Tuesday, August 21, 2012

In Memoriam: Tony Scott's Crimson Tide

As many of you are aware, Anthony "Tony" Scott (younger brother of the renowned Ridley Scott), a British-born Hollywood director, died from an apparent suicide on August 19th. While I can't claim any personal tragic stake in the death of a total stranger, losing an artist is always a terrible thing. Especially when such an artist has enriched your life to any measurable degree.

There's also the little fact that Tony Scott helped change the face of action film-making in the industry in no small way with films like Top Gun, and continued to heavily experiment with his own directorial style well into his 60's, a time when most directors start taking fewer risks. It would be easy to dismiss his accomplishments, especially in the face of his older brother's resume, but this would be a mistake.

So in memory of him and his accomplishments, I'm going to revisit some of his hallmarks, starting with the runner-up for his single best movie - 1995's Crimson Tide.

This gem sits snugly in the middle of Scott's transitional period between his years working as a studio-hired director of slick-but-empty popcorn films like Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop II and making his more frenetic, experimental, and bombastic films of the 00's. While "Tide" stars Tony Scott mainstay Denzel Washington (the two collaborated a total of 5 times), it makes use of none of the dizzying editing, chaotic cutting, or over-saturated palettes that Scott later made use of in films like Man on Fire and Domino. Crimson Tide visually resembles nothing so much as a refined and very restrained Michael Bay film (not coincidentally, most of Scott's 80's/90's work falls into this category - he was a clear influence on Bay's visual style), with dynamic angles and moving shots, but all perfectly coherent and full of still scenes that allow a proper building of tension.

All of which helps make this one of the best movies of its kind.

Crimson Tide is a slow-burning, character study and morality play masquerading as a traditional post-Cold War naval thriller. An examination of clashing ideals and interpretations of orders as Gene Hackman's submarine Captain Ramsey and Washington's newly-appointed XO Commander Hunter butt heads in the middle of a global crisis stemming from a fictionalized rebellion in the Russian republic. The entire film is rooted in and builds to a question of whether or not to order a nuclear strike and the effect this has on the crew of the Alabama, from the captain on down. And it is, quite simply, fantastic and mesmerizing to watch play out.

Aside from the dynamite cast (including James Gandolfini and Viggo Mortensen) who play everything to the nines, most of the film's brilliance lies in its script. While it's "Danger from Russia!" setup might have lost some of its immediacy in today's world of shrinking superpowers and global terrorism, its consequences have lost none of their potency. Not only that, it poses a critical question about the chain of command but provides no easy correct answer, merely the convictions of two officers passionate about their duty. The entire enterprise moves at an amazing pace, building and diffusing tension mostly through scenes of dialogue and monitor screens (with one notable real action sequence), yet for all the "talky bits" it still takes the viewer's breath away.

Hell, I've see the film multiple times, know the way things are going to pan out, and you'd think a lot of the film's tension is reliant on the ticking clock "how will it turn out?" bit, but I still find myself needing to catch my breath by the end of the movie. This ability to hold up on repeat viewings is rare enough, especially in this genre, that I find films that recreate that suspense after the first impression to be something special indeed. In fact, other than a couple very minor quibbles (including some slightly awkward scripting from a character I like to call "Ensign Exposition"), I really can't think of a problem in the movie.

This is honestly the sort of film that should have been the blueprint for this year's misguided Battleship (swap subs for boats, add more action - done), and the kind of big-budget and smart adult-oriented entertainment that is far too rare in Hollywood these days.

I'll be looking at a few of Scott's other films over the course of the next week or so, from the 1991 trashterpiece that is The Last Boy Scout to his "turning point" film Enemy of the State, then Man on Fire, Unstoppable, and culminating in what is largely recognized as his best film: the Quentin Tarantino-scripted True Romance. If there's time, I'll try to work in my first exposure to Revenge.

Should be quite a ride.

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