The sad and untimely death of Tony Scott, a director who continually raised the bar for blockbusters since the early 1980s, will confuse his fans for years and those closest to him for even longer. The New York Times reported that Scott jumped from the Vincent Thomas Bridge over Los Angeles Harbor at about 12:30 local time Sunday afternoon. Authorities have found a suicide note and all signs point to such a conclusion.
I did not know the man but those who did, colleagues like director Duncan Jones (Source Code) and actor David Krumholtz (Numb3rs), took to Twitter and described him as a “warm,” “lovely” and “rambunctious cinematic spirit.” Tony Scott’s death saddens those of us who enjoyed his prolific output of quality entertainment. Stranger yet, his final choice stands at odds with the optimistic energy consistent throughout his work.
His older brother, Ridley, claims icon status for cinematic heavies like Alien, Gladiator and Blade Runner. Tony’s filmography commanded less critical acclaim but reeled in equal if not, by some measurements, greater commercial success. Top Gun, his biggest hit, ruled 1986, cementing Tom Cruise as an official movie star and spawning an immortal quote — “I feel the need … the need for speed!” — scrawled on vintage T-shirts and the most successful racing video game franchise in the world. The phrase “crowd-pleasing blockbuster” that we now bestow upon witty and slickly choreographed summer fare like The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man was in large part defined by Scott’s work.
Many obituaries yesterday started with ‘Top Gun Director’ in the headline, which makes sense since it made the most money of Scott’s films and occupies a [rather large] spot on the ’80s pop culture tapestry. College-age observers (very likely you) have little connection with Top Gun, Scott’s other Tom Cruise flick, Days of Thunder, The Last Boy Scout or even Beverly Hills Cop II. Most of us can recall his kinetic output since the late ’90s, with Brad Pitt in Spy Game, Keira Knightley in Domino and Will Smith in Enemy of the State. Denzel Washington was clearly Scott’s go-to actor; the pair honed a formula with Washington as the conflicted but always sympathetic lead against Scott’s stunning set pieces and steady firepower. See Crimson Tide, Man on Fire, Deja Vu, Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 and Unstoppable. They told thrilling stories with human characters and boasted Hollywood’s greatest action scenes.
True Romance will likely solidify as Scott’s most memorable accomplishment. While one of his least profitable movies, the 1993 crime film is constantly revisited because of its script, written by a young Quentin Tarantino, hot off the heels of Reservoir Dogs. I watched it for the first time this summer and was struck by how Scott molded the violent screenplay with a genuine sincerity absent from Tarantino’s darkly ironic films. There are two famous bedroom brawls — one, a fistfight between Patricia Arquette and James Gandolfini, and, two, a full-scale shootout between basically the entire cast. They each cut shot-after-shot with that effortless logic natural to Scott while affectively reflecting on all the human carnage. Shots of colleagues, friends and lovers bleeding next to each other — whether physically so or effectively through cross-cutting — punctuate the destruction and convey a tinge of loss that adds a third dimension to the zany bloodfest. It is not a stretch to think of Scott as a romantic; he threw his many characters into such extreme circumstances and always ended on a happy note, as if to assure us no evil can vanquish good.
So the necessity to reflect on his life, at this time and under these circumstances, shocks me still. Suicide is the most personal decision one can make, so no one will ever know the extent of torment that drove him to that bridge. Why would we want to, anyway? Scott already won the respect of his colleagues and millions of moviegoers. It is safe to consider Tony Scott one of the great masters of his craft; the others who come to mind are Steven Spielberg (Indiana Jones), James Cameron (Terminator), John McTiernan (Die Hard) and John Woo (Face/Off). They create entertainment with the intent of pleasing the audience. Clarity of subject and technical precision rule every shot. And, for Scott at least, there was a heart beating beneath it all.