Annals of the Overrated: Tony Scott

December 8, 2010

For a variety of reasons, most of them having to do with scheduling, I never got to a press screening of Tony Scott’s “Unstoppable” when it opened last month. And so I didn’t review it.


But, given the reviews it did received (91 percent fresh among Top Critics on Rotten Tomatoes), I felt compelled to buy a ticket and see it after it opened. And, as I suspected, the film – like most of Tony Scott’s movies – was nowhere near as impressive as the reviews would have you believe.


Normally, I’d chalk it up to the fact that, at a time when no one seems to know how to make an action movie that doesn’t rely on automatic weapons to create tension, suspense and excitement, Scott had made a film that achieved a modicum of thrills and energy without anyone firing a gun.


But on second thought, I decided that much of the acclaim had to do with the fact that, for some reason, Tony Scott’s overstylized mannerisms have seduced critics into believing that he’s actually a good filmmaker.


Allow me to demur and add him to the list of the overrated that I’m slowly accumulating. (Others on my Overrated list, so far: Tim Burton, John Hughes.)


It’s not just “Unstoppable,” perhaps the most overpraised film of the year since “Carlos.” I’d go so far as to say that, with a couple of exceptions, going all the way back to “The Hunger” and the ridiculously iconic “Top Gun,” Tony Scott has never made a movie that wasn’t overamped with flashy editing, visual frissons and other trademarks that have nothing to do with storytelling and everything to do with creating a sensation.


Scott’s favorite signature move of late is the flashing-light/lightning-strike style of scene transition. Rather than simply fade out and fade in, or jump-cut, he calls attention to his move from scene to scene with the insertion of a visual effect whose closest equivalent is that moment in so many Looney Tunes cartoons when a character is momentarily electrocuted – and they suddenly turn into a black-and-white x-ray of a skeleton.


Like so many directors – including Michael Bay and even Tony’s brother, Ridley Scott – Tony Scott seems to think that the object of a movie is to build bigger and louder effects. If you were charting the dynamic on a line graph, it would describe a straight-line 45-degree angle, ascending, always ascending.


But creating a real sense of dynamics in a thriller or an action movie is a series of tension-and-release moments. It might describe the same upward trajectory, but it would be a series of peaks and valleys, with each peak a little higher than the previous one.


Scott, however, seems to have only one speed: full bore. And he seems to only be able to make one kind of movie: hard-charging. While “The Hunger” and “Top Gun” were more conventional in that respect, since the early 1990s – with the films “Days of Thunder” and the ludicrous “The Last Boy Scout” – he’s made the same kind of movie over and over: grinding or hurtling inexorably forward, taking no prisoners: “We are Spartans!” his movies seem to shout.



And it all gets a little tedious – no, make that very tedious. That’s true of “Unstoppable,” which I liked better when it was an overheated and silly Andrei Konchalovsky film called “Runaway Train.” In a sense, “Unstoppable” is too simple for Scott, so he had to trick it out with flashy crosscuts between TV broadcasts, shots of the families of the people on the train and of the people back at headquarters, anxiously watching the events unfold.


At one crucial moment, Scott has a news helicopter flying so close to the rescue train that, as Chris Pine tries a dangerous maneuver, the helicopter’s backwash throws up so much gravel that it endangers Pine’s mission, a fact no one seems to comment on. Those helicopters are like mosquitoes buzzing along with the train, seemingly unfazed by trees, electrical wires and the like.


I also have to admit that, as much as I admire Denzel Washington as an actor, it was hard to watch him in this film after seeing comedian Jay Pharaoh’s impression of him on “Saturday Night Live.” And I’d only seen the sketch where Denzel is returning something to a department store – not the dead-on spoof of “Unstoppable” that aired after the film opened. Suddenly all I could see were the mannerisms that Pharaoh captured, not the performance itself.


Washington, a terrific actor, principally developed those mannerisms in Scott’s films – and he’s made a lot of movies with Scott. “Crimson Tide” is the most bearable; “Man on Fire” is the most sadistic. “Unstoppable,” like last year’s “Taking of Pelham 1 2 3,” is just middling.


It’s almost as if Scott would be happier creating endless montages of action sequences, rather than trying to tell an actual story. But that’s what so many of his films amount to anyway. His visual style has become a tic, a kind of go-to move that, in another director, might signal a shift in consciousness within the movie. In Scott’s hands, however, it’s just one more thing he can pull out of a bag of tricks that have no real meaning, other than creating a momentary sensation.


Which is a lot like Scott’s films in general: momentary sensations that pass quickly and are just as quickly forgotten.


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