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The Riddle of Tony Scott

We have no idea why Tony Scott died, just that he drowned beneath a bridge in San Pedro, south of Los Angeles, of his own volition. And we may not deserve more knowledge. The shock and pain for his wife and his twin sons (aged twelve) is beyond calculation. I can believe that he was a great guy to work with; his pictures made a lot of money and won the loyalty of players like Tom Cruise and Denzel Washington. There is no question but that the Scott brothers—Tony and Ridley—had made themselves a force in the international film business, going from being the makers of commercials to active and successful directors as well as producers of other people’s projects.

When Tony Scott died, aged 68, he had at least 20 projects on his busy mind—and he made few films that were easy to shoot. He was committed as far as the eye could see, and that hardly helps account for suicide—unless it was all too much for him. Can a 68-year-old head handle that much? Or was there something in Scott that relished being “unstoppable,” and then hit a wall?

Unstoppable is the title of the last film he directed and released. It’s the story of a runaway train, somewhere in Pennsylvania, likely to crash and do untold damage in urban areas unless two men—the veteran and the kid—Denzel and Chris Pine—can stop it. They are helped in this by a knockout traffic controller played by Rosario Dawson. What’s unstoppable is the drive of the film and the gleeful creation of mayhem. We all like trains at top speeds (even if our country doesn’t have them yet) and we enjoy desperate, tense films where we guess it’s going to end well for our noble hero. You could call the genre “safe danger.”

I’m not going to spoil the ending of Unstoppable, but you know it already. Scott liked to film the real thing when he could: real rogue locos; real heroes; the place itself. He enjoyed authentic, dangerous action and he was not as fond of computerized special effects as his brother Ridley. As Denzel said, Tony liked research and reality as much as he fed on the innocent and exciting conflict of men and their machines. You can imagine Scott at the pitch meeting: It’s a runaway locomotive—the threat of catastrophe —Denzel is there—we call it Unstoppable. What’s not to like? This tribute to adventure, trains, and good guys cost about $90 million, but it will make that back and more. And you feel you are there, because Tony Scott handled screen action, and isn’t that the magic word they all say before they start to shoot?

Man and machine are there in so many of Scott’s big pictures: It’s jet fighter planes in Top Gun, NASCAR driving in Days of Thunder, a nuclear submarine in Crimson Tide and another train in The Taking of Pelham 123. There are vehicles and the threat of terrorist explosion in Scott’s most interesting (and fanciful) film, Déjà Vu, in which Denzel is an agent investigating a ferryboat explosion who goes back in time (don’t ask how) to prevent the disaster and to save the very attractive Paula Patton. We’re on to another theme there, essential to Scott: that there had to be a glorious, female prize, and the hell with plausibility. So Rosario Dawson and Paula Patton are just extensions of the fantasizing energy that has Kelly McGillis (29 at the time) as a flight instructor in Top Gun and Nicole Kidman (just 23) as a neurologist in Days of Thunder.

It’s not sporting to cavil at such absurdities if you’re having fun, but it offers an insight into the intense, skilled narrowness of Tony Scott the filmmaker. In understandable mourning and sympathy some commentators have said that he was not just a terrific guy, but a classic director and a great film artist. It doesn’t diminish my regrets for the Scott family one iota, but that is humbug and just as dangerous as the immense confidence in Scott’s films that it’s all going to be OK because man will defeat the machines as well as the baser instincts in other men. Crimson Tide is a fine example of this. Gene Hackman plays a robust senior commander marinated in the old school. He has a dog, but he nurses an instinct to fire off the big one—a nuclear weapon. Denzel is younger, more cool and liberal, inclined to save the world if possible, and black. Race is never mentioned, but it’s there as much as when Rocky fought Apollo Creed. And for all the high-tech machinery and jargon, Crimson Tide is as irresistibly hokey as Rocky. It’s a film that “works” as smoothly as its submarine: budget $53 million; worldwide gross $157 million.

Still, if you have watched Crimson Tide four or five times, you owe it to yourself to see Kathryn Bigelow’s K-19: The Widowmaker, in which life on a nuclear submarine goes horribly and visibly wrong—of course, that’s a Communist ship, where such problems never do get sorted out with our clarity and cleanliness. Tony Scott, born in 1944, had been a boy in the last era of unambiguous adventure movies, and he had lived into an age of high-tech narrative situations. He used Cruise and Washington in the way the movies had once cast John Wayne, Gary Cooper and Douglas Fairbanks. If anyone ever said they don’t make movies the way they used to you could turn to Tony Scott for refutation. He knew how to do what he did—to turn fantasy into a nail-biting reality scam—and he seemed oblivious to any limitations or doubts in that trick. The simplest way to point up that gap is to say that there is not a moment in a Tony Scott film that needs a screen with more than two dimensions, whereas his brother made some films—like Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma and Louise, and Black Hawk Down—where the viewer had to examine intriguing, imperfect figures even while they were trying to overcome unstoppable monsters.

Black Hawk Down is a story of American error (in being in Mogadishu with an impossible brief) and defeat (in that the mission is terminated with losses). That much of a downer was beyond Tony Scott, on screen, and for that reason he never dug into the level of complicated life that exists in Ridley Scott’s best pictures. So was he simply more cheery and gung-ho than his older, and more esteemed, brother? Or was he attempting to repress some pain or distress in himself that finally would not be stopped?