Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Films of Tony Scott: Part V

During the month of September, Cody will be posting a five article series looking over the filmography of Tony Scott.

Part V covers Scott's film work from Agent Orange (2004) through Unstoppable (2010).

"I've had a love affair with every movie that I've ever done. Some have been love affairs, some have been fuck affairs, some have been successful marriages, and some have been failures. But for the course of making the movie, the whole shooting and editing and finishing, they will always be great periods of my life. I've never had any regrets."


Agent Orange is a short film that Tony Scott shot for's Amazon Theatre. A young man standing in a subway station holding a bag containing a goldfish spots a young woman dressed entirely in orange - even her hair is orange - board a train and becomes instantly smitten with her. When we next see the young man, he too is dressed completely in orange and has even dyed his hair orange. As days go by, the young man posts pictures of two goldfish in a bowl together on the station walls with his number at the bottom while he waits for his orange soulmate to reappear.

Scott continued to use the erratic shooting style and flashy editing that he had honed on Beat the Devil and Man on Fire here, amping up the experimental style even further for this five minute short. It's definitely not something you'd expect to see from a sixty-year-old man.

DOMINO (2005)

In 1994, Tony Scott's business manager passed along to him a newspaper article on Domino Harvey, the daughter of The Manchurian Candidate actor Laurence Harvey, who had made an unexpected career choice: the former model was now working as a bounty hunter. Intrigued by the idea, Scott met with Domino and bought the film rights to her life story. But Scott didn't want to do a straightforward biopic, which led to the project going through many years of development, during which several drafts of the script were written, the first by Steve Barancik and subsequent drafts by Roger Avary. Scott was never satisfied. Eventually, he was given an early draft of Richard Kelly's Southland Tales and decided to hire the Donnie Darko writer/director to see what he could do with the Domino concept. As far as Scott was concerned, Kelly cracked the code. With Richard Kelly writing it, Domino was finally ready for production.

The film opens with the disclaimer "Based on a true story. Sort of.", and given the events that follow, it is very clear that most of this is entirely fictional. The movie covers the broad strokes of Domino Harvey being the daughter of Laurence, being a model but not fitting in with the others, trying to join a sorority but not fitting in. Finally, she sees an ad in LA Weekly promoting a bounty hunter seminar. She attends, and when the seminar ends she has figured out what she wants to do with her life. Her pitch for why she should be hired as a bounty hunter: she's a hard worker, a fast learner, not afraid to die, and wants to have a little fun.

Once Domino gets the job, that's when the story goes completely off the rails of reality. Kelly and Scott drop her and partners Ed, Choco, and Alf into a plot concerning ten million dollars stolen from an armored car, a severed arm, a DMV worker who makes fake IDs on the side and has been featured on The Jerry Springer Show and in the Guinness Book of World Records as America's Youngest Grandmother, a little girl with a rare blood disease, Beverly Hills 90210 cast members, thieves dressed as former first ladies, and a reality show crew. On the way to the massively destructive climactic gun battle at the top of the Las Vegas Stratosphere tower, the movie even finds time to put the characters through a mescaline trip in the desert.

This film is insane, and the shooting style matches its insanity. Like he used the Beat the Devil short to try out the ideas he had for Man on Fire, Scott used Agent Orange and Marlboro commercials to test the vision he had for Domino. Scott says he always wanted to be a rock star and Domino is him "exorcising his rock 'n roll demons" through a style alternately described as "bounty hunting on acid" and "on speed", and of course one sequence is on mescaline. Scott assures the audience in his audio commentary that he has done the firsthand research on these substances to properly convey through the film what your perception is like on them.

A hand-cranked camera was used and cranked at different speeds within the same scene, film was wound backward and forward through the gate and given multiple exposures, high speed film was transferred at high speed to create streaking and trails behind people and objects ("like you're on acid"), color was manipulated digitally, reversal stock was put through cross process to alter the color palette and increase the grain.

