Monday, September 17, 2012

The Films of Tony Scott: Part II

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

Part II covers Scott's film work from Top Gun (1986) through Days of Thunder (1990).

"The biggest edge I live on is directing. That's the most scary, dangerous thing you can do in your life."

TOP GUN (1986)

When producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson were looking for someone to direct their movie based on a magazine article about United States Navy fighter pilots, men who played out "Star Wars on Earth", one director's reel contained a commercial that really caught their attention. The commercial was for the 1985 Saab 900 and would cut back and forth between the car being started up and driving off and a fighter jet being taken out of a hangar and speeding down a runway, ending with the jet flying over the top of the car. The director of the commercial was brought it in to meet with the producers, and his name was Tony Scott.

At first, Scott wasn't quite on the same page with Bruckheimer and Simpson. His pitch for making the movie as "Apocalypse Now on an aircraft carrier" was definitely not what they wanted. It wasn't until their third meeting that Scott figured it out - this was a fun, rock 'n roll popcorn movie, silver planes on blue-black skies, fighter pilots as rock stars. That outlook, his Saab commercial, and the style and ability he had shown on his 1983 movie The Hunger got him the job.

There was some trouble when the studio got a look at the images Scott was shooting that ended up being used for the film's title sequence. Events aboard an aircraft carrier being shot in slow motion with graduated filters? This guy was trying to make some kind of dark arthouse movie. Scott was fired. Of course, he got his job back, and that was just the first of three times that Scott got fired and rehired during production. The other times were over the makeup and wardrobe of the lead actress and because he had the obscured the actors' faces during flight sequences by having them put their helmet visors down so the camera would catch the reflection of the sky in them. These issues were all worked out and Scott was able to see the film through to the end.

"Top Gun" is a school where the top 1% of the Navy's pilots are sent to become the best fighter pilots in the world by learning "the lost art of aerial combat". The film's focus is on a Top Gun student, a young man with the call sign Maverick.

Maverick is one of the most famous roles Tom Cruise has ever played, and it came just as his star was starting to rise after Risky Business. Cruise was signed to star in the film before Scott came on to direct, but coincidentally they were previously acquainted, since Cruise came to Top Gun straight from working with Scott's brother Ridley on Legend.

Maverick is very talented but also extremely arrogant, so good at flying that he's dangerous because doesn't consider the risks of his reckless behavior. Maverick grows up during his time at the school, learning humility, dealing with tragedy, finding out the secret of his father's death in Vietnam, and falling in love... And as he becomes a fully rounded person, he gets to show his skill in a real life-or-death aerial battle with anonymous enemy MiGs that threaten a communications ship after it drifts into foreign territory.

It sounds like a testosterone-fueled dude movie, but it actually plays to the female demographic to a nearly surprising degree. In fact, it almost feels like the reverse - with the shirtless guy volleyball game, the character drama, and the amount of time devoted to the relationship that develops between Maverick and Kelly McGillis as Charlie, the female civilian specialist who works at the school and judges pilots' proficiency, it almost plays like a chick flick that has occasional flight sequences to appeal to the male audience.

Maverick and Charlie are an unlikely pair but the sexual tension between them is palpable as it builds through several scenes. They share intimate moments, Berlin's "Take My Breath Away" playing in the background, that you expect to end with him giving her a hard movie kiss and putting her up against a wall, but instead they just finish their conversation and go off in their separate ways without a kiss, without a touch. Maverick doesn't kiss Charlie up against a wall until almost an hour into the film, and it's shocking to hear that their love scene wasn't originally going to be in the movie, it wasn't filmed until six months after the principal shoot ended. The audience needed that release. McGillis had a different hair color by the time the love scene was filmed, which Scott got around by playing the scene in deep shadows, backlit by blue light blasting through windows.

The whole film has a great look, with Scott making terrific use of lighting, filters, and plentiful images shot at golden hour. The aerial photography is amazing and at times dizzying. The movie is rather cheesy and cliché, but it is very entertaining to watch. Scott perfectly pulled off the popcorn movie that he set out to make and delivered for Paramount the highest grossing film of 1986.


Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson had also produced for Paramount the highest grossing film in North America of 1984, the second highest grossing film in the world that year behind Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Beverly Hills Cop, one of the best action/comedies ever made. A sequel was in development and set to go right after Top Gun, and since the first BHC's director, Martin Brest, was not returning, Bruckheimer and Simpson held on to Tony Scott and moved him straight from Top Gun onto Beverly Hills Cop II. Throughout production on BHC2, Scott wore a hat that read "Top Cop".

In the first BHC, Detroit police detective Axel Foley (Eddie Murphy) travelled to California after a childhood friend was killed for trying to rip off a Beverly Hills art dealer whose business was a front for cocaine smuggling. During his time in Beverly Hills, Foley made some friends on the local police force - Lieutenant Andrew Bogomil (Ronny Cox) and detectives John Taggart (John Ashton) and Billy Rosewood (Judge Reinhold).

