Friday, September 21, 2012

The Films of Tony Scott: Part III

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

Part III covers Scott's film work from The Last Boy Scout (1991) through Crimson Tide (1995).

"I always get criticized for style over content, unlike Ridley's films that go into the classic box right away. Mine sort of hover. Maybe with time people will start saying they should be classics, but I think I'm always perceived as reaching too hard for difference, and difference doesn't categorize you as the 'classic category'."


Screenwriter Shane Black had some great success in the late '80s. His first produced screenplay was 1987's Lethal Weapon, and that was soon followed by him getting hired to act in Predator and do uncredited script revisions while on set, the making of The Monster Squad, a less successful than the others but well-received by my generation horror film that he co-wrote, and a story credit on Lethal Weapon 2. So when Black's latest work, an action spec called The Last Boy Scout, hit the market, it kicked off a bidding war. Carolco Pictures drove the price up to $2.25 million, but in the end Black went with a lower offer, a $1.75 million bid from famed action producer Joel Silver, the producer who he had worked with on the Lethal Weapon movies and Predator. With the deal made, Black became the first screenwriter to get paid more than $1 million for a script.

Black's screenplay had been inspired by his love of hard-boiled private eye novels by the likes of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. As he would go on to do again with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, for The Last Boy Scout Black updated the pulp detective style for a contemporary Los Angeles setting, and in this case modernizes the glamourous, greedy and corrupt settings of the old novels by basing the film's story around the world of professional football.

At the head of the story is ex-Secret Service agent turned hard-boiled private eye Joe Hallenbeck (Hell and back?), a down and out alcoholic whose self-loathing mantra is "Nobody likes you. Everybody hates you. You're gonna lose." He's got a messy homelife, his wife cheats on him and his daughter has inherited his foul-mouthed smartass attitude and turned it against him.

Hallenbeck's life gets even rougher when he takes a job from a friend - right before that friend gets killed in a car explosion - to keep an eye on an exotic dancer who's been getting hassled by "some weirdo" and fears for her safety. The surveillance job is a miserable failure, the exotic dancer gets gunned down by a carload of goons before Hallenbeck can do anything to stop them. In the aftermath, Hallenbeck forms a tenuous buddy action movie alliance with the dancer's boyfriend, former football player Jimmy Dix, and as they search for answers to the questions of who would want the girl dead and why, they get wrapped up in a web of bribery, blackmail, and political assassination.

Joe Hallenbeck is an awesome character, brought to life by Bruce Willis at the height of his cinematic powers, before he started playing himself most of the time. Any dangerous situation is just an excuse for Hallenbeck to drop some flippant quips, and he's so cool that he can even kill a person in the impossible way of "putting their nose through their brain" with a hit to the schnoz.

An interesting cast is assembled around Willis's Hallenbeck; Damon Wayans as Jimmy Dix is the most I've ever liked a Wayans in a movie, there are great villain performances from Noble Willingham, Kim Coates, and Frank Collison, among others, including the unlikely casting of Taylor Negron as the bad guy's main henchman. Bruce McGill has a fun small role. Hallenbeck's wife and daughter are played a couple actresses I've always liked, Chelsea Fields, of such films as Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man, and Danielle Harris, best known from the Halloween series. An early in her career Halle Berry plays Dix's ill-fated girlfriend, who works in a club where her fellow dancers include Hardbodies' Teal Roberts (who was also a stripper in Scott's Beverly Hills Cop II) and Jim Wynorski regular Julie K. Smith.

As brought to the screen by Tony Scott, The Last Boy Scout is one of the most popular and badass action movies of the early '90s. There isn't as much golden hour exterior shooting in the film as there was in most of the films Scott made in the '80s, but the colored gels and neon are present, the locations are almost as smoky as they were in Revenge, and windows are still getting blown out with light, blue at night and bright white during the day.


According to Quentin Tarantino, True Romance is the first screenplay that he ever wrote to completion, after starting and discarding many before. With the finished script in hand, Tarantino believed he had written what would become his first directorial effort. But after years of unsuccessfully trying to get True Romance off the ground as his first film, he moved on and wrote another script. That one, titled Natural Born Killers, would be his first film. At least, that was the plan for a while. When he couldn't get NBK made, Tarantino wrote the screenplay for Reservoir Dogs and focused on making that his directing debut.

While Tarantino worked on getting RD made, the scripts for True Romance and Natural Born Killers made the rounds around town. People who read it noted Tarantino's writing talent, but the movies still never got made. Then one day, Tarantino met Tony Scott, introduced by a mutual acquaintance. After their meeting, Scott ended up with the scripts for True Romance, Natural Born Killers, and Reservoir Dogs all in his possession, and after reading them Scott wanted to direct both Reservoir Dogs and True Romance. Tarantino held firm to the idea that he would be the one who directed Reservoir Dogs, but True Romance was available to become a Tony Scott film.

True Romance follows a young man named Clarence Worley, a Elvis-obsessed comic book store clerk who celebrates his birthday every year by making a solo trip to a local movie theatre. This year, Clarence's birthday theatrical viewing is a triple feature of martial arts movies. During the first film, a beautiful, provocatively dressed young woman named Alabama walks into the theatre, goes to take a seat behind Clarence, and accidentally dumps her bucket of popcorn on him. This leads to them striking up a conversation, Alabama sits down beside Clarence, they enjoy the rest of the show together, and they end up spending the whole night together, talking, getting to know each other, falling for each other. Alabama soon reveals that she's actually a call girl, she was hired by Clarence's boss to show him a good time. But the feelings that developed over the course of the night were real. Clarence and Alabama have fallen in love.

