Wednesday, September 19, 2012

In Memoriam: Tony Scott's Revenge

Late this summer, movie-making lost one of its most influential and interesting voices when Tony Scott unexpectedly took his own life. The man was - by all accounts of those who worked with him - honest, encouraging, self-deprecating, and friendly in a gruff and course way. His career took off as a highly sought-after studio director, then after a few years began to experiment with the scripts he chose and - a bit later - with his entire style of film-making.

In the first two parts of this memorial retrospective I examined two of his slightly more mainstream offerings, but here we'll find a much darker film. Revenge was a movie made after a string of Scott's successes, and near the height of actor Kevin Costner's career - and the resulting film is somewhat out of step with the careers of both men. It's dark, depressing, and at odds with itself. But at the same time it is, like much of Scott's work, undeniably fascinating.

I don't think that it's Tony Scott's masterpiece as Quentin Tarantino has been quoted as saying, but it's certainly impressive in its own way.

The film is based on a story by Jim Harrison, who also wrote the script. The story follows "Jay" Cochran (Costner) a retiring US Navy aviator who accepts an invitation from his friend Tibby Mendez (Anthony Quinn), a wealthy Mexican crime boss, to stay the summer with him. While there, Jay meets Tibby's beautiful young wife Miryea (Madeleine Stowe) and. . . well, things go to pieces pretty much like you'd expect. Jay and Miryea are discovered, Tibby swears revenge (hence the title) and leaves Jay for dead, and then Jay comes back to royally mess up some folks' day. Hence the title, again.

For those familiar with Legends of the Fall (also by Harrison) you'll find here the same mix of larger-than-life men with larger-than-life tragedy, oaths of honor and retribution and love. But while the film version of "Legends" mixes director Edward Zwick's old-fashioned melodramatic sensibility with the story to great effect, Scott's flashy and stylized directing makes for a movie that revels in the sensuality and emotion of the film even while seemingly condemning it. Jay and Miryea's scenes together are shot with a caged passion that sizzles when it finally erupts, and the violence wreaked by one man upon another bears the same sensationalism that marked Scott's crowd-pleasers like Beverly Hills Cop II.

But make no mistake, this is no crowd-pleaser. It feels more like a dark modern western with a hint of The Count of Monte Cristo, as an argument against vengeance. Revenge goes first to great length to humanize Tibby before his violent actions against the young couple. He's shown as a man made ruthless and violent by his turbulent circumstances, as well as fiercely loyal, and after he finds out about Jay and Miryea we see the devastating effect that the affair and his reaction to it have had on him. In many ways, Tibby is the most tragic character of the film, and no one has a happy ending here (the film seems almost comically obsessed with its own escalating tragedy).

A great deal of this comes through because the late Anthony Quinn (Lawrence of Arabia, Zorba the Greek) was a damn fine actor, commanding the screen in every scene he's in and walking a fine line between menace and sympathy As Jay embarks on his mission of rescue and retribution, he comes across several characters who aid him, including a pair of locals (played by John Leguizamo and Miguel "that guy from Robocop" Ferrer) who give us even more dirt on Tibby. By all rights, by the end of the movie we should be champing at the bit for him to get his comeuppance. But as the film progresses, rather than building toward Jay's titular vengeance with anticipation, the film gives you enough pathos to dread the final meeting between "hero" and "villain."

This may well be the film's finest accomplishment - in the midst of Scott's signature gorgeous murder and mayhem, the audience actually starts to feel uncomfortable with it. It's a fairly bold move with such a recognizable and likable actor as the lead, but Costner is up to the challenge, turning in one of his most impressive performances, breaking down a character type that he played with ease for much of his career. His cocky, smiling cover-model handsome look is a night and day difference from the scarred and grizzled man who stalks through the last act of the movie. The film shows just how brutal and ugly revenge is by playing it against the protagonist first, and when it's "hist turn" it slyly reverses positions. While we see more and more of Jay's cold selfishness, violence and apathy toward the suffering he causes, we see the future of this course of action in the very man who did it to him. It's so sly that I'm not even sure how intentional it is, but it's no less effective for it.

Unfortunately, the movie doesn't find anything nearly as interesting to do with its one notable female character. Stowe, who proved herself a stunning romantic lead 1992's The Last of the Mohicans, feels wasted for most of the film, more a driving goal for the two male leads than a legitimate character. She's given little to work with other than her own considerable charisma, and other than a couple gut-wrenchingly well-acted scenes she doesn't get much to do after the first act. Many of Tony Scott's films, especially his earlier ones, deal very much with "Man Stuff" but this movie in particular seems to miss an opportunity by objectifying Miryea to the extent that it does.

Honestly, I can't recommend this as highly as some of Scott's other work, at least not to a casual audience. If The Last Boy Scout was uncomfortable in its treatment of women, this is downright revolting at times, and the movie itself is an emotionally shredding affair. However, I have to give it credit for its boldness in the way it subverts the traditional expectations and desires of the audience. Maybe a movie about something as primal and destructive and self-centered as revenge should be uncomfortable, maybe it should make the viewer shy away from the screen just a bit and re-examine what they want from the story and why.

If you're up for it, it's a sobering challenge.

Sorry for the long gap there, but that film caught me off guard and I had to do some lighter stuff before diving into it properly. With that out of the way, we'll continue next time to Enemy of the State, a movie that could have easily been just another brainless 90's era Will Smith actioner. Under another director it very well might have been just that, but instead Scott made a smart, memorable film with dazzling energy and a disturbing amount of foresight.

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