The Tony Scott Retrospective – The 2000s

So, here is the final part! This is where things really start to advance, in terms of technology. And of course said technology has a huge influence on style… but I won’t say too much, I’ll leave that to… me again…

Spy Game (2001)

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Scott opened the twenty first century with Spy Game, yet another film with a focus on the government not caring about people as much as they really should, this time from the insider perspective (in a similar way to Crimson Tide). The film focuses on Robert Redford, who is about to retire, finding himself on a mission to rescue a colleague who has been captured and arrested in China after the CIA say that they’re willing to let him die in order to avoid potentially causing an international scandal. Casting Brad Pitt alongside him, who is as charismatic as ever (Scott has some way of dragging charisma out of his actors that is always quite impressive, really), the film is a suitable close to Scott’s work with celluloid as it looks both forward and backwards, also operating as both hopeful and fearful of what the future may hold. It acts as a strange meeting point of what would be the future for his work and what we had already seen, and essentially served as a preparation for the future as well as a deserved farewell to some of his previous themes.

Man on Fire (2004)

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Now, between Spy Game and this film, Man On Fire, Tony Scott came to understand digital filmmaking… and this is where his work gets REALLY interesting. Gone are the days of simpler editing, Scott now employed an entirely new style to fit with the technological advancement that came between the two films that focused on being as hyperactively modern as humanly possible. Of course, with this comes a certain alienation to some audiences, and also runs the risk of becoming outdated *very* quickly as tech continued to advance, but somehow neither of these seem to have really affected Man on Fire at all. In fact, this is maybe Scott’s most liked film when it comes to general audiences, surprisingly. 

The film is focused on the story of John Creasy (Denzel Washington, in another one of his finest performances) who becomes a bodyguard for a little girl in Mexico City, and finds himself bonding with her to the point that, when she’s kidnapped, there isn’t anything he won’t do to find her and save her. Of course, since this film released, this plot has become rather commonplace due to films like Taken (the entire trilogy, but especially the first – it’s almost a carbon copy of the plot to this), but at the time it was somewhat new, and of course the focus is primarily on the digital stylisation of it all which is the most exciting thing about it. This isn’t to take away from the story though – I can imagine that even if this were another Scott effort shot on celluloid (as some parts of this are) it would still work wonders, but it is that refreshing digital editing and cinematography that gives this an even stronger visual style that Scott had even shown before and made it stand out even more when compared to other blockbusters at the time.

It’s easy to see why digital has become such a strong debate point considering that this was one of the films that really pioneered its use in mainstream Hollywood, along with Attack of the Clones (Lucas, 2002) and Collateral (Mann, 2004), because the styles of these directors are so bold and unafraid to really experiment in depth with what was possible due to digital’s introduction to cinema. Man on Fire is exciting enough to watch for its storyline and its brilliant performances (especially the central one from Denzel, who manages to channel just enough vulnerability in his character to earn the sympathy of the audience but also ensures never to let his guard down, which makes him so interesting as he is as conflicted within himself as he is with the kidnappers), but the digital also opens it up to a great deal of technical debate, as some of Scott’s earlier films did. 

The introduction of digital to Scott feels like some beautiful cinematic synthesis, and what would be even more exciting if the even more experimental films he would make after Man on Fire…

Domino (2005)

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Domino is perhaps Tony Scott’s most generally disliked film. It saddens me a little to say that I’ve spoken to quite a few fans of his who say that this is the only film he’s directed that they’re not especially interested in, but I can’t help but find this interesting too. To me, Scott has been about excess (in smaller, more subtle ways most of the time) since the start of his career. The Hunger doesn’t seem overly interested in it, but from Top Gun onwards there is this intrinsic focus buried deep down within many of Scott’s films on excess, primarily on cinema excess with his visual style. His camera is almost always moving, his editing is frequently very quickly paced, his action sequences always feel quite fantastical (all by design, of course)… but in Domino, thanks to his working with digital again, Scott took this focus on excess and enhanced it to the nth degree, making one of the most insane and least accessible blockbusters of recent memory, if not of all time – a film that can take a proud spot next to the likes of Bad Boys II (Bay, 2003) and Hereafter (Eastwood, 2010) as mainstream movies that seem to have gone completely off the rails in pursuit of something entirely different to general entertainment. 

