Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Films of Tony Scott: Part IV

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

Part IV covers Scott's film work from The Fan (1996) through Man on Fire (2004).
 "Ridley makes films for posterity. My films are more rock 'n' roll."

THE FAN (1996)

Gil Renard is a shambles. He's mentally unbalanced, has a hair-trigger temper, he's a disaster as a father to the son he has with his ex-wife, he's a failure in his career as a knife salesman. The only really good thing in his life is baseball, and things are definitely looking up in that are. Gil's a superfan of San Francisco Giants, who have just signed a $40 million deal with three time National League MVP Bobby Rayburn, who blocked the Giants from reaching the playoffs when he was playing for the Atlanta Braves in the previous season. Now Rayburn will be replacing Giants center fielder Juan Primo, who has been bumped to the left to make room for him.

Primo is also the player who the number that Rayburn has worn throughout his career, #11, and he refuses to give it up. Not only does Primo show Rayburn up there, but Rayburn also has a rocky start with the Giants, he has trouble getting hits, while Primo does so well that he gets called a "hitting sensation".

As Gil's life crumbles more and more - his ex files a restraining order to keep him away from his son, he gets fired from his job - his obsession with the Giants and Rayburn in particular reaches very unhealthy levels. Gil soon snaps and decides that it's up to him to help Rayburn. Get him hitting again. Get his number back for him. When he finds that Rayburn has attitudes and outlooks that he doesn't like, he thinks maybe he needs to teach his hero a lesson as well. Stalking, murder, kidnapping, Gil is willing to do whatever it takes.

My favorite visual moment Tony Scott brought to this film is the confrontation between Gil and Primo in a sauna - a location that really gives Scott an excuse to smoke (or steam) up the room. Gil's demand that Primo give #11 to Rayburn turns into a physical scuffle that ends with Gil jamming a knife into Primo's thigh, severing his femoral artery. Primo sits down and slowly bleeds to death, and when he finally slumps over dead, the scene turns red.

Scott did make a questionable music decision, though. Gil's favorite band seems to be The Rolling Stones, he's always listening to them and brags to everyone too young to doubt his claims that he's good friends with Mick Jagger and was present for the recording of most of the Stones' songs. But in scenes where Gil has really gone off the deep end, the sounds of Nine Inch Nails fill the soundtrack. There's nothing wrong with that in theory, the music of NIN is a great score for a mental breakdown, it's been the soundtrack to several of my own meltdowns over the years, but the lyrics that Scott puts over the scenes sort of ruins them. When people are having tense confrontations and all we can hear is Trent Reznor yelling "I wanna f--k you!", it makes them unintentionally, uncomfortably amusing.

The Fan was shot 2:35.1, but I'm not sure if there's been a home video release that had the film in its proper aspect ratio. The DVD I watched it on was, unfortunately, pan and scan only.

In the mid-'90s, Tony and his brother Ridley were part of a consortium that purchased Shepperton Studios in England, and around the same time the brothers also got their production company Scott Free up and running. Both brothers made movies in 1996 that were Scott Free productions. Ridley's was White Squall, and The Fan was Tony's first Scott Free movie. In the sixteen years since, Scott Free Productions have added fifty titles to Tony Scott's filmography as a producer, titles that include his own movies, brother Ridley's Prometheus, films including The Grey, The A-Team, Cyrus, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, and Welcome to the Rileys (directed by Ridley's son Jake), and TV shows including The Good Wife and Numb3rs.

The first Tony Scott/Ridley Scott-produced television series was called The Hunger, but had no connection to Tony's 1983 film of the same name. The Hunger TV series was a horror anthology show in the tradition of Tales from the Crypt, Tales from the Darkside, etc. and ran for two seasons on Showtime, hosted by Terence Stamp during the first season and David Bowie during the second. Tony Scott directed the first episode of both seasons; Swords, about a man who gets involved with a woman who does a stage act where she is unharmed by being impaled with swords, and Sanctuary, about a wounded young man's torturous interaction with a strange artist in an abandoned prison.

The year between his two episodes of The Hunger saw the release of another Tony Scott film:

Will Smith stars as labor attorney Robert Clayton Dean, who occasionally hires a surveillance specialist through his ex-girlfriend to help him out on cases. Dean knows nothing about this expert beyond the fact that he goes by the name Brill. A videotape recently procured by Brill for Dean to use as leverage in a case has led to the lawyer being threatened by local mob boss Paulie Pintero - if Pintero doesn't know who made the tape in one week, he says he'll kill Dean.

So when Dean's life begins to get torn apart, his marriage disrupted by pictures of him with the ex-girlfriend, his career ruined by newspaper stories of an FBI investigation, his credit cards cancelled, Dean thinks Pintero is behind it all. It takes him a while to realize that he's actually being targetted by corrupt politician Thomas Reynolds, who has a team of rogue NSA operatives keeping him under constant surveillance.

