When Tony Scott Was at His Best

True Romance marked the high point of the director's impressive but uneven career.

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Patricia Arquette and Christian Slater in True Romance. (WB)

When I learned of Tony Scott's death this morning—an evident suicide plunge off a bridge, committed in the face of reportedly inoperable brain cancer—I first thought (like, I suspect, many) of True Romance, a film that was neither the director's most commercial nor most idiosyncratic film, but was nonetheless his best.

Tony was the youngest of three brothers, behind Frank and Ridley, but it was in the latter's shadow that he found himself for most of his life. Originally intent on becoming a painter, he was persuaded by Ridley, seven years his elder, to join him in making television commercials, of which Tony directed thousands.

Tony ultimately followed Ridley into filmmaking as well, though with considerably less initial success. On the heels of Ridley's breakthroughs, Aliens and Blade Runner, Tony directed the interesting but unloved vampire drama The Hunger, starring Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie, and Susan Sarandon. Had he only elected to wait 25 years and make all the characters teenagers, he could have retired a billionaire. Nonetheless, Tony hit the mainstream hard with Top Gun in 1986, and stayed there with Beverly Hills Cop II, Days of Thunder, and The Last Boy Scout.

The next phase of his career was easily the most interesting. It began with his direction of True Romance, a Tarantino-penned film that retained all the young auteur's trademark violence and Elmore Leonard dialogue—when he saw the film, Leonard told the Palm Beach Post, "This is what one of my books should be"—but added elements of human warmth and, yes, romance that have continued to elude Tarantino himself. (It also provided Christian Slater with by far the best role of his career.) True Romance is not without flaws, but it is the film by which I will remember Tony Scott: Slater's comic-geek-turned-romantic-hero; the (literally) historic showdown between Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken, two of Hollywood's icons of weirdo cool; Patricia Arquette's lethal tussle with a just-getting-started James Gandolfini as Virgil the hitman; the neat, orbiting turns by Val Kilmer, Gary Oldman, Brad Pitt, Michael Rapaport, Saul Rubinek, Bronson Pinchot, Tom Sizemore, and Chris Penn.

Following True Romance came a few sharp, commercial thrillers: an excellent Crimson Tide (Scott's first of many teamings with Denzel Washington, and another film that gave Gandolfini exposure in a secondary role), a better-than-it-had-any-right-to-be Enemy of the State, an intriguing if ultimately frustrating Spy Game.

What exactly happened to Scott next, I cannot say. I've only just returned from abroad, still brutally jet-lagged and sleep-deprived, and I confess that this unhappy, disoriented sensation seems all too much like that of watching the director's most recent, most exhausting films. I found Man on Fire (2004) to be frankly appalling, a grotesque and manipulative vigilante fantasy that in the end abandoned even the ugly premise from which it bloomed. Domino and The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 did not share that movie's moral flaws, but they extended its style, an exercise in tourettic nerve-tugging in the service of a story that either didn't need telling (Domino) or had already been told better (Pelham). I admit that I took a pass on Scott's recent Déjà Vu and Unstoppable for just this reason.

Whatever my disappointments of late, though, and whatever burdens he bore following a brother who was always more celebrated (and not always with reason), Tony Scott proved himself a filmmaker of profound skill on more occasions than most are ever afforded. As Kilmer's shadow Elvis tells Slater in True Romance: "I like you, Clarence. Always have, always will."

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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