I’m not sure that there is a single shot in Domino that hasn’t been visually manipulated. The film is drenched, smothered in this hazy yellow and green colour grade, the camera leers over the female characters (and the male, come to think of it), there’s a genuinely endless pit of superimposition usage, the action is sharply edited, the script is vulgar and oftentimes really quite vile, Keira Knightley gives her all and there are so many things happening at every point of the film that it seems as if an entire world is collected within the screen – a world of deafening gunshots, of sheer excess of guns, drugs and sex, of the most filthy, vile characters imaginable, etc, etc. By taking these ideas that have been in the majority of his other work in a rather realistic way (or at least, compared to this they seem realistic – I’m not sure I can say that many of Scott’s films care much to be true to life) and flipping the switch to place them in another world, using the digital camera’s new look, the modern colour grading abilities, an endless amount of different editing techniques, his huge budget, Scott made one of the most impossibly innovative and breathtaking films I have ever had the pleasure of laying eyes on. It’s just insane to watch, trying to take it all in seems like an impossible, Sisyphean task, and Scott is so clearly revelling in what he’s doing. He may have temporarily forgotten to focus on any real themes within the story, or even a plot (it’s quite difficult to keep up with what’s going on here – but at least it boils down to insane thrills, anyway), but those themes come to the forefront due to the way that this film is put together. 

I have heard many a complaint about the treatment of Keira Knightley’s character in the film, saying that the camera leers over her, which isn’t entirely wrong – but Scott’s camera in this film leers over everyone and everything. There are so many intense close-ups on guns, on money, on drugs, on men’s abs and on women until it becomes almost dizzying. Scott seems to be saying that the life lived and led by these bounty hunters is one that is almost animalistic by nature, only interested in what is instinctually attractive – power (money, guns), freedom (drugs) and sex – and it is this viewing of Scott’s usual cinematic world through an entirely new lens that this has to be my favourite film he has produced. It’s utterly insane, like seeing Stan Brakhage directing a Transformers film, and yet it works so brilliantly that it’s hard to believe. To say that Scott came into the digital age with open arms may be an understatement.

Deja Vu (2006)

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After Domino, Scott did admittedly step back a little, but the emphasis of that sentence belongs on ‘a little’, as Deja Vu certainly doesn’t shy away from innovative and progressive ideas. Hell, the film is focused on time travel. Deja Vu also features yet another brilliant Denzel Washington performance as FBI agent Doug Carlin, a man who finds himself investigating a terrorist attack using ‘new technology’ (time-travelling CCTV!) to see the events, before eventually finding a way to transfer into the events of the past himself. Now, I’m certainly no scientist and I can imagine that if you are this film probably seems really quite silly, however, this doesn’t mean that it isn’t just a phenomenal example of an action thriller. I love the way that this one focuses in on the power of digital – Scott, without a doubt, did this on his previous two films working with the format, however this time he also makes it a theme within the film, looking at the power of technical progression for humanity by literally having Denzel use different technology to save a life, and eventually a bunch of lives – and uses digital filmmaking at the same time. By this time, he had evidently adjusted to using digital and was just enjoying showboating the new technology to those who hadn’t yet seen what it could really do. 

The film is also a damn good romance. The romance is only really introduced to give the film additional stakes beyond the ides that a group of faceless people will be blown up if Denzel doesn’t succeed (Scott’s post 9/11 focus on terrorism only follows suit with a whole host of other directors who, consciously or subconsciously, saw the tragedy come through in their films after the fact, from Spielberg to Bay) by giving a face to one of these to-be victims and also adding in romantic elements to this, maybe not so explicitly but let’s just say that the implications are made clear through the script and the chemistry between the two… 

This is also the least bombastic of all of Scott’s digital films. He seems to let go of a lot of his excessive focuses throughout the majority of this film, clearly enjoying his time travel focus more than expected to the point that it is only really the scenes on time travel and the action scenes that come close to Scott’s usual visual traits (up to this point, he would actually carry many of the newer stylistic flairs he started here into his final two films!) and this makes space for a more subdued Scott, the one we saw at certain points throughout The Hunger and in moments when his thematic focuses overwhelmed his visuals. It’s a beautiful film, both visually and emotionally, and serves as a wonderful entry point for both Scott’s late work and digital cinema as a whole. There are few films like it, so hopefully focuses on a future that seems so dark. 

