The “Unstoppable” Tony Scott

Somewhere in the mid-80’s there came a movie that inspired men to become volleyball playing pilots who rode motorcycles and had sex with lesbians while listening to Kenny Loggins.  In case you lived in a vacuum during that time and don’t regularly watch movies, the movie in question is “Top Gun,” a rip-roaring, in-your-face shot of adrenaline, excess and testosterone that rocked audiences in a whole new way.  The film’s style, from the quick-cut edits, wild camera angles, bleached and fogged out look, and cheeky dialogue would be aped by an entire generation of filmmakers.  All of this was laid out before us by a British filmmaker named Tony Scott.

And yes, before we move on, Kelly McGillis was and is a lesbian.

Tony Scott, whose brother is the equally famous (if not more so) Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Blackhawk Down, American Gangster, etc.), has had both large success and dismal failure at the box office.  Scott studied as a painter during his college years, subsequently earning a BFA with the intent to continue on with a career in that field.  However, the success and motivations by his brother, Ridley, pushed Tony to jump on the filmmaking bandwagon.

Since “Top Gun,” a major success for all parties involved (launching Tom Cruise to superstardom), Scott has gone on to direct a slew of films, many successful and many not.  However, each film he’s cranked out has an instantly recognizable style, a distinct signature that spells out “A Tony Scott Film.”  I first noticed this when I was a teenager and was watching the movie, “Revenge,” starring Kevin Costner.

It was on late at night on HBO, before the days of DVR’s and DVD’s, so I literally had to check a TV Guide and wait for it to come on.  I was drawn to it, like Jarrod to a Subway Club.  The style, the look, the feel, everything about the movie just oozed true artistry to me.  That may sound silly to say about a movie, but then again some people talk about “Jersey Shore” like it’s Jesus preaching the Sermon on the Mount.  It ain’t.

There was something familiar about “Revenge” that I couldn’t place my finger on.  I felt like I’d seen it before somewhere, but not in the same movie and I couldn’t figure out why.   I would track this movie down whenever it was on, no matter how late, and soak it in.  That and Madeleine Stowe’s perfect ass and naked boobies, let’s be honest here.  Teenage boys (like grown up men) have certain ulterior motives to just about anything, which usually involve seeing a woman naked to some extent.

A screenshot from "Revenge"

Then, one Saturday morning I flipped a channel and saw that “Top Gun” was on.  And that was it.  I recognized this style.  I recognized everything about it.  A fuse was lit and I knew what I had to do.  I had to find out the connection between “Top Gun” and “Revenge.”  I went to the bookstore and got this huge movie guidebook, which cross-referenced every movie ever made with its director and stars.  I immediately looked up “Revenge” and saw Tony Scott listed as the director.  I flipped to the director’s filmography and was shocked to find all the movies Tony Scott had directed: Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop 2, Days of Thunder, Crimson Tide, Spy Game, True Romance, Man on Fire, Enemy of the State, etc., etc.  I loved nearly all of them and it was like this weird awakening as I’d discovered a distinct film style for the first time in my life.  It changed the course of everything, giving birth to my own desire to make films.  I studied the shit out of that guidebook, bought every update, looked up every movie I ever saw and throughout the years memorized entire works by a huge majority of filmmakers.  And, most definitely, I began to emulate Mr. Scott’s style while in film school.

So…what?  Oh, you just wanted to know if “Unstoppable” was worth a shit, huh?  You don’t want a “freakin’ history lesson” on Tony ‘freakin’ Scott, huh?  Oh, man, I’m sorry.  Did you see the sign on the door that said Way (meaning mine) of the Shirey (meaning me)?  Yeah, my house, my rules, and you get a history lesson.  Pay attention, because this is important.  You just might learn something.  Yes.  From me.  Seriously.

A screenshot from "True Romance"

You don’t have to BE an artist to be able to spot a distinct style, whether it is in film or traditional art.  It’s easy to train the eye and it absolutely leads to a better appreciation (and enjoyment) of these mediums of entertainment.  Usually, if I have someone list five to ten of their favorite movies I can tell them who their favorite director is.  A lot of people just throw out Spielberg as their favorite, without having any idea what he’s actually done.  Even if fucking “Joe Dirt” is your favorite movie (in which you may like the director’s other works, like “What a Girl Wants” and “New York Minute”), I can probably find your favorite director.

