It is doubly sad and ironic that action movie maestro Tony Scott would apparently choose to end his life by jumping from a bridge. This is the kind of scene you would more likely see because he was calling the shots from behind the camera – not the stuff of his life. The industry is going to have a very hard time accepting his death now or that there won’t be any more Tony Scott movies in the future. Even though he was 68 years old (an advanced age in youth-obsessed Hollywood), his career as a director, producer, and partner with brother Ridley was still so vital on all fronts. His career in fact seemed to reflect the name of his terrific final feature, Unstoppable (2010). To me, it seemed he was getting better, more accomplished, more defined with each passing year. What a shame we won’t see where he might have gone with the long-awaited sequel to his first major hit Top Gun (1986) 25-plus years after the first one. He was even hoping to tackle a remake of Sam Peckinpah’s classic western The Wild Bunch. Not sure if that was a good idea – but if anyone could have pulled it off, Scott probably could have.
It was exactly one year ago, almost to the day, that I spoke to Scott and his brother Ridley about their enormously successful TV/film production company Scot Free Productions. At the time its TV division had landed a remarkable 23 Emmy nominations in 2011 for such projects as The Good Wife, the mini-series The Pillars Of The Earth, and the nonfiction Gettysburg. It was an international conference call with Tony in London, Ridley in the South of France, and their TV President David Zucker in Los Angeles. The brothers were so upbeat about their “empire” which has expanded even more since then. Despite his busy career in film, Tony was particularly proud to be recognized as a producer on so many small screen projects, too. He recalled that his first TV project was on BBC about Henry James, and described how he’d even found time to direct an episode of their CBS series Numb3rs in its fourth season. “I love being involved in these shows. You get to cast yourself in so many different ways and in different disciplines,” he told me. “We have a great team around us. And even though Ridley and I are always buried and busy, we are always hands-on in our involvement.”
It is one thing for a director of Scott’s reputation and accomplishment to wind down a career or fade away while still on top. Quite another to come on strong even at a time when so many younger directors keep entering the action arena. I think, in fact, Scott was quite underrated. That may have had something to do with comparisons to his brother who excels in so many different genres. Tony was the action guy but nobody did it better. His last film, Unstoppable was one of a quintet he made starring Denzel Washington and perhaps that pair’s finest work together. It did acceptable domestic box office for 20th Century Fox but it really showed Scott’s skills as a director. The story of a runaway train headed for disaster in a major city not only managed to keep suspense levels high throughout but also developed a fully three-dimensional and very human relationship between Washington’s grizzled experienced engineer and Chris Pine’s new and untested young conductor. Scott had made an earlier train disaster pic, 2009’s remake of The Taking Of Pelham 123, which also featured Scott and Washington. Most directors would never have attempted two similar genre pictures in a row.
It’s no wonder Washington wanted to work with Scott so often. Some of the two-time Oscar winner’s best performances were in those films. Take another look at Man On Fire and check out the extraordinary chemistry Scott develops between Washington and the young girl (Dakota Fanning) he’s protecting. Sure it has all the requisite action and violence we’ve come to expect from a Scott film, but again it also has a strong human dimension missing from a lot of films. Scott also had a distinct visual style, very identifiable. Scott’s feature film career got off to a bit of a shaky start with the weirdly watchable but ultimately flawed The Hunger in 1983. But then it’s hard to imagine anyone else directing Top Gun, which informed a generation by creating the “need for speed” and making Tom Cruise into a bona fide movie star. Then there were hits like Beverly Hills Cop II, Days Of Thunder (again with Cruise), the stylized wild ride of True Romance (with a script from Quentin Tarantino), the taut and tense Crimson Tide (his first venture with Washington), the complex plotting of Spy Game (with its dream team Redford/Pitt pairing), and the cerebral thriller Enemy Of The State (one of Will Smith’s better outings).
Tony Scott was a man of action who is going to be sorely missed. He was a true talent. It’s a very sad day.