Richard Kelly hoped Domino would be successful enough to lead to studios putting out more films as experimental and subversive as this, but in the end its worldwide box office total was under $23 million.
DEJA VU (2006)

On Fat Tuesday in New Orleans, a ferry carrying many U.S. Navy sailors on shore leave, their friends and families, and other assorted citizens is blown up. The explosion kills five hundred and forty-three men, women, and children.

A multi-agency investigation ensues, with one of the investigators on the scene being locally based ATF agent Doug Carlin. Looking around, Carlin turns up evidence that points to the explosion being an act of domestic terrorism. A twist is thrown into the case later in the day, when the partially burned body of a woman named Claire Kuchever, who was killed two hours before the explosion and also made a call to Carlin's office that morning, is pulled from the river. Some of her fingers have been severed, there's duct tape residue on her mouth, she was doused with diesel, there's traces of base explosive on her skin. She was dumped into the river so it'd look like she was another victim of the ferry explosion, the terrorist and her killer are likely the same person.

Since Carlin has proven to be smart and capable, has a lead, and knows his way around the city, FBI agent Paul Pryzwarra asks him to join the newly formed investigative unit that he's head of. Carlin is taken to a highly secure location where a team of techies sit at an instrument panel in front of a large monitor showing unusual surveillance footage.

Carlin is told that the footage on the monitor is provided by a new program called Snow White, a digital recreation of the combined data from multiple orbiting satellites. They have audio and can look at the footage from any viewpoint they wish, even move through objects and structures, but they can't move it forward or rewind, they can only see things that were happening exactly 4 days, 6 hours, 3 minutes, 45 seconds, 14 and a half nanoseconds earlier. At Carlin's suggestion, they train their hi-tech eye on the final days in the life of Claire Kuchever.

As time goes on, Carlin doubts the "this is satellite imagery" explanation more and more, and when he presses the issue he's finally told the truth - they are actually looking directly into the past through a wormhole, a "time window". Since they're playing with time here, Carlin begins to wonder if it might possible to do more than just look into the past, maybe they could send something back into the past, do something to alter the events of the last few days. Rather than use this program to catch the guy who blew up the ferry after the fact, Carlin wants to stop the guy before it happens.

This sci-fi mystery action thriller is Tony Scott's return to the mainstream, he didn't do much experimenting on this one and he wasn't trying to make the viewers feel like they were on drugs. Deja Vu is the sixth and unfortunately the final film he made for producer Jerry Bruckheimer, following their collaborations on Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop II, Days of Thunder, Crimson Tide, and Enemy of the State.

This film's brand of time manipulation has some interesting limitations, one being that the monitor can only show images from within a limited radius of the base, but there is a goggle rig a person can wear to take the past view mobile. That makes for a fun sequence where Carlin follows the terrorist through the streets of New Orleans while wearing the goggle rig, a car chase where the participants are separated by four days. The techies don't know what the result will be from all of Carlin's past-altering suggestions and I don't know how much sense it all makes in the end, but I do know that it makes for an entertaining movie.

In 2007, Scott directed the fourth season premiere episode of the Scott Free-produced television show Numb3rs. Entitled Trust Metric, the episode dealt with the FBI team the show focused on trying to figure out if one of their own is a traitor. Scott brought on Val Kilmer as a special guest star, their fourth and last time working together. Kilmer had previously had roles in Top Gun, True Romance, and Deja Vu.


This is the third film adaptation of John Godey's 1973 novel The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, following a 1998 TV movie and a very popular 1974 movie that starred Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw. I haven't seen the '98, but I like the '74 version a lot, and '09 keeps the set-up intact.

Things were running as usual in the New York City subway system when one of the trains departed from Pelham Bay at 1:23pm. By 2:00pm, the Pelham train has been hijacked by four gun-wielding men. The train is stopped between stations, communications shut down, the front car is uncoupled from the rest of the train and the passengers in it and the motorman are now hostages. The leader of the hijackers then calls in their demands: $10 million (it was $1 million in '74) must be delivered to them within one hour. If it's not, they'll start killing passengers.