Dean doesn't even know that he has in his possession a video, slipped to him by an old friend right before that old friend got chased away by NSA agents, a chase that ended with the friend getting hit by a speeding fire truck, that is a very damning piece of evidence against Reynolds. A video that shows Reynolds supervising the murder of a Congressman who stood in the way of the Telecommunications Security and Privacy Act being passed.

Everywhere Dean goes, the NSA agents are on his trail, techies watching his every move on monitors showing images from the cameras that are set up all around - the usual security cameras, traffic cameras, and helicopter cameras, in addition to cameras that are hidden on Dean's clothes and in his house.

To get out of this mess, Dean has to make direct contact with the mysterious Brill, who is played by Gene Hackman in what is essentially a reprisal of his role as Harry Caul from The Conversation (1974). Brill shares Caul's intensely private nature, his job, and his fashion sense. Caul isn't the only past Hackman character being referenced here, he also played a man named Brill in the 1968 film The Split.

Enemy of the State reunited Tony Scott with producer Jerry Bruckheimer, making this their fifth film together. Their four previous collaborations - Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop II, Days of Thunder, and Crimson Tide - had earned more than a billion dollars in combined box office totals, and Enemy of the State added another success to the list. Bruckheimer's producing partner Don Simpson had passed away soon after the release of Crimson Tide, but Simpson still gets a credit on this film, since he had been developing the idea with Bruckheimer since 1991.

EOTS is a very fun action/thriller; fast paced, cut together in a suspenseful and exciting way, and intelligently written. David Marconi is the only credited writer, but uncredited writers who did work on the script include Aaron Sorkin and Bourne series mastermind Tony Gilroy. Smith and Hackman are surrounded by an entertaining cast of familiar faces like Jason Robards, Tom Sizemore, Jon Voight, Regina King, Jack Black, Seth Green, Jake Busey, Scott Caan, Barry Pepper, Jamie Kennedy, Jason Lee, and Lisa Bonet.

I first saw Enemy of the State during its opening weekend, and for a while afterwards I was proclaiming it one of my new favorites. That opinion hasn't really held up, I've only watched the movie twice since then, but I do think it's a pretty awesome flick. I should watch it more often.

SPY GAME (2001)

It's April of 1991 and CIA agent Tom Bishop has gone rogue, heading up an unauthorized mission to break a woman out of a prison in China. The rescue fails, and Bishop is arrested for espionage. The United States government is notified that Bishop will be executed in twenty-four hours.

Nathan Muir, the man who recruited Bishop into the agency, is called into a meeting at the Langley headquarters on the day of his retirement so he can relay to a group of bureaucrats his personal perspective on the career and character of Tom Bishop. Once in the meeting, Muir quickly figures out that what the suits are really looking for is an excuse to just let Bishop be killed.

The film sort of plays out like a spy thriller anthology, with three segments playing out in flashback as Muir tells the story of his history with Bishop. Story 1: Their first meeting, in Vietnam in 1975, when Muir chose the young sniper to perform an assassination. Story 2: Berlin, 1976, Muir recruits Bishop into the CIA and they pull off a defector transportation/Soviet mole hunt called Operation Rodeo. Story 3: Beirut, 1985, Bishop meets and falls for a woman while working to take down a terrorist leader and Muir inadvertently sets into motion the chain of events that led Bishop to his current predicament.

In the 1991 Langley wrap around, Muir spends his time between stories doing his best to save Bishop by making surreptitious phone calls, typing letters, sending faxes, and making forgeries.

I really enjoy Spy Game, and with two smart spy movies back-to-back, Tony Scott ended the '90s and started the 2000s in a way that was right up my alley.

Scott's style was showing signs of evolution around this time. Though his films still had running times around two hours, the shooting and pacing was feeling more frantic, the editing quicker, and Scott was eager to do some experimenting. Since Spy Game was separated into segments that took place in different locations and different time periods, Scott wanted to give each segment its own specific look. Most of the footage he had seen from the Vietnam war was shot on 16mm black and white, so Scott wanted to shoot the Vietnam segment in black and white, then desaturate it into a green-tinted sepia. Berlin would look cold and blue. Beirut would be shot on the reversal stock of 1985, which would provide such rich colors that it would seem like a heightened reality.

The studio and producers wouldn't allow Scott to shoot different parts of the movie on different film stocks or in black and white, though, telling him that this "wasn't an art movie." He had to shoot on the stock of the day, but he was allowed to digitally manipulate the picture in post-production, so the segments do all have their own looks. Vietnam is sepia, Berlin is cold and blue, Beirut does have richer colors.

Spy Game is dedicated to the memory of Tony and Ridley Scott's mother, Elizabeth Jean Scott, who passed away in 2001 at the age of 95.

