Reframing hackery: the life’s work of Tony Scott

After muttering, “Wow. That sucks,” upon hearing the news of Tony Scott’s suicide, my first thought was, “When was the last time I watched one of his movies?” I believe have an exact date: October 14, 2005. That would be the day Domino entered wide release. In my review, I had this to say:

I can’t walk out of a Tony Scott film without feeling absolutely exhausted. His latest film, “Domino” is the “sort of” true story of Domino Harvey, daughter of actor Laurence Harvey, who walked away from the glam high-life of Beverly Hills to plunge instead into the risky business of bounty hunting. Domino’s neo-grunge lifestyle is saturated with all the grimy pastels that Scott can manage to pour into every frame; every frame is spliced with about a dozen others from different angles, effecting the woozy brain-pain of an all-night binge.

Back in those days, I was required to give star ratings, and Domino got two and a half of four. Not good; not bad. Passable.

When Craig Simpson reviewed Unstoppable, this was my comment:

Ha! I think this single sentence has articulated everything I’ve found infuriating about Tony Scott for the last decade. He used to be someone you could easily dismiss; now there are folks composing elaborate encomiums about how he’s eclipsed his brother, with a film like Domino being Exhibit A of his unpretentious mastery. I wouldn’t hate Tony Scott if it weren’t for the fact that it is now necessary to dismiss him more vehemently, thanks to his platoon of come-lately defenders.

Craig’s follow-up response made me laugh:

Like you, I don’t hate Scott that much. I barely think of him at all, until one of his movies comes out. “Unstoppable” looked like a tough thing to screw up, so I thought I’d give it a shot. Needless to say, when it comes to combining narrative momentum with a sense of visual space, Big Tony is not the young Spielberg. He’s not even the young Jan de Bont.

The film for which Tony Scott may be remembered is probably Top Gun. I don’t think I’ve ever discussed it much, aside from saying things like, “It’s okay; not great.” Which is the truth. Even when I was young, it felt a bit sluggish, and when people quote the film or reference “classic” scenes, they often need to recreate them for me them frame by frame, because — apart from the awesome soundtrack — I simply did not find the film to be all that memorable.

Other of his films I have enjoyed quite a bit more. Beverly Hills Cop II is fun; the same is even more true of The Last Boy Scout. Crimson Tide, along with The Hunt for Red October and Das Boot, is one of the definitive submarine thrillers. Being a Tarantino fan, I have a soft spot for True Romance. Perhaps the most genuinely underrated film in Scott’s oeuvre (I quantify this by the fact that I haven’t seen it mentioned in any of the obits I’ve yet read) is Spy Game, in which two of Hollywood’s golden idols — Robert Redford and Brad Pitt — do their charismatic thing. I’ve seen that delightful film several times, even though its visual style is of a piece with all the things I came to disdain about his recent work.

I’m not a fan of Enemy of the State or The Fan. The short, Beat the Devil, about which Manohla Dargis waxes in her tribute to Scott, was simply terrible. (Although the BMW “Hire” series, which Scott produced, was pretty awesome.) Man on Fire was also pretty terrible, but more to the point, it was exhausting. The experience of that film, coupled with Domino, ensured my apathy toward his remaining projects. Not that I expect to hate them, or that they wouldn’t be competent. If anything, Scott seemed hellbent on bringing “flair” (or “panache,” if you will, emphasis on the quote-marks) to everything he did. Most of his movies were genre exercises, and until the aughts, he was not his own producer, nor was he usually his own writer (excepting early short films). I’ll readily concede to auteurists that he had his own style, and he certainly tended to choose projects that dealt with themes of masculine codes of honor and fraternity. I’m sure a pretty decent book could be written about the man’s body of work. Yet, at the end of the day, he was a hack.

