Tony Scott directed 16 films, including the Tom Cruise hits Top Gun and Days of Thunder, but he got little of the critical acclaim showered on Hollywood contemporaries such as Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood, and Steven Spielberg. Accolade-wise, he even was overshadowed by his older brother Ridley, whose trio of Academy Award nominations in the best director category amounted to three more than Tony ever got.
But Scott, who died yesterday at age 68 in an apparent suicide in Los Angeles, had stellar success in the purest, most primal sense of what the cinematic medium is all about: He knew how to entertain audiences. Scott’s forte was filling box-office blockbusters with high-octane thrills. An adrenaline junkie who loved fast cars, motorcycles, and rock-climbing, he tried to put the same sort of rush into his movies. As a director, Scott was short on Strasbergian emotional subtlety, instead coaching stars such as Cruise, Eddie Murphy, and Denzel Washington to give energetic, muscular performances. But he had such a knack for exploiting high-tech gadgetry that the jet fighters and runaway trains in his movies sometimes stole the scenes from his high-priced casts. Here are five of the most explosive scenes from his best films, the ones that kept moviegoers on the edges of their seats.
- Top Gun. The 1986 saga of elite Navy fighter pilots, starring Cruise, Kelly McGillis and Val Kilmer, was Scott’s signature film, and his most commercially successful, with a worldwide gross of $176 million. Critic Roger Ebert wasn’t very impressed with the romantic subplot involving Cruise and McGillis but declared the aerial scenes “brilliant.”
- Crimson Tide. This 1995 submarine epic drew a favorable review from critic Ebert, who saw it as “in the same skillful tradition” as films such as Run Silent, Run Deep, Das Boot, and The Hunt for Red October. Here’s a particularly chilling scene, involving an angry confrontation between Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman over whether or not to launch the sub’s nuclear-tipped missiles, culminated by Hackman’s memorable line: “Mr. Hunter, I’ve made my decision. I’m captain of this boat. Now shut the [expletive] up!”
- Enemy of the State. In some ways, this 1998 thriller, about an ordinary man (portrayed by Will Smith) suddenly caught in the sights of a secret surveillance bureaucracy, is an updated version of Sidney Lumet’s The Anderson Tapes or Francis Coppola’s The Conversation, but told from a different perspective and infused with slicker and scarier digital gadgetry. This scene, in which Hackman hastily debugs Smith in an elevator and then interrogates him at gunpoint on a rooftop, is one of the film’s tensest moments. This time, it’s Smith who delivers the keeper line: “You either shoot me, or you tell me what the [expletive’] is going on!”
- Days of Thunder. This 1990 epic did for the proletarian sport of NASCAR racing what Steve McQueen did for the Porsche-driving set in his 1971 film Le Mans. In this scene, Tom Cruise utters the takeaway: “You told me nobody goes to the outside on turn four!”
- Man on Fire. This 2004 thriller, the darkest and most disturbing of Scott’s films, again stars Denzel Washington, this time as an alcoholic bodyguard who must pull himself together to rescue an industrialist’s daughter (Dakota Fanning) from kidnappers in Mexico City. Ebert found the movie formulaic but gave Scott credit for “an attempt to elevate genre material above its natural level.” Here’s the enervating shootout scene in which Washington’s character is nearly killed trying to prevent the girl from being grabbed.