Scott has experimented heavily with his style, becoming well known for using a lot of filters and bleach processes with his film to give it a very distinct washed out look, incorporating the “white flash” edits and the “smudgy” slow motion shots (which his brother Ridley employs regularly).  The experimentations can be seen especially in his later works like “Domino” and “Man on Fire.”  Now, I’m in the minority with these films, because I happen to love ‘em.  Most people don’t and I’m okay with that.

However, I think anyone that’s a fan of Mr. Scott’s work and his evolution as a filmmaker, can appreciate where he’s going and what he’s doing.  All artists experiment and try different styles, if even for a very brief while.  It’s part of the growth process.  It’s part of the trade.  Call it artsy-fartsy, touchy-feely bullshit if you will, but it’s the truth.  Scott has since toned down the flashier exploits of “Domino” and pulled himself back into the more accessible action director we have come to know and love.

Having started his career as a very commercial (and literally doing commercials) director with high-concept films like Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop 2, Scott never got tied down to churning out the same film over and over again (although he certainly revisited them, especially with his reteam with Cruise in “Days of Thunder”).  Unfortunately, the branching out didn’t translate to audiences in every instance and his more commercial work (“Top Gun,” “Crimson Tide,” “Enemy of the State.”) was better received.  Undeterred by the critics, however, Scott stayed true to his stylistic choices, chasing the projects that interested him, not what the studios dictated.  This led to some more exciting staples in his career, such as the Shane Black scripted “The Last Boy Scout,” which pulled Bruce Willis’ fat out of the fire after the whole “Hudson Hawk,” debacle (I shamefully admit to liking “Hudson Hawk” for all its flaws) and the Quentin Tarantino scripted “True Romance,” which didn’t perform exceptionally at the box office, but has since taken on the esteem of “cult classic.”

A screenshot from "Crimson Tide"

Scott certainly suffered from a lack of audience approval with a scattered few of his films, most notably “Domino” and “The Fan,” two films, which failed to connect with audiences and critics, despite some high-profile talent involved.  Like Scorsese with DeNiro/Dicaprio, Scott has taken Denzel Washington as his go-to-guy for four of his films and I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of their team ups.

“Crimson Tide” was their first film together, a submarine thriller, which also starred Gene Hackman.  The film tied in all the elements that make a Tony Scott movie a Tony Scott movie and connected with audiences instantly.  It was a win for Mr. Scott and Denzel.  They took their act to the streets and cranked out three more, “Man on Fire,” “The Taking of Pelham 123,” and the newly released “Unstoppable.”

Yes, you’ve skimmed my entire well-written and bloated review to get to the part you wanted.  I hope you’re happy.  Now, let’s talk about “Unstoppable,” now that you have a fairly clear vision of the man behind it.  But first, let’s talk about Scott’s childhood.  Scott grew up in…

…just fuckin’ with ya.  Jeez, stop being impatient and let me tell my fucking story/review.

The easiest way to explain “Unstoppable,” is that it is Tony Scott at his best and most accessible.  This is not “Domino” Tony Scott, this is “Crimson Tide,” Tony Scott, but still holding on to some of his newly evolved stylistic choices.  And that’s okay.  It’s nowhere near as excessive and most of them fit nicely into the overall flow.

I’m not going to dig into story details, because it’s pretty basic and fairly generic.  It’s the acting that sells it.  Denzel is a shoe in.  He could phone in a good performance while in a coma.  Thankfully, newcomer Chris Pine, fresh off of “Star Trek,” delivers a solid performance as a relatable blue collar worker just “tryin’ to make a livin’,” with utter ease and convincing starpower.  He’s definitely a guy to watch.