It would be happily ever after from there, but Clarence is highly disturbed when Alabama tells him details about the man who was her pimp. A man named Drexl. He's haunted by what he hears about Drexl, he can't stand the thought that this guy is out there. One night, Clarence goes to Drexl's place, under the pretense of picking up the stuff that Alabama left behind, and confronts him... and Drexl beats the hell out of him, which gives Clarence the impetus to do what he truly wanted to do all along. He kills Drexl, then runs out of the place with a suitcase that he believes contains Alabama's clothes.

When the suitcase is opened, it's revealed to be full of cocaine. Cocaine which could earn Clarence and Alabama a lot of money if they were to figure out how to sell it. And what better place to try to sell cocaine than Los Angeles? Clarence and Alabama hit the road from Detroit to L.A., not knowing that Drexl's mob cohorts are on their trail, and make their best attempt to orchestrate a big time drug deal. The trouble and bad decisions pile up until things climax with many people firing guns at each other.

I said in the Part II article that I thought Tony Scott's masterpiece was the film that had a screenplay by Quentin Tarantino, and this is it. This isn't just my favorite Tony Scott film, this is one of my favorite films, period, and has been ever since I first saw it when it hit VHS in early 1994. This movie, along with Kevin Smith's Clerks and Tarantino's other works that were released around that time, had a massive impact on me as a film watcher and a fledgling screenwriter.

If I could only save one Tarantino movie from some strange film-destroying disaster, True Romance would be the one, even though he didn't direct it himself. The screenplay is his most personal story and that comes through in the film. While most of his work is him crafting something new and awesome by melding together other things that he loves, there is real emotion coming through in True Romance. He considers the script his most autobiographical, because Clarence is based on himself at the age of twenty-five, and the relationship that develops between Clarence and Alabama is what Tarantino dreamed of having at the point in his life when he was writing it, when he hadn't yet had a girlfriend. He took a character based on himself, gave him the ideal relationship with a girl who he could hang out with like one of his friends, a girl who would watch and enjoy the movies he liked with him, and then put them through an Elmore Leonard-esque experience full of violence, drugs, and guns.

Tony Scott brought Tarantino's script to the screen in a wonderful way, turning it into a great film. While staying true to Tarantino's text, Scott brought Tarantino's friend and Pulp Fiction collaborator Roger Avary on board to do revisions that put the scenes Tarantino had assembled in a non-linear structure into chronological order. The ending was also changed from the downer that Tarantino had written into something much more appropriate for the emotional level the movie ended up with.

True Romance did not do well during its theatrical release, but it didn't take long for it to start receiving the love and appreciation that it deserves.

e special edition release of True Romance features a look at the storyboards Tony Scott drew for the film. On each movie he made, Scott would get up at 4am on every shooting day to draw the storyboards for the scenes he would be filming that day.


Crimson Tide re-teamed Tony Scott with his Top Gun/Beverly Hills Cop II/Days of Thunder producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson and is another case, following Top Gun and Revenge, of his lead characters having a career in the U.S. Navy. They're not fighter pilots this time, but the crew of the nuclear submarine USS Alabama.

A rebellion has spiralled out of control in Russia, the country is on the edge of full-on civil war and rebel forces have taken control of a nuclear missile base, as well as four attack submarines. With the rebel leader threatening to fire missiles on the United States and Japan, we have what is called the "worst standoff since the Cuban Missile Crisis".

The U.S. Navy sends out submarines in response to the rebel threat. The rebels aren't believed to have the launch codes for the nuclear missiles in their possession, but if they do somehow get the codes and satellites spot the missiles being fueled, which would mean they could be launched in one hour, the U.S. submarines will be ordered to fire on the missile base.

One of the U.S. submarines on patrol is the USS Alabama, commanding officer Captain Frank Ramsey. His usual executive officer is recovering from appendicitis, so Ramsey had to choose a new XO for this mission, and his choice was Lieutenant Commander Ron Hunter. As the days go by, it becomes clear that Ramsey and Hunter are not a good match, there is a vast difference between the methods and ideals of the two men. Ramsey is brash and hot-headed, Hunter is calm and by-the-book, and since Ramsey is the one of the two who has combat experience, he believes that he's right in everything.

The tension between Ramsey and Hunter comes to the breaking point when the Alabama is given orders to fire their missiles on the Russian base. A follow-up message is interrupted when the Alabama is attacked by one of the rebel-controlled subs, crashing their communications system and severing the radio buoy. Even though the Alabama crew has no idea what the second message was meant to tell them, Ramsey still intends to go through with launch of their missiles. But the missiles cannot be fired without the agreement of the XO, and Hunter will not approve the launch. The Captain and Hunter argue over the decision, leading Hunter to relieving Ramsey of duty, having him locked up in his room and taking over as commanding officer.

If Hunter is right, he's avoided kicking off a nuclear holocaust, but if he's wrong, nukes may be fired on the United States and Japan, and he will be prosecuted for mutiny. While waiting to find out if he has made the right call, Hunter still has to deal with troubles caused by rebel subs, and the crew questions whether to let him remain in charge or help Ramsey take back his command before time runs out.

Crimson Tide is a tense action drama that, minus the profanity, I could easily imagine being made in the 1950s. Scott gives the film a great look and Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington deliver fantastic performances as Ramsey and Hunter.

Michael Schiffer and Richard P. Henrick are the only credited writers, but there was a lot of script doctoring going on throughout production. Schindler's List screenwriter Steven Zaillian did work on it, some scenes and dialogue came from Chinatown/Days of Thunder writer Robert Towne, and Scott also had Quentin Tarantino provide some material. Tarantino's contribution consisted mainly of pop culture references, like the sailors quizzing each other on the stars of submarine movies or fighting over which Silver Surfer artist was the best.

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