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Tony Scott: Unstoppable Hollywood force

By James Blackford, special to CNN
August 21, 2012 -- Updated 1624 GMT (0024 HKT)
Director Tony Scott arrives at the October 2010 premiere of
Director Tony Scott arrives at the October 2010 premiere of "Unstoppable" wearing his trademark faded red baseball cap.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Blackford: Tony Scott was a thrill-seeking adventurer and master craftsman
  • Scott pioneered a new "glossy" approach to the action film, says the film writer
  • The British director took his own life on Sunday, jumping off a bridge in Los Angeles

Editor's note: James Blackford is a DVD & Blu-ray producer for the British Film Institute and a contributor to Sight & Sound magazine.

London (CNN) -- Yesterday brought the sad and perplexing news that Tony Scott, hugely successful British director of sleek, big-budget action films such as "Crimson Tide" and "Enemy of the State" had apparently taken his own life by jumping off Los Angeles' Vincent Thomas bridge.

It was a tragic end to a trailblazing career that took Scott on an amazing journey from modest, working-class beginnings in the northeast of England to the Hollywood A-list.

He may never have received the recognition the Academy has bestowed upon his elder brother Ridley, but Tony wasn't out to please the critics and he didn't have aspirations to make high-art.

Instead he was a thrill-seeking adventurer who loved fast cars (he got into filmmaking upon his brother's assurance that he would be able to buy a Ferrari within a year) and embraced the American way of life and filmmaking. Scott unapologetically specialized in action movies and, within his chosen genre, he was an undeniably accomplished figure.

James Blackford is a contributor to Sight and Sound
James Blackford is a contributor to Sight and Sound

Official: Director Scott left notes in car, office

Perhaps surprisingly for a director so associated with Hollywood blockbusters, it was the British Film Institute that launched both Tony and Ridley Scott's filmmaking careers in the 1960s, via its production fund supporting experimental filmmaking.

The BFI provided a grant for Ridley Scott's debut short film "Boy and Bicycle," which starred a beaming 16-year-old Tony in the titular role, and subsequently helped fund the younger Scott's first directorial forays: the short films "One of the Missing" and "Loving Memory."

From these early successes, Tony went on to direct hundreds of TV commercials for his brother's production company, Ridley Scott Associates (RSA). Here he became a master craftsman, developing the heightened visual style and preoccupation with surface aesthetics that would later become the hallmark of his feature films.

Despite the film business' historic disdain for the TV advertising industry, Tony and Ridley Scott were among the first to enter the world of filmmaking after directing commercials, forging a path that would later be followed by the likes of David Fincher and Duncan Jones.

Director Tony Scott dies
Tony Scott: More 'reflective' recently

Since the mid-1980s, Tony Scott's name has been synonymous with action films; populist, high-octane adventures that found little favor with the critics but thrilled audiences and almost always delivered generous box-office returns.

Working with producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson on films such as "Top Gun," "Beverley Hills Cop II," and "Days of Thunder," Scott pioneered a new approach to the action film grounded in the glossy, heightened aesthetics and technical virtuosity of his TV commercials (a Saab advert had helped him secure the "Top Gun" job).

Director Tony Scott on location for "The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3" on the streets of Manhattan on May 11, 2008, in New York. Scott died Sunday, August 19, at age 68 in an apparent suicide. Director Tony Scott on location for "The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3" on the streets of Manhattan on May 11, 2008, in New York. Scott died Sunday, August 19, at age 68 in an apparent suicide.
Director Tony Scott dead at 68
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Photos: Director Tony Scott dead at 68 Photos: Director Tony Scott dead at 68

Director Tony Scott: An appreciation

Bursting at the seams with the muscular ideology of the Reagan era, these films eschewed emotional and dramatic realism in favour of bravura style, bombastic characters and escapist narratives.

The approach proved box-office gold with "Top Gun," which became the highest grossing film of 1986, taking $176 million, and helping Jerry Bruckheimer become one of the most successful producers of all time.

The 1990s saw Scott embrace darker territory with the Mexico-set tale of adultery and murder, "Revenge," starring Kevin Costner, and the uncharacteristic road movie "True Romance," written by Quentin Tarantino and starring Christian Slater, Patricia Arquette and Dennis Hopper.

Scott returned to big, loud, action movies with the apocalyptic submarine thriller "Crimson Tide," the first of five collaborations with actor Denzel Washington; the pair would team up again for "Man on Fire," "Deja Vu," "The Taking of Pelham 123" and "Unstoppable."

The latter, a commercial and critical success, would prove to be Tony Scott's last film, although at the time of his death the endlessly busy director reportedly had numerous projects (including a rumored sequel to "Top Gun") in development. At 68, one felt he still had several blockbusters left in him.

His profound influence is felt in the glossy action movies of contemporary directors such as Michael Bay ("Transformers") and Joe Carnahan ("The A-Team"), whose success has followed in the wake of Scott's creation of a new era-defining style of mainstream cinema.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of James Blackford.

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