Chris Pine hangs on for dear life in "Unstoppable"

The story is basically “Speed” on a train, minus the terrorist aspect, which I think lends to the strength of the story.  We’ve seen it before so we don’t need to see it again.  Not here, anyways.  It’s the simple story of two underdogs performing selfless heroic acts to save their fellow man from imminent destruction.  Things like this happen all the time in the real world, but we rarely hear about them.  Not enough blood, death, and political strife to inch into a headline.  And that’s what’s refreshing about “Unstoppable” despite its predictability.  We need more films like this and seeing “Unstoppable” makes you realize how long it’s been since we’ve had one.

The movie rocket propels forward in perfect Tony Scott fashion, the quick cuts, the bombastic sound, and, oh yes, the mass vehicular carnage.  Tony Scott was doing it before Michael Bay could even utter the word “transformers” and he proves he still has the goods.  Not only does he give with the metallic destruction, but he does it without CGI.  I’m sure they doctored up a few things here and there, but I couldn’t spot a single CGI spot.

Scott uses what are called “in-camera” effects, which basically means he shoots all of his action, stunts, etc., on scene.  He doesn’t shoot a bunch of green screen bullshit and digitally add everything in later, which usually blares out at you when you see it.  Strangely, his brother does a lot of CGI and is probably the most successful director using it today.  I would guess these guys have a genetic predisposition to ROCK, but you can argue that amongst yourselves.

“Unstoppable” isn’t going to be filed along Scott’s more prolific works like “True Romance,” but it is absolutely a solid, heart-pumping action ride with great actors, a kicking music score by Harry Gregson-Williams, and the thematic elements of selfless heroism that seems to be absent in films today, instead replaced by the celebration of assassins and vampires.  Perhaps I’m selling “Unstoppable” short by saying it won’t be considered prolific.  It’s not up to me to decide that for anyone.

A screenshot from "Unstoppable"

I tend to label movies in a few categories after watching them; 1) absolute garbage never to be watched again, 2) meh, 3) good, but will probably never watch again, and finally 4) buy

These days, as I traverse from the one great platform to the next (in my lifetime I’ve lived through VHS, DVD, and now Blu Ray…and am fully prepared to jump into digital) I’ve realized that I don’t need to keep buying the same movies over and over again on each new system.  It’s a waste.  I keep it strict and sparse, meaning only movies that I know I’ll watch again and again will go into my collection.

“Unstoppable” goes into the “buy” category.  Shit, if nothing else, it could easily replace “Top Gun” as the movie to beat for showing off your home theater sound system.

So, if you sat through Mr. Scott’s history with me here, I challenge you to write down five to ten of your all-time favorite movies and then go to imdb.com, look up each movie, and find out who directed it.  Finding out whom your favorite director may be will very likely open up your movie tastes and help you to experience film in a new light.  As much time as we invest in watching movies, you’d think that more people would have already done this.

Who knows, Tony Scott may be one of your favorites, too.

For more on Tony Scott and the stylistic choices he employs, check out this link.  A really engaging and much more in-depth dissection of his work.

The man in question, Tony Scott. He always sports the red ball cap and producton vest.

One Response to The “Unstoppable” Tony Scott

  1. Moose Ninja November 24, 2010 at 4:38 am #

    It seems as though Mr. Scott’s directorial endeavors run parallel to my feelings about his work, and pretty much movies as a whole.

    He’s done it all. He has nothing to prove. He’s a man with a talent, a man with a passion, and he’s having total fun with it.

    I’ve seen a lot of movies. Sometimes I feel like I’ve seen’em all. I’ve seen a lot of great ones and have shlept a lot of shit. Now it’s about return on my investment. I want to be entertained more than I want to be impressed these days. When I plop my fanny in those theatre seats. . . I just wanna’ have fun, man!

    A lot of people rag on the “golden years” Tony Scott, calling him lazy and uninspired. Deja Vu was a hiccup, but still, this guy continues to do his thing and as a lover of cinema and a lover of action, I am forever grateful.

    Unstoppable was total fun! He did right by casting two charismatic leads like Pine and Denzel-Denzel. Great action. Great style. Great 90’s-esque action cliches. I loved it.

    I would have loved for him to have directed GI Joe. Shiiiiiit, y’all.

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