This isn’t a knock against him. Hacks don’t get nearly enough credit when things go right, unless they’re dubbed “auteurs.” But virtually any project Scott did could have been done — probably just as well — by anybody else with his level of technical chops. Scott doesn’t have to be enshrined as a major or underrated artist for some of his films to have been good, and not every mediocre or bad film he did was entirely his fault. The system was good to him, and he gave the system quite a few hits. He cashed his checks and, more often than not, delivered the goods. Fine and dandy. What makes the difference is that Scott attained a recognizable brand name, and I think that led a lot of people to confuse the personality he lent to his films with the idea of them being personal films. So when I say that Tony Scott was a hack, I genuinely don’t mean it as a personal insult.

What brings all this to mind is an interview I heard on NPR, in which Audi Cornish confessed to Thom Grier, an EW editor who came on to talk about Scott’s influence, that he wasn’t the first interview choice:

Now, Thom, to be honest, we called several critics who will remain nameless here who didn’t want to talk about Tony Scott. While they respected his work, they didn’t necessarily like it. And I wanted you to help us understand why he’s such a divisive figure, considering how much money he made for Hollywood.

I’m not as interested in the debate about how “divisive” Scott was as I am in the fact that several critics were called upon to do what they ostensibly do best — talk about films and filmmakers — and they refused. They did not want to go on record about how much they didn’t like Scott’s work. This is puzzling. My hunch is that these critics didn’t want to be seen as spitting on the grave of a man who died in such a tragic fashion. As much as Scott’s family and friends may be hurting right now, what difference does it make that a critic pans his work after he’s dead, whereas they were perfectly comfortable doing it while he was alive? To me, this reeks of dishonesty.

It’s true that Scott was not a critical darling during his lifetime. The idea that his suicide should (or could) change all that is ridiculous. The fact that he’s dead now does retroactively erase the criticism that was leveled at him while he lived, and if critics will change their opinion of his work on the basis of the way he died, but not upon a re-evaluation of the work itself, that means that the critics are disrespecting the work. Offering a dishonest opinion is offensive to the subject and to the intelligence of those receiving it.

If it weren’t for that NPR interview, I probably would not have blogged about Scott’s death. He doesn’t interest me all that much. I felt compelled to open with an excerpt from my unkind Domino review, though, because it struck me that the multiple critics’ refusal to talk openly about Scott’s legacy was emblematic of the kind of dishonesty that corrupts public critical discourse. Fearing a backlash for saying the wrong thing (or saying the correct thing at the wrong time), it seems that a lot of critics are as much in the business of image management as they in the business of articulating critical thought.

None of this is to say that a person’s biography and the cultural context of his work (such as his suicide and the public reaction to it) can’t or shouldn’t play a role in critical discussion. But we can’t have critics be afraid to take part in that discussion. I’ll own the fact that I’m not a particular fan of Tony Scott’s work and that I’ve actively tried to designate him as aggressively mediocre.  I sincerely doubt that his death at the age of 68 has impoverished world cinema by its loss. Family and friends of Scott’s will no doubt share countless stories of what a warm, inventive, loving, dedicated, wonderful person he was, and I am sure that these things are all true. I certainly pray that they can find comfort and healing as soon as possible. As a husband, father, and colleague, he was probably a great and generous man.

As a director of Hollywood cinema, he was a hack. We shouldn’t be afraid to be honest about it. If Scott is to be remembered at all, he should be remembered for what he did, not how the circumstances of his death reframe him.☕

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About tardishobbit

Reads. Writes. Watches movies. Occasionally stirs from chair. Holds an advanced degree in heuristic indolence. View all posts by tardishobbit

18 responses to “Reframing hackery: the life’s work of Tony Scott

  • Alex M

    He’s actually one of Hollywood’s popular directors that I have some fondness for. I enjoyed Domino, Deja Vu and The Taking of Pelham 123 very much recently and True Romance certainly is a cut above the dross.