Murphy, Cox, Ashton, and Reinhold all reprise their roles in the sequel, which informs us that the characters have remained friends and kept in contact over the two years since the events of the first film, occasionally meeting up for fishing trips. The story is kicked off when (now Captain) Bogomil is shot and nearly killed by the perpetrators of "the Alphabet Crimes", a series of highly professional, perfectly timed and executed armed robberies. After the crimes, coded clues are sent to newspapers and the police, a code that has yet to be cracked. Foley returns to Beverly Hills to visit Bogomil in the hospital and, with the help of Taggart and Rosewood, sets out to find the people who are behind the Alphabet Crimes and the attempted assassination of his friend.

Tony Scott did not hold back on replacing Martin Brest's naturalistic look with his own aesthetic, starting with changing the aspect ratio - the first movie was shot 1.85:1, an aspect ratio that Scott never used on his feature films, starting with The Hunger he preferred to stay in the range of 2:35.1, which BHC2 is - and proceeding with his style of sunlight streaming through open blinds, smoky rooms, shafts of light, blown out windows, filters, colored gels and neon, and extensive golden hour photography. Scott's style and the comedic scenes are an unusual pairing, and he openly admitted that he wasn't completely comfortable handling comedy, his focus was more on the action. BHC2 is a darker, more serious film than its predecessor, but Murphy, Ashton, and Reinhold have great comedic chemistry and still provide the laughs whenever they're sharing the screen.

This time, Rosewood is shown to have a fascination with weaponry and the films of Sylvester Stallone, the actor who at one time had been cast to play Axel in Beverly Hills Cop. Stallone's BHC would've been a serious action film and he handled script rewrites himself while he was attached to the project. When he dropped out of it, he took ideas that he had come up with while working on BHC and wrote them into his 1986 film Cobra. Scott had seen Cobra, as well as Stallone's Rocky IV, both of which featured model/actress Brigitte Nielson, and was inspired to cast Nielson as the Alphabet Bandit's right hand woman.

The casting of Nielson led to some personal problems behind the scenes. Though they were both newly wed to others, the 5'6" director and 6'1" actress had an affair during filming, quickly ending Scott's second marriage and Nielson's marriage to Stallone.

Beverly Hills Cop II fell short of matching the first film's box office numbers, but was still very successful.

REVENGE (1990)

Newly retired from his military career as a Navy fighter pilot (call sign: Ghost), Jay Cochran gets an invitation from wealthy businessman Tiburon "Tibey" Mendez to come down to Mexico and spent some time hanging out around his estate and playing tennis. Jay had met Tibey when he flew the man to Alaska on a hunting trip, and during their time there they became good friends, with Tibey saying that Jay saved his life. Jay accepts the invitation.

When arriving at Tibey's home, the first person Jay meets is Tibey's lovely young wife Miryea. Miryea's father was a business partner of Tibey's, and although the marriage was arranged, Miryea does love her husband. Still, their union is not without its issues - she wants to have children, he does not, he already fathered a dozen before she was even born. Tibey is also not a very likeable person. Not all of his riches were earned legally, he's a criminal kingpin with a violent nature, he has people killed just for insulting him. He's not someone to mess with or betray.

But the more time Jay and Miryea spend around each other, the more they like each other, the more attracted they become to each other. Jay tries to fight their attraction and keep things under control. Tibey is the only man Miryea's ever been with, but she's very interested in Jay... The first step toward things going too far is hand touching while Jay and Miryea make fresh lemonade together. When life gives you lemons, screw your buddy's wife.

Jay and Miryea eventually run off together, to the small cabin that Jay owns in the middle of nowhere. It's a dick move, but the revenge that Tibey takes over this betrayal and infidelity (even though he has a mistress) is overkill. He shows up at the cabin with some of his henchmen, beat Jay to within an inch of life and dump him in the desert, burn the cabin to the ground, slash Miryea's face with a knife and sell her into prostitution in a bordello, with the order that she be shot up with heroin daily. If that's not enough, during the cabin raid Jay's loyal, well-trained dog Rocky gets blasted with a shotgun, and the horrendous shot of the bloody dog being slammed backwards into a wall is enough to get any member of the audience rooting for Jay to get some violent payback on Tibey and his men. When I first saw this movie at a very young age, that shot was enough for me to leave the room and give up on this movie.

Jay is saved from a slow death in the desert by a family of good Samaritans who nurse him back to health. When he's back to full capacity, Jay doesn't set off on the rampage of revenge that events and the film's title have led us to expect, he takes a subdued scenic route of meeting oddball characters and like-minded individuals while searching for Miryea. Ultimately, it's not very satisfying, there are loose ends left dangling, and the punishments don't fit the crimes - Jay and Miryea were punished too severely, their attackers not severely enough. At least the guy who shot the dog gets a somewhat acceptable death... In the end, it seems that the titular Revenge was really what the asshole criminal delivered in Jay's cabin.

The film is based on a novella by Jim Harrison, who also co-wrote the screenplay. After the story was first published in 1979, it became a hot property over the next decade, attracting many directors and stars, becoming a dream project for some. Directors Sydney Pollack and Jonathan Demme were involved with it at different points, Jack Nicholson wanted to direct and play Tibey, Walter Hill wanted to direct and cast Jeff Bridges as Jay, Don Johnson was once in consideration to play Jay.