The majority of the film plays out within the one hour window of waiting for the $10 million to be collected and delivered, and the heart of it all is the radio interaction between the lead hijacker and the train dispatcher who is his only contact to the outside world.

Some things play out differently in this version than they did in the first adaptation, but the main changes are in the character details. The hijackers do not have color codenames, since Quentin Tarantino had taken that idea for Reservoir Dogs. Walter Matthau played the person the lead hijacker was in contact with in '74, transit police officer Zachary Garber. Denzel Washington plays the role of Walter Garber in the '09 version, a motorman turned Rail Control big shot who's been demoted to dispatcher and is facing suspension, under investigation for taking a bribe during a business trip to Japan to check out some trains. Robert Shaw's lead hijacker in '74 was militaristic and calm, he did crossword puzzles while waiting for the money to arrive. John Travolta's lead hijacker, who calls himself Ryder, has more of a backstory and is extremely high strung, constantly ranting, raving, and cursing.

Screenwriter Brian Helgeland (who also wrote Man on Fire '04) and apparently an uncredited David Koepp did a fine job updating the story for modern times and the film looks good, especially in the subway train where green fluorescent lighting meets up with red lights and orange/yellow sodium vapor lights. The camera often moves around characters on 360 tracks and some high speed photography is thrown in here and there, including some shots of a helicopter that were done in "six by six", as Tony Scott calls it on his audio commentary. From what I've gathered by looking at his movies and listening to him talk about his style, I think that means it was shot at six frames per second and transferred at the same rate. As Scott says, that provides the image with a streaking motion that's "like you've just done acid."

Scott ends his commentary by saying that he hopes you won't reference the original movie when you're looking at this one, because he doesn't consider this film to be a remake of the '74 film. It just happens to have the same basic story. Besides, he says, "this is so much better." I have to disagree with him on that. I couldn't help but think of the original movie while watching this one, particularly how Travolta's character unfavorably compares to Shaw's. That's this movie's biggest weakness in my opinion, I thought Ryder was ridiculous. "Lick my bunghole, motherf---er!"


I first heard of Unstoppable in the first half of 2007, when it was announced as having GoldenEye/Casino Royale '06 director Martin Campbell attached. Campbell eventually left the project, freeing it up to have Tony Scott come on board to direct what would end up being his final film.

I first heard of Unstoppable's story years earlier, because the true runaway train event that it's inspired by happened not far from my neck of the woods, the railroad is a major presence in the area I live in and I know many people who work for the company whose train got loose. Through these "connections", I heard throughout the production of the movie about how Hollywood was getting all the details wrong. The railroaders' verdict when they finally saw the finished film? "Totally unrealistic."

For the cinematic take on the events, the train belongs to a fictional company, allowing the movie to portray some employees as total incompetents and a boss as an idiot. The dangers are amplified as the runaway train speeds through over-the-top situations and an engine manned by a veteran engineer and a trainee conductor speeds after it in attempt to catch up to it and bring it to a stop.

The opinions of the railroaders I know weigh heavily on my own, it's hard for me to get into the movie when I've been told how nonsensical it is, but Scott did do a great job directing the hell out of the situation and making it as exciting as possible. The movie has a really nice look and there are some wonderful shots of the locations the tracks run through.

Denzel Washington takes the lead for the third Tony Scott film a row and his fourth film with Scott overall. Unstoppable also marked the third time that Scott cast a lesser known actor who I really enjoy watching, Lew Temple. Temple first came to my attention in Rob Zombie's The Devil's Rejects, and the other two Scott films he appeared in were Domino and Deja Vu.

As the end credits roll on Unstoppable, it brings a close to the long and very successful career of Tony Scott.

At the time of his death, Scott was scouting locations and gearing up to start production on a film that I would've loved to have seen, a sequel to Top Gun. I'm disappointed that we won't be seeing that, or any new Tony Scott movies. Looking over his filmography, I can say that I truly like the majority of his films, some of them I absolutely love, and I have enjoyed watching all of them this month. Even if his style wasn't always to my taste, it can't be denied that the man had an amazing and unique approach to visual storytelling.

1944 - 2012

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