kidnappers, intending — and he says this right up front – to kill them all. The movie wasn’t well liked by some critics — maybe they didn’t like the violence, but you can’t tell the story without it — but Washington is excellent, Fanning is too, and the movie is extremely well made. I think it’s one of Scott’s finest directorial performances, actually.  (If you’re looking to rent the movie somewhere, make sure you don’t accidentally get the rather drastically inferior 1987 version, with Scott Glenn as Creasy.)

The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009) is based on John Godey’s 1973 novel about a gang of crooks who hijack a New York City subway car and hold its passengers for ransom. I’ve written about Scott’s movie here, and it’s no secret I prefer the 1974 version, which follows the book more closely in both story and tone. Pelham is a serious misstep for Scott, an uncharacteristically bad movie: he lets his story get far more muddled than it needs to be (especially since the novel is a perfect blueprint if you just stick to it), and he lets his star, John Travolta, get away with a wildly inappropriate scenery-chewing performance that I think Scott would normally never have permitted.

Scott rebounded from Pelham , of course, with 2010′s Unstoppable, which reminded everybody what he could do when he was doing it well (which was most of the time). It’s a damned shame, the way Tony Scott suddenly  left us.  I’ll miss him.

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