Rest In Peace to Tony Scott, Who Got Sports

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It's no great or bold statement, saying that I like Tony Scott's movies. By and large, I do like them, but the reason it means so little to say so—or the reason beyond the obvious "Why would it matter if some dude thinks Crimson Tide is really good?"—is that liking Tony Scott's movies was always the point, and maybe the only point, of those movies' existence. If you detect a political pulse or an empathic bit of character development or a commitment to some worldview or other in Scott's films, then you are indeed making a bold statement, and good luck with that statement and please leave that statement in the comments section.

But to say that Scott was a terrific hand at making movies that were transporting and entertaining for two loud hours and made clean, amicable exits from the audience's memory by the time the credits rolled is basically saying nothing at all. That is all that Tony Scott set out to do in his movies, and all he did in his movies, and he did it very well. As Alex Pareene pointed out at Salon, that workmanlike dedication to the effectively awesome looks even more flattering when seen in contrast to the creeping pomposity that's bloated the movies made by his brother Ridley. The flabby pomp of a movie like Gladiator was something to which Tony Scott was inherently and admirably resistant; by the end of his career, Scott was something very like an avant-garde stylist—Man On Fire is a mean, dumb film in a lot of ways, but it's as extravagantly DIRECTED as anything not directed by Oliver Stone, and is way more fun to watch. This approach, in recent years, led to movies that were a strain to watch—I've watched Domino, and you probably should not watch Domino—but also amusing and un-boring in their stylistic overage, and innocent in it, too, given how transparently un-serious they were.

It seems perverse to notice the stagecraft in Scott's death, given the depths of desperation and despair that must have led the 68-year-old, who was reportedly suffering from an inoperable brain tumor (UPDATED: Scott's family disputes CBS' reporting on this, and said Scott was in fact in fine health), to take his life on Sunday by jumping off a particularly picturesque bridge in Los Angeles. But, like everything in Scott's movies—every not-quite-called-for camera trick or lens-swap and each break for a bit of soft shoe or pyrotechnic digression—it was clearly meant to be noticed. The conflation of being noticed and being appreciated has given us an ugly, dumb and trollish popular and political culture, but it didn't ever do much to hurt Tony Scott's movies.

His dedication to spectacle seemed, most always, to come from an uncomplicated but unimpeachable and generally joyous place; an innocent, if maybe a little dumb, assertion of "look what I can do." That Scott's last action was similarly theatrical, and came in the face of the humiliation and pain of a difficult death, inverts that assertion a little bit. It didn't seem like a statement of agency when Scott decided to throw some not-strictly-necessary superimposed text on the screen in Man On Fireor staged a shootout in True Romance through a literal cloud of cocaine; it seemed like he was doing it because he thought it looked neat. In retrospect, from this macabre new context, it was probably both, or the former expression finding its shape through the latter.

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If Scott's aesthetic hero-balling opens up some sports comparisons, I'd like to close that down: I'm not interested in trying to figure out whether Scott was more like Brandon Jennings than Stephen Jackson or whatever. More interesting, at least given that this is a website about sports and sportsish things, is the way that Scott handled sports. The short answer, at least in terms The Fan, the sports-iest film he ever made, is not very well. The broader answer is a little more complicated.

The Fan, which I am going to spoil below without any guilt, is about a sad sack-y knife salesman played by Robert De Niro who goes insane (or sort of more insane: he starts out pretty unbalanced) and becomes obsessed with a fake-y version of Barry Bonds played by Wesley Snipes. The movie came out in 1996, so De Niro was still more or less trying, and Snipes had not yet vanished into his later beefed-out, disagreeable immobility; also Benicio Del Toro is amusingly miscast as a vain Latin slugger named Juan Primo. It's all pretty goonish; the baseball is hilariously unconvincing, the dialogue even worse. At one point during an argument, Snipes angrily criticizes the mumbling Del Toro's "pussy pants," which were a pair of white jeans; it's about the only thing I remember very clearly from the film, besides the fact that John Kruk appears in it and gets killed and that the whole thing somehow ends with De Niro's deranged fan pitching to Wesley Snipes (sort of: he's throwing a knife) from the pitcher's mound, during a game. I am maybe making it sound too good.

There is probably no director alive or dead who could've done all that much with this. It doesn't help that Scott shoots the baseball action and baseball games with an arch phoniness that, in this rare case, scans artificial without really looking very good. Maybe some additional feel for the game might've helped, but probably not as much as a new plot and screenplay or maybe just not making the movie at all, ideally.

So, sure, that didn't work out. To what extent it didn't work out because Tony Scott didn't get the ineffable rhythms and charm of baseball and to what extent it didn't work due to the aforementioned "pussy pants"/throwing-a-hunting-knife-at-Wesley-Snipes-from-the-pitcher's-mound-during-a-game stuff is hard to assess. Neither helped much.

