Isn't war sexy and cool? From a thematic standpoint, Top Gun is repellant, yet it's filmed with undeniable style and gusto by Tony Scott. And now the greatest music video of the 80s is returning to North American IMAX theaters on February 8 in a 3D version, in advance of its release on Blu-ray next week.
Released in May 1986, Top Gun was the top-grossing performer at the box office that year, and certified 24-year-old Tom Cruise as a genuine movie star. For Scott, who passed away last year under tragic circumstances, it positioned him to make more big-budget Hollywood products, which often appeared to target the lowest common denominator.
Appearances can be deceiving, however, and while Top Gun and Days of Thunder poisoned the well for me, discouraging further exploration of his films until much later, Scott ultimately manifested greater control of his projects, often pushing the limits of commercial cinema in order to deliver films that only appear to favor style over substance.
His first five films make clear that, in Hollywood, patience (sometimes) pays off in spades.
1. The Hunger (1983)
Whoa! I shied away from the film during its initial release, not particularly piqued by its marketing campaign. Watching it recently for the first time, I'm sorry it took me so long to catch up. The opening scenes are evocative and disturbing, and Scott teasingly develops the story in a hothouse-lusty atmosphere that is naked sexual and boldly audacious. It feels both of its time and way ahead, and was a roaring feature debut for Scott. But neither critics nor audiences responded in great numbers at the time.
2. Top Gun (1986)
Beyond its status as a de facto recruiting video for the military, the film also promotes the idea that the so-called best and the so-called brightest are to be excused almost anything because their supposed superiority is essential to the functioning of society, as determined by the government and/or the military. Thus, the dangerous egomaniac Maverick (Tom Cruise) is absolved of his sins because, on a single occasion, 'it wasn't his fault' that another man died. I had trouble swallowing the bile that rose in my throat, but a recent viewing reminded me of how impressive Scott's work is here, creating glorious eye candy, even if it has a rotten core.
3. Beverly Hills Cop II (1987)
Rewatching Martin Brest's Beverly Hills Cop first, I was struck by the film's simple set-ups, which work extremely well for a comedy that happens to have some action scenes sprinkled here and there. Working with similar pedestrian material in the sequel, Tony Scott makes an action-comedy where the emphasis is entirely on the action, rather than the comedy. The result is a film that features demonstrably more compelling direction, and plays better because of that shift in emphasis, even after multiple views. Remarkable, really.
4. Revenge (1990)
As I'm sure has been said before, Tony Scott never met a shaft of light he didn't love, and that gives this run-of-the-mill adultery drama the only sparks of life it possesses. To be fair, I've only seen the theatrical version, which gets bogged down in melodrama and never gets back up. (Scott's director's cut reportedly cuts some 20 minutes.) It's never clear why our hero (Kevin Costner), presented as a smart fighter pilot, would ever be dumb enough to get involved with the wife (Madeline Stowe) of his supposed friend (Anthony Quinn), and Costner isn't sufficiently convincing as a man who could ever be led by lust or love to do something quite so foolish.
5. Days of Thunder (1991)
Loud, noisy, irritating, and stupid. That's how I recall my first viewing of this Top Gun knock-off 20 years ago. Revisiting the film, the terms "loud" and "noisy" still apply, but I found myself smiling more and enjoying Scott's artistry more. The film benefits immensely from Robert Duvall; even absent a discernible character, the actor is so good that he makes you think he is something more than simply an elder statesman lending dignity and gravitas to a shallow slice of entertainment. Nicole Kidman also provides distraction, leaving Cruise to smile and shake his head and climb behind the wheel and allow Scott and his crew to make every audience member wish they could drive 200 miles per hour in a stock car.
Working with much more original material, Scott next made a superbly entertaining trio of films: The Last Boy Scout, True Romance, and Crimson Tide. He would continue to experiment with the visual side of the equation, sometimes enhancing and sometimes detracting from the stories he was ostensibly telling.
Tony Scott left behind a body of work that is distinctly his own. I suspect that critical opinions will continue to rise and fall on the merits of his accomplishments, but his aim seems to have to been to combine personal expression with films that appealed to the widest audience possible, and that's a worthy goal for anyone who chooses to work within the Hollywood studio system.
First Five Movies is an occasional series of features focusing on the early work of established filmmakers.