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009)

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Opening with Jay-Z’s 99 Problems as we sweep through the streets of New York City, as busy as ever, Tony Scott’s remake of the 1974 crime classic of the same name (albeit with the numbers written as words rather than as numbers…) is another one of his best achievements. I’m sure that it’ll surprise no one that this film also stars Denzel Washington in the leading role, and even less surprisingly will be that the performance is a stunner (maybe the best he gave Scott, but it is hard to really say – he’s a shockingly consistent actor), but the surprise may lay in the fact that Scott casts no other than John Travolta to oppose him as the train robber. It’ll also serve as no surprise that this is another film shot on digital, and another film focuses on how technology and people interact with one another in the twenty first century. This time, the focus is on communication, with the majority of the film being focused on the conversation held between Denzel Washington and John Travolta as Travolta keenly holds on to his train hostages and tries to negotiate his way out of his situation with Denzel, most of the time to no avail. The way that Scott goes about shooting this conversation is what is so interesting. Of course, with the technology being the transmitter of communication here, essentially blocking the two men from each other whilst also being their means of communication throughout, there is no way to really shoot an efficient, typical wide shot, close-up, reverse shot conversation here, and so Scott shoots this conversation like a phone call, with sweeping single shots that focus on the facial expressions and body language of each character so that they communicate with the audience privately without the need for exposition but also communicate with each other clearly. Scott’s formal changes are fascinating here as they clearly highlight his new approach to technology, a changed one from his early career that invites the new (not that this is a new thing, but technology has advanced so much and so quickly that there was a need for a new approach, of course). 

I think that this is one of Scott’s most exciting films, the framing is just impeccable and the fact that Scott manages to direct a film which is mostly focused on a single conversation (albeit one with high stakes) will probably never not be impressive to me. It’s a wonderfully entertaining film, one that seems to fly by as most great films tend to, and the performances are just brilliant. 

Unstoppable (2010)

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One can only try to predict where Scott would have gone after Unstoppable, his final film. It is such a shame to have lost the man at any point, but the way in which he passed on and the fact that he could have been alive so much longer if it weren’t for his misfortune is crushing, and makes it really quite hard to talk about Unstoppable without questioning what may have come after had Scott lived on and continued to follow the path that he was digging for himself (and for most digital filmmakers to follow.) Unstoppable looks at the downside of modern technology, poising the question of what can happen when technology is out of the control of mankind, using a runaway train as a microcosm to represent this idea, and it has to be said, this microcosm works wonders and creates a fascinating conflict between man, who tries his hardest and actually ends up relying on the aid from other technology, once again including the digital camera for one, and technology which is nothing more than a means to an end in this case, albeit one that has gone horribly wrong unintentionally. It’s interesting to see Scott create such a dichotomy between technology and man when before he has been more focused on man using technology for his own gain (whether right or wrong, technology is often the driving force of the conflict in Scott’s digital films, or especially the later ones), but here there is a clear line drawn between that which is helpful to man and what isn’t, suggesting that if technology were to be out of man’s control then chaos is sure to follow, and is sure to be almost, if not entirely, impossible to harness control over without the use of other technology (this time under the control of man once more, of course). It’s an interesting, if somewhat subtle, change in perspective and it comes through in a rather subdued fashion. The suggestion of change in ideology also makes it harder to stomach this as a final work, when the room for growth was clearly there and also clearly ready to be occupied by these new ideas.

Scott’s cinematography also takes an interesting turn here, opting for a more verite style of camerawork as opposed to his usually more slick style which seems more planned out beforehand. It’s hard to say if this is anything more than an interesting visual change that adds to the immediacy of the events of the plot or if it is intended to suggest something more, but I find it an interesting point of change, another suggestion of changing styles and ideas that will sadly never be fulfilled entirely. Unstoppable is one hell of a final film, as much as I wish it wasn’t one, and it definitely deserves to be seen by those fans of Michael Mann’s digital work. In fact, Mann is quite similar to Scott in many ways – it’s not entirely coincidental that I have written on both so extensively. 

Anyway, this brings us to an end of Tony Scott’s work… the short films are also interesting, but they only really tell us what we already know about Scott in smaller ways, so they’re not necessarily too important to talk about in terms of his changing style, but they are good fun and should be watched!! Thank you all for reading, I’ll soon post this retrospective, slightly edited and with a ranking, as a full post!

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