But there's one other sports scene that Scott directed which is much more successful, and also more ridiculous, and most importantly much more Tony Scott than anything in The Fan. That would be the beach volleyball scene in Top Gun, the supremely and hilariously Reaganized Air Force recruiting film that was the most successful movie of Scott's career. Take the jingoism out of it—and you might as well, it's not like anyone ever thought about it—and Top Gunis basically a sports movie about Headstrong Champions Learning To Play Within Themselves; the Reagan-era part is that these young champions learn to express themselves through awesomely overelaborate sex scenes, frat-dude swagger, Commie-pwnage and a performance of untroubled machismo so overstated and outward that every male character is essentially cruising the shit out of every other male character in every interaction. Even with its origins in an era in which a bunch of popular films featured male characters who seemed cocaine-d back into their narcissistic tweens, Top Gun stands out as kid-ish and outsized. It's also still pretty fun to watch, in its goofy way. But, considering that it's a movie about war planes and the bro-steaks that fly them, it's odd that Top Gun's most enduring scene involves volleyball.

It's an old observation that the beach volleyball scene—Tom Cruise and Anthony Edwards against Val Kilmer and Rick Rossovich, several of whom are wearing long pants, three of whom are shirtless and all of whom are taking it very seriously—is volcanically, hilariously homoerotic. There are many videos on YouTube parodying it, either in the thunderingly obvious YouTube THIS IS GAY fashion or the equally YouTube-ian but much more opaque just-putting-another-song-under-it-and-calling-it-a-remix-or-tribute way. The only version of the original on YouTube is dubbed into Italian, which barely matters. If you're hearing Kenny Loggins' "Playing With The Boys" and watching these shirtless dudes diving around and high-fiving and flexing and preening with intent, you're getting the gist.

As boldfaced dramatic shorthand, the scene mostly works, at least insofar as it is clear that there is a rivalry between these two teams. In other ways, it's overstated and seems unbelievably long and humorless and otherwise risible, even before the prospect of the Boykins-size Cruise rising up to lay down that nasty spike. It's tempting to think that Scott was in on some subtextual joke/commentary, or actively telling it/engaging in it. But it's equally possible, given who and how Tony Scott was as a filmmaker, that he wasn't much bothered by any of those considerations. His job wasn't to make it realistic, or piquant, or whatever else. Tony Scott's job, which he embraced wholeheartedly and happily and at which he was exceptionally good, was to make things the most, with any and all other considerations coming second or not at all. It was the job he was born to do. He made the most of it.

UPDATE: Props to @Instreamsports for pointing out that I left out The Last Boy Scout. I can't say that was by design, but it's unfortunate that I did, because the first ten minutes of it are simultaneously the most apeshit moments of Scott's and Shane Black's ultra-apeshit careers. Some other time.

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Comments

The thing that bothered me about Days of Thunder...okay there were a number of things that bothered me, but the biggest one was that ALL of the race cars were Chevy Luminas.

ALL of them.

It took me completely out of the movie every time they cut to a race and you see 30 odd Lumina's smashing into each other.

I understand that Chevy probably gave the production a couple million for product placement, but it turned into an indy car movie. Nascar has always prided itself on having different manufacturers involved and at the time, you could still tell the difference between a Lumina and Thunderbird

It's a little graspy in this context but I always found it charming that a British director could make such solid atmospheric use of a college football cheer.

I know that The Classical's favored "alternative" sports are more soccer and cricket than auto racing, but Tony Scott did make Days of Thunder, which is a pretty great movie for good movie reasons. It has Robert Duvall and Nicole Kidman, and it maps pretty well onto Top Gun while still standing on its own two feet.

Drop the hammer.

Yeah, I kind of blew it on this one, with all due dis/respect to NASCAR. But also "Days of Thunder" is pretty much "Top Gun: Again," but with more Cary Elwes. I'd forgotten that Robert Towne wrote it until I read Alex Pappademas' Tony Scott tribute at Grantland, although it's also hard to notice when watching the movie, which is the most indulgent (and enjoyable) and otherwise 1988 thing imaginable. But yeah, between this and Last Boy Scout I clearly just wanted to write about the two Scott sports-ish movies I've seen the most.

I wouldn't say The Fan is an especially smart movie, but it has Scott's typical propulsive energy and has a certain visual intelligence that's indicative of most of Scott's work. There's a lack of exposition in the dialogue — most narrative information (i.e. what happens from scene to scene) is communicated visually. And while very little of that has to do with the rhythms of baseball, it's a pretty economical thriller. I actually watched a bit of it last week, forgetting that Scott had directed it, and thought that it was a lot smarter than I'd remembered it just because the dialogue didn't overexplain every relationship. That knife fight at the end led me to remember a lot of idiocy that wasn't there.

That's the tricky thing with Scott — so many of his intellectual treatments of his chosen material are offensively stupid or just plain offensive (particularly Man on Fire), but the visuals are so well-developed and communicate so much (emotionally, narratively, spatially) that I have a hard time calling his movies stupid. Sometimes, as in Deja Vu, they even manage to be achingly beautiful.

I'm inclined to take your word on The Fan, but the idea that it's actually written well really doesn't jibe with my memory. Totally possible, though. The fact that the screenwriter previously wrote for Bob Newhart and Cheers and seemingly never wrote another screenplay does seem kind of intriguing, too.

Also everyone talks up Deja Vu. It looked to me like a flabby, more expensive Source Code (which I liked), but I guess I should give it a chance.