Kevin Costner came onto the project to play Jay in the late '80s, though then-attached director John Houston didn't want him in the cast. Due to the success that Costner was riding on at the time, he was able to get Houston removed from the project, and wanted to direct the film himself. Producer Ray Stark didn't think Costner was ready to direct, so Tony Scott was hired to be the man to finally bring this story to the screen. Costner went directly from Revenge to directing Dances with Wolves, which was released in theatres nine months later and went on to sweep the Academy Awards, including a Best Director Oscar win for Costner.

Of the visual trademarks that Scott brought along with him, the one he really went heavy on in this one is the smoke. Rooms are so smoky it looks like the actors are playing out scenes in locations that are on fire (and not just at Jay's cabin), even the outdoors is smoky.

Scott and Stark had issues during the making of the film, with Stark being uncomfortable with the level of sex and violence that Scott wanted to put in it. The version of the film that reached theatres in 1990 was the Stark supervised and approved cut. The theatrical cut of the movie is only available on DVD in a barebones, pan and scan edition, but in 2007, Tony Scott was able to re-edit the film for a 2:35.1 Unrated Director's Cut DVD and Blu-ray release. The opposite of most director's cuts, Scott's version of Revenge is 23 minutes shorter than the theatrical version, as he removed a lot of character and dialogue moments while amping up the sex and violence to the levels that he always wanted the film to include. In the theatrical cut, one major henchman seems to get away with the horrible things he does, leaving viewers to wonder "What happened to that jackass?" An added scene in the director's cut answers that question.

Quentin Tarantino has said that Revenge is Tony Scott's masterpiece, but that's not an opinion that I share, I don't find the movie to be very fulfilling. Personally, I think Tony Scott's masterpiece is the one that had a screenplay by Quentin Tarantino.

Revenge came and went at the box office, making less than its $20 million budget.


Another Tony Scott film reached theatres just four months after Revenge, this one a four-years-later Top Gun reunion of Scott, producers Bruckheimer and Simpson, and star Tom Cruise.

In 1987, Cruise's working relationship and friendship with his The Color of Money co-star Paul Newman had led to him getting the opportunity to take a spin around a race track in a car belonging to NASCAR driver/team owner Rick Hendrick. Cruise got the car up to 180mph... and had an idea for a movie set in the world of NASCAR. He took the idea for Days of Thunder to Bruckheimer and Simpson, who began developing it into a script. Cruise gets a "story by" credit on the finished film, the only writing credit that he's received in his career.

After the script had gone through some drafts and rewrites by a couple writers, the producers ended up hiring Chinatown screenwriter Robert Towne to write the shooting draft. When filming began, Towne still wasn't finished with the script. Many scenes were written the same day they were filmed, and some of the lines Cruise had to deliver while driving his character's race car were fed to him on cue cards and through his headset.

Cruise plays Cole Trickle, an open-wheel race car driver who's recruited into NASCAR by upstart team owner Tim Daland. To build Cole's car and run his pit crew, Daland gets NASCAR veteran Harry Hogge to come out of retirement, just one year after he quit when the driver he was working with died during a race.

Trickle has a bumpy transition into NASCAR, things don't go well in his races or between him and Hogge until he finally admits that he knows nothing about cars and doesn't understand the terms that Hogge uses, he's only running on a natural ability to handle a vehicle at high speeds, "to control something that's out of control." After that admission, Hogge is better able to mentor Trickle into becoming a proper NASCAR driver. Trickle goes on to have success, deal with rivalries, become good friends with a fellow driver, and eventually race in the Daytona 500 in a car sponsored by Mello Yello.

Trickle also falls in love along the way. Taken to a hospital after a crash that gives him a minor brain injury that temporarily affects his vision, Trickle finds himself under the care of beautiful neurosurgeon Claire Lewicki. Claire is played by Nicole Kidman, an actress chosen for the film by Cruise after he saw her in the 1989 thriller Dead Calm. As their characters fall in love in the film, Cruise and Kidman also fell in love in real life, starting a relationship that continued through two more films together and over ten years of marriage. Unlike Top Gun, the romance and character development don't overshadow the vehicular action here, there is a lot more racing in Days of Thunder than there was flying in Top Gun. Trickle doesn't just go around and around on tracks in the film, he also speeds around in cities and on a beach, he even has a wheelchair race.

As a Texas Chainsaw Massacre fan, I have to mention that TCM2 star Caroline Williams has a small role in Days of Thunder as the wife of Trickle's rival-turned-friend Rowdy Burns (who is played by Michael Rooker of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, Mallrats, and The Walking Dead.)

Days of Thunder was an attempt to recapture the lightning in a bottle that had been caught with Top Gun, but it wasn't quite successful at that. DOT is a fun racing film and it did well at the box office, but it took a while to reach the profit zone. Paramount ended their deal with Bruckheimer and Simpson soon after the release, with some saying the film's troubled production was to blame. Beyond the fact that it was shot without a finished script, filming took three months longer than originally scheduled, and personal and budgetary excesses caused the movie to end up costing almost double what had been intended when production began.

No comments:

Post a Comment