    You don’t seem to mention The Hunger, though, which is the movie that I alone seem to be remembering him by. Maybe his detah wasn’t a loss to World Cinema but the fact that he went commercial after such an interesting, promising debut, may just have been…

    • mjschneider

      Naturally, you have to call me out for not mentioning The Hunger, one of his that I haven’t seen. It’s on my queue, mostly because David Bowie.

      What do you think he brought to those movies that nobody else could have? The way I look at it, you have one standard genre programmer (Deja Vu), a QT movie (True Romance), a Richard Kelly movie (Domino), and a remake (Pelham 123). I’ve only seen two of those, and of those two, I only really liked one. And that one would probably have been better had its writer directed it. The other would probably have been just as frustrating, but for different reasons.

  • Daniel Swensen

    “What do you think he brought to those movies that nobody else could have? ”

    Relative obscurity?

  • jubilare

    “As much as Scott’s family and friends may be hurting right now, what difference does it make that a critic pans his work after he’s dead, whereas they were perfectly comfortable doing it while he was alive? To me, this reeks of dishonesty.”

    I can sympathize with not wanting to “speak ill of the dead” so soon after his death. Timing, I think, does have some significance and, without being dishonest, critics may wish to remain silent in their criticism for a while out of respect for the bereaved. Now, if the silence and reluctance to offer negative opinions on his work persists simply because of the manner of his death, then I agree, that would be dishonest.

    • mjschneider

      I sympathize with not wanting to speak ill of the dead, but what I’m trying to get at is that speaking ill of Scott’s work (or filmmaking legacy) isn’t really speaking ill of the person. I don’t think people will have a problem dogpiling on him in a few weeks (once the body is cold, to put it bluntly), but that’s almost more offensive to me than people simply sticking by the opinions that they espoused while he was still alive. As I said, I wouldn’t have said anything at all on the occasion of his passing if it weren’t for the fact that apparently several critics were too chicken to speak honestly about him when they were asked for their professional opinions. To me, that’s patently unprofessional, and it does a disservice to whatever legacy Scott’s work constitutes.

    • jubilare

      Perhaps my not being a critic is why I don’t get the idea that silence at such a time is unprofessional. Sure, speaking negatively about someone’s work is not speaking negatively about the person, but it still adds onto the grief of the bereaved to hear the work of someone they loved dismissed immediately after his death.
      A critic changing opinion on someone’s work because of his death would be unprofessional and hypocritical, but I’m not ready to condemn silence at such a time. But again, this may be because, as a non-critic, my perspective is different.

    • mjschneider

      If you don’t identify as a critic, you’re not called upon to give your opinion; critics are. That’s the whole point of them. And if they refuse to do so because they’re afraid of someone taking offense (even if no offense is given), then they’re not doing their jobs. I’m sure Scott’s family read plenty of bad reviews of his own movies during his lifetime, and if they’re not used to it by now, it’s not going to get easier. Honest postmortem assessments are par for the course. I appreciate that you would not wish to be the cause of more pain for the bereaved, and if that leads you not to comment negatively on someone’s work, that’s fine. But NPR didn’t call you for comment; they called a bunch of professional critics, several of whom declined to do what they’re supposed to do.

      On a broader level, I think that there’s a certain amount of oversensitivity to tragedy that obscures honest discussion of many issues. Anyone can play the “offense” card at any time about virtually anything. I’m not calling on critics to be vicious about Scott’s legacy, but if they feel that they cannot give their opinion simply because some people don’t want to hear it right now, that’s really bad. In principle, I don’t think it’s healthy, though I understand the impulse to do no harm. Compassion is a good thing. I question whether any harm would really be done by being honest in this case, though, for the reasons stated above.

    • jubilare

      You’ve made your argument well, and changed my mind. I don’t know that I completely agree, but I understand where you are coming from better and I can’t disagree.

    • mjschneider

      I understand where you’re coming from, too, and I enjoy the discussion (as always). If you think Tony Scott has it rough, just wait till Uwe Boll kicks.

