Skip to main content

Scott made tense films for jittery times

By Gene Seymour, Special to CNN
August 20, 2012 -- Updated 1748 GMT (0148 HKT)
Director Tony Scott on location for "The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3" on the streets of Manhattan on May 11, 2008, in New York. Scott died Sunday, August 19, at age 68 in an apparent suicide. Director Tony Scott on location for "The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3" on the streets of Manhattan on May 11, 2008, in New York. Scott died Sunday, August 19, at age 68 in an apparent suicide.
HIDE CAPTION
Director Tony Scott dead at 68
Director Tony Scott dead at 68
Director Tony Scott dead at 68
Director Tony Scott dead at 68
Director Tony Scott dead at 68
Director Tony Scott dead at 68
Director Tony Scott dead at 68
Director Tony Scott dead at 68
Director Tony Scott dead at 68
Director Tony Scott dead at 68
Director Tony Scott dead at 68
Director Tony Scott dead at 68
Director Tony Scott dead at 68
Director Tony Scott dead at 68
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gene Seymour says Tony Scott films were adrenaline shots injected into the audience
  • He says scholars will see them as emblematic of jittery U.S. mindset at dawn of 21st century
  • He says films' protagonists -- Washington, Cruise among them -- faced impossible deadlines
  • Seymour: Few could orchestrate maddening elements into metal rock flow like Scott

Editor's note: Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post.

(CNN) -- Can I level with you? The guy made me nervous. All those flashy jump cuts and strobe-like visual progressions from one scene to another! I don't go to movies to make myself more nervous. I go to movies to slow time down or make it vanish altogether.

The movies of Tony Scott, who jumped to his death Sunday from a bridge in Los Angeles, were high, hard adrenaline shots injected into the audience's collective nervous system to make time (and your head) explode. His name on the credits virtually assured the moviegoer of a ride that rivaled Disney World's Space Mountain for gut-wrenching, head-spinning thrills that would leave you wobbly at the end.

British director Tony Scott dead after jumping from California bridge

They weren't to everyone's taste -- and not always to mine. And yet, I am altogether certain that over the next several decades, Scott's movies will be among the very first pored over by cinema scholars tracing the development of the action-movie genre, cultural historians seeking clues as to the jittery mood swings of the American mindset at the turn of the 21st century and aspiring filmmakers who simply want to know how the hell he mesmerized people in the first place. Establishing Tom Cruise and Denzel Washington as action movie icons, however considerable (or unlikely) that achievement, isn't even half of Scott's legacy.

Gene Seymour
Gene Seymour

Unlike his older brother Ridley, whose credits roamed the categorical countryside from science fiction ("Blade Runner," "Alien") to period adventure ("Gladiator," "Kingdom of Heaven") to contemporary bloodbaths ("American Gangster," "Black Hawk Down"), Tony Scott maintained a signature style throughout his career that arguably yielded a steadier rate of success.

His first feature, the 1983 erotic vampire mood piece "The Hunger," ended up a relative anomaly (except in sheer style) to such high-octane thrill machines as "Top Gun" (1986), "Revenge" (1990), "The Last Boy Scout" (1991), "True Romance" (1993), "Crimson Tide" (1995), "Enemy of the State" (1998), "Man on Fire" (2004), "Domino" (2005), "The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3" (2009) and "Unstoppable" (2010).

"Top Gun" director left notes before jump

Most of these movies -- and their protagonists -- were governed by seemingly impossible deadlines. To watch "Last Boy Scout," "Crimson Tide," "Enemy of the State," "Pelham" and "Unstoppable" is to feel pressed for time. Their heroes had no time to think, and neither did you. Propulsion, urgency, energy-for-the-sake-of-its-expenditure were the only guiding principles of Scott's movies, and yet as you were pressed against your seat by their momentum, you somehow couldn't help being transfixed by the images.

The change of each frame from oily to sooty, from sleek to parched, from cramped to wide-open, seemed at once abrupt and flowing. Maybe the din and distortions weren't your flagon of grog. But few filmmakers before or since have been able to consistently orchestrate such maddening elements into a metal rock flow.

Having a good script always helps -- and Quentin Tarantino's contributions to both "True Romance" and "Crimson Tide" make those the Tony Scott movies that the smarty-pants critics like to single out. "Top Gun" will remain the first thing people mention when they mention his name, and there's a lot to be said for the charm and efficiency of the relatively laid-back but no less riveting "Unstoppable." (It's almost as if he was starting to calm down at last.)

But grump that I am, the Scott movie I'm going to single out for special scrutiny is one of his least successful -- at least, financially.

"Domino," whose story was inspired by the real-life adventures of a movie star's daughter turned bounty hunter (played by Keira Knightley) is one of the more subversive action epics ever made, precisely because of the things that drive you crazy about it: set pieces that make you dizzy and giddy at the same time, patchwork plot devices that literally veer all over the map, lighting and scenery oozing raw menace and hyperbolic performances that somehow stay fixed on the narrative core.

I didn't always enjoy it as I was watching it. But parts of it stuck with me long afterward. I could say the same for most of Tony Scott's films -- and, for that matter, his entire career.

Follow CNN Opinion on Twitter.

Join the conversation on Facebook.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gene Seymour.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1819 GMT (0219 HKT)
As a woman whose parents had cancer, I have quite a few things to say about dying with dignity.
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1304 GMT (2104 HKT)
David Gergen says he'll have a special eye on a few particular races in Tuesday's midterms that may tell us about our long-term future.
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1452 GMT (2252 HKT)
What's behind the uptick in clown sightings? And why the fascination with them? It could be about the economy.
October 31, 2014 -- Updated 1301 GMT (2101 HKT)
Midterm elections don't usually have the same excitement as presidential elections. That should change, writes Sally Kohn.
October 30, 2014 -- Updated 1539 GMT (2339 HKT)
Mike Downey says the Giants and the Royals both lived through long title droughts. What teams are waiting for a win?
October 30, 2014 -- Updated 1832 GMT (0232 HKT)
Mel Robbins says if a man wants to talk to a woman on the street, he should follow 3 basic rules.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2103 GMT (0503 HKT)
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say more terrorism plots are disrupted by families than by NSA surveillance.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2125 GMT (0525 HKT)
Time magazine has clearly kicked up a hornet's nest with its downright insulting cover headlined "Rotten Apples," says Donna Brazile.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
Leroy Chiao says the failure of the launch is painful but won't stop the trend toward commercializing space.
October 29, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Timothy Stanley: Though Jeb Bush has something to offer, another Bush-Clinton race would be a step backward.
October 28, 2014 -- Updated 1237 GMT (2037 HKT)
Errol Louis says forced to choose between narrow political advantage and the public good, the governors showed they are willing to take the easy way out over Ebola.
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Eric Liu says with our family and friends and neighbors, each one of us must decide what kind of civilization we expect in the United States. It's our responsibility to set tone and standards, with our laws and norms
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 1145 GMT (1945 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the UNC report highlights how some colleges exploit student athletes while offering little in return
October 26, 2014 -- Updated 1904 GMT (0304 HKT)
Terrorists don't represent Islam, but Muslims must step up efforts to counter some of the bigotry within the world of Islam, says Fareed Zakaria
October 24, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Scott Yates says extending Daylight Saving Time could save energy, reduce heart attacks and get you more sleep
October 27, 2014 -- Updated 0032 GMT (0832 HKT)
Reza Aslan says the interplay between beliefs and actions is a lot more complicated than critics of Islam portray
ADVERTISEMENT