With fast cuts and gimmicks, Tony Scott helped redefine action films

Jaime Weinman on the influence of the Hollywood director

Director Tony Scott at the premiere of "Unstoppable," in October 2010. (MARK RALSTON/ AFP PHOTO)

Tony Scott, the director, committed suicide after learning that he had inoperable cancer. Update: The ABC report about Scott’s condition has been denied by his widow. It’s terrible news, and a terrible ending to a notable life in film.

When I first became aware of Tony Scott’s name – in the late ’80s, of course – I hadn’t yet heard of Ridley Scott. That’s mostly youthful ignorance, but that, at the time, was also probably an accurate reflection of where they stood in the film world. Ridley had had one hit (Alien) followed by a lot of flops (Blade Runner had yet to make the trek from cult flop to cult classic). He made Thelma and Louise followed by a bunch of other bombs, until Gladiator finally made him a trye superstar director. Tony took longer to get into feature films, but Top Gun established him as the go-to guy for the quick-cutting, violent, profane, and — above all — fast action picture, and a leading director of the new Hollywood studio system.

Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer were the top producers of this kind of film, and Top Gun made Scott their top in-house director for a number of years: he did their sequel to Beverly Hills Cop, the Cruise vehicle Days of Thunderaka Top Gun on land—and Crimson Tide, one of the most effective big-studio thrillers of its era. He also directed Quentin Tarantino’s script for True Romance, and had a good enough relationship with Tarantino on that picture to bring the young hotshot on Crimson Tide for a rewrite. That movie also began his second important relationship in filmmaking, with Denzel Washington, who starred in four of Scott’s last six films.

Scott was one of a generation of British directors who made it big in features during the ’80s after directing commercials. The style they brought to movies was rooted in commercials (and the emerging genre of music videos), where the director must think not simply in terms of scenes, but the impact of every shot.

In a traditional feature, flashy shots are reserved for flashy moments, or you linger on those flashy shots to make it clear what they’re trying to accomplish. The commercial style doesn’t dally, nor does it allow any shot to be “normal”: it consists of a lot of stylish, carefully composed, and short shots, which—when put together—create a sort of sensory overload. In this style, the motivation for setting up a particular shot in a particular way is less important than the overall effect of all those shots put together in a dark theatre.

You can see this style in Scott’s famous commercial for Saab, which launched his feature career and helped land him Top Gun. There are few “normal” shots in the commercial — everything is seen with unusual angles, heightened lighting, slow motion, zooms, blurs. It’s a collection of what would previously have been considered gimmick shots, mashed together until it seems like the normal way of looking at the world. That’s the style Scott and other directors helped to bring to feature films.

Because there’s been a backlash against the prevalence of this fast-cutting, gimmick-laden style—and because Scott’s successor as Bruckheimer’s star director, Michael Bay, has given the style a bad name—it’s easy to dismiss Scott. Throw in the fact he was part of a generation of directors who were more subservient to strong producers than the ’70s generation (which makes them the villains in those tiresome “the ’80s ruined the New Golden Age of Cinema” books). And finally the fact his brother Ridley finally became a bankable, consistently successful director in the ’00s, just as Tony’s career was starting to slip. All these things work against Scott’s reputation.

But if you look at the action movies being made before the Commercial Directors arrived, you can understand why they made such an impact. A lot of big-studio action pictures of the late ’70s and early ’80s had terrific stunts but somewhat uninspiring, functional camerawork. An example would be the James Bond films of the ’80s: fine stunts, well edited, but not very stylish whenever something wasn’t blowing up. The “classical” approach to action movies, where the camera doesn’t get in the way of the action or call attention to itself, produced such masterpieces as Raiders of the Lost Ark. But for every Raiders, there were three or four other movies that just felt slow.

The Commercial Brats restored excitement and a fast pace to types of movies that had become a little bloated. Now, of course, these same movies have succumbed to bloat again in terms of length and the overloading of gimmick shots and fast cutting. Every approach eventually becomes decadent. But if the post-Top Gun action movie needs a change in approach, so did the pre-Top Gun action film. And Tony Scott’s style of making every shot a movie in itself was exactly what the ’80s needed.