  • Alex M

    I haven’t seen Top Gun except as background material, but The Hunger really is his best movie. David Bowie is always good and he’s perfectly cast here, but he’s not necessarily the central focus of the movie. it’s an interesting take on the Vampire world and there’s a touch of beauty to it too. I definitely think that viewing that film puts a different slant on his career insomuch as it highlights what he could have become (in a similar way to how Blade Runner always makes you think that Ridley could have made better movies than he did overall)

    I think he brought a sense of craftsmanship to those movies. he’s not a director who has such an obvious personal stamp as someone like Michael Bay, but if you look at his films over someone like Brett Ratner, or Stephen Sommers or other Hollywood hacks I think there’s generally a snappier sense of pace, rhythm, and timing to them. The acting is a notch above, the scenarios are a little more rounded and, if not credible, they’re more “buyable.” Generally I can put on a Tony Scott film and know that it’s going to be well crafted… I suspect that it’s going to be loud and brash – he maybe has that in common with Bay – but it’ll entertain because it wants to entertain first and make money second… they’re not bums on seats movies, in the tail end of his career Scott never seemed to lose his commitment to making good ole fashioned thrillers even though they’ve declined in popularity. He certainly updated the mode of the thriller and he certainly made it a bit brasher, though.

    I think that Domino is a great picture to look at in terms of Scott taking more risks than other popular directors sometimes do. The fast cutting narrative nightmare really adds to the tension of the movie, making it frenetic, difficult to watch sometimes … but it’s all made with such conviction. I mean, it’s a fucking sleazy, shit, popular piece of movie-making but it’s shot and edited with such conviction. I haven’t seen it in some years now but I loved it and am anxious to again (as well as see Man on Fire which seems to have been well received. Also, Denzil Washington is always good and Scott made a good call in re-using him.

    On another note, it’s harsh to call out True Romance because QT would have directed it better. For sure, QT would have, but he didn’t film the script and it’s a fairly common practice for directors to film other people’s script and a good call on Scott’s part to direct QT’s script. True Romance is still a very good movie – perhaps not a “great” one but who the hell isn’t entertained by it??

    I can honestly say I was genuinely saddened by Scott’s death. His career has been more and more on the map for me over the last few years. I like him not for being a “great” director but he was the kind of director I always felt Hollywood needs to have knocking about.

    • mjschneider

      I was a bit saddened, too. It’s not like I hated all of his movies. I have good memories of watching some of his stuff, and I’d always prefer to have good hacks knocking about, as you say, than bad ones. Scott’s one of those that gave terms like “hack” or “journeyman” a good name. When he was on his game, he did solid work, and I respect that. It’s one of the reasons I don’t rag too much on Sommers or Ratner (or Twohy): they take the money and deliver a film, often an entertaining one. There’s nothing wrong with that.

      Looks like I’ll have to get excited about watching The Hunger.

  • Alex M

    However, I agree wholeheartedly with what you’re saying in this piece. Especially

    “It’s true that Scott was not a critical darling during his lifetime. The idea that his suicide should (or could) change all that is ridiculous. The fact that he’s dead now does retroactively erase the criticism that was leveled at him while he lived, and if critics will change their opinion of his work on the basis of the way he died, but not upon a re-evaluation of the work itself, that means that the critics are disrespecting the work. Offering a dishonest opinion is offensive to the subject and to the intelligence of those receiving it.”

    I think it’s hypocritical and disrespectful to movie-making to turn tail when someone’s died and say they were great when you’ve been dismissing their movies for years. There’s a slight get-out clause because Top Gun is a cheesy cult Tom Cruise classic but that’s probably not enough. I can honestly say I haven’t done that, but I’ve increasingly liked his work ever since I saw Domino maybe 5 years ago and I did actually watch and love The Hunger earlier this year for that very reason…

    • mjschneider

      Tony Scott has always had his backers. Dargis liked Domino for the same reasons you did, and she said so at the time. There are plenty of honest folks out there who have always been fair with hacks like Scott, and I’m sure that the majority will eventually either forget his work or remark upon it in proportion to its achievement.