In 2002, Tony and Ridley produced the second season of BMW's The Hire short films, a series that starred Clive Owen as The Driver, a man who travels the globe taking jobs that put him behind the wheel of a BMW and often put his life in danger. I did a write-up on the entire series last month, including the short that Tony Scott directed himself to end the season. This is what I wrote about that one: 


November, 1954. James Brown sold his soul to The Devil to gain the abilities that would make him the Godfather of Soul. November, 2002. With the aging process taking its toll on him and his career, Brown wants to re-negotiate the contract. Accompanied to The Devil's Las Vegas apartment by The Driver, Brown suggests a deal, another soul for another fifty years. He's offering The Driver's soul. A wager is made that I'm not quite clear on the rules of, but it involves a drag race from the Vegas strip to a railroad crossing in the desert, The Driver and James Brown vs. The Devil and his driver Bob, played by Danny Trejo. Gary Oldman is The Devil, James Brown is James Brown, and Marilyn Manson makes a cameo appearance as himself.

Director Tony Scott ends this series with a dose of pure insanity, using the short to test out some experimental ideas he had for his next feature, Man on Fire. He said he wanted to make the audience feel like they were on crystal meth while they were watching Beat the Devil and he's pretty successful at achieving that goal. The characters are manic, the editing hyperactive, the camera all over the place, zooming in and out. Speed, sound, and color timing are manipulated, logic is out the window.

Beat the Devil isn't really my bag, but James Brown's line "I traded a sunrise for a sunset" has always stuck with me for some reason.

MAN ON FIRE (2004)

Soon after making The Hunger in 1983, Tony Scott began working on an adaptation of A.J. Quinnell's 1980 novel Man on Fire, a story inspired by real life kidnapping cases. The movie was going to be shot in Italy, what was then "the kidnapping capital of the world", and Scott got Robert De Niro attached to star in the lead role of John Creasy. (After Marlon Brando turned it down because it was too physical.) The project soon fell apart for Scott, though, and he went on to make Top Gun, while Man on Fire was eventually made and released in 1987, starring Scott Glenn and directed by French filmmaker Élie Chouraqui.

Years later, producer Arnon Milchan still had the rights to make an film version of Quinnell's novel, and brought the project back to Scott.

When Man on Fire finally did make it to the screen under the direction of Tony Scott, Denzel Washington was in the role of John Creasy, and the setting was moved to Mexico, since kidnapping was no longer the epidemic in Italy that it had been thirty years earlier.

John Creasy is in a bad mental state by the time he retires from a sixteen year military career that consisted primarily of counter-terrorist work. He's depressed, suicidal, an alcoholic, and has trouble reconciling his Christianity with all the killing he's had to do. He goes down to Mexico to visit an old friend, and that old friend has soon found him a job, working as a live-in bodyguard for the seven-year-old daughter of an auto plant owner. Creasy is not a sociable man, he doesn't want to have to do much talking to people, but he can do the job of protecting the little girl.

Creasy remains distant at first, but he and the girl soon come to care deeply for each other. She brightens up his life, helps him overcome his depression and alcoholism, he coaches her to become a better swimmer... And then, after a bloody shootout in the streets, the little girl is kidnapped. The ransom exchange goes wrong and the girl's family is notified that she's been killed. When Creasy, who was shot multiple times, hears this, even though he's not yet properly healed, he sets off on a rampage of revenge to find and kill everyone involved with the kidnapping organization.

Like in The Fan, Nine Inch Nails music is used to score certain dark or intense scenes. Instrumental tracks from six different NIN songs are featured, but the vocals are not used, so thankfully unlike in The Fan there are never lyrics that unintentionally convey that Creasy would like to have forceful sex with the people he's confronting.

There is a scene in the film where Creasy attempts suicide, which adds an uncomfortable element to Tony Scott's audio commentary now. It's troubling to hear him say things like "the toughest thing anybody can do in life is attempt to take their own life".

Man on Fire is the film on which Scott really re-invented himself. Having tested out all of his experimental ideas on the Beat the Devil short, he was confident to put them to use on the feature, and this time he was allowed to do whatever he wanted. His idea was to put viewers into the damaged mindset of Creasy, and does so by using different film stocks, including the "heightened reality" of reversal stock, a hand-cranked camera cranked at different speeds throughout scenes, speed ramp editing and flashes, blurring, shaking, zooms. The footage was divided up between three editors with different approaches, then put through cross process to add more contrast. Scott and his editors even toyed with the use of subtitles, putting them on the screen not just when characters are speaking Spanish, but for key phrases spoken in English as well. They play with how the words come up on the screen, not content to just have full sentences appear at the bottom like usual.

Scott's new aesthetic didn't always sit well with me, it already didn't work for me with Beat the Devil, but I do have to commend him for still being so willing to switch things up, experiment and evolve that he ended up changing his style substantially this far into his career.

A remake of Man on Fire was produced in India the following year, titled Ek Ajnabee.

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