      Top Gun is one of those beloved crowd-pleasers that will ensure Scott a place in the minds of at least this generation. Tons of people love that movie to death, and quite a few even plump Days of Thunder (which I haven’t seen). I didn’t have a problem with Scott’s take on True Romance, and I wasn’t saying it sucked because of him or to diminish what he did, but to me, that film is a perfect example of how a decent director can be elevated by the material with which he’s working. A good hack is made better by good material, but good material isn’t necessarily made better by a good hack, if you know what I mean.

      Over the course of the last several years, I’ve actually warmed quite a bit to hackwork. When people diss John Woo for doing something like Paycheck, it rankles me a bit. Sure, it’s hackwork, but it’s pretty damn good hackwork. Similarly, Scott was fully capable of damn good hackwork. I don’t think that movies like Domino or Man on Fire fall into that category, but True Romance and Spy Game do. We can disagree about relative merit (as with Domino), but it does bother me when hackwork is disparaged in total, then suddenly reclaimed as an auteurist vision when a hack dies and, by virtue of him not sucking, it’s cool for critics to redeem an “undervalued” and “misunderstood” mainstream filmmaker that they’d overlooked while he was alive. Now that he’s dead, critics can control his legacy, and with it, the image of their own powers of perception. The whole business smacks of dishonesty, and I wish I could quantify it better than I have.

  • David

    I can’t say I’ve paid much attention to his oeuvre as a whole, but I’ve been passingly familiar with his name. I’ve only seen part of Top Gun; it seems entertaining, but I don’t have much interest in seeing the rest of it. Man on Fire I really didn’t like, even though it’s a favorite movie of one of my best friends, because as much as I like Denzel, his character was so cruel and vengeful, so ruthless. It was a “fight evil with evil” movie, as I saw it, and was very unpleasant, in spite of the sacrificial ending. However, I did like Spy Game a lot. Just seeing Redford and Pitt together was a treat — in fact, that was the first time I noticed how similar they are. But the movie also balances well the tension between Redford’s cover-up and his attempt to rescue Pitt. Perhaps the portrayal of the spy world and its politics is simplistic in some ways (I wouldn’t be the expert…), but as entertainment built around the tension of being discovered before the time runs out, it’s effective and fun, with enough pathos for me to care about what’s going on.

    You mention The Hunt for Red October, one of my favorite thrillers — but what did Tony Scott have to do with that movie? Or were you just mentioning it to compare it with Crimson Tide (which I haven’t seen)?

    I think this is a fair analysis and tribute to his work. Like Jubilare, I can understand wanting to withhold a negative or middling professional opinion on a person who has just passed away, and I wouldn’t blame a critic for doing so within a day of the death — just so long as they didn’t ever give a false opinion. But, as you say, a critic’s job is to be a critic. When remembering the man’s work, you’ve got to give an honest account of it. If you give only praise because you don’t want to offend the man’s living relatives and friends, then it all rings false. But if you give fair criticism, then what praise you can offer will be believable.

    • mjschneider

      “If you give only praise because you don’t want to offend the man’s living relatives and friends, then it all rings false. But if you give fair criticism, then what praise you can offer will be believable.”

      This is a great way to sum up the thrust of everything I tried to say. Thanks for putting it so eloquently!

      I’m glad you enjoyed Spy Game as much as I did. It seems weird to me that nobody seems to remember that one, as opposed to Domino or Man on Fire. And you’re right — I only mentioned The Hunt for Red October to provide compare it to Crimson Tide (and Das Boot). Crimson Tide is a very different film from Red October, but it’s very taut and snappily directed, and applies all that claustrophobia and testosterone to a much more ethically-driven conflict.

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