I doubt there’s a single person of my generation who didn’t feel almost legally obligated to spend a couple of hours a day playing Top Gun, pretending to be Maverick, or Goose, or Iceman. Top Gun was the first movie that I could ever legitimately call a favorite movie, and a neighbor had a copy of it on a blank video which I watched a lot, up to the scene where the prize is handed out at the ceremony; that’s where the copy cut off. Of course, it wasn’t until later that I began to realize the absurdity of the entire movie. In real life, Maverick would have had his ass court-martialed for probably five or six of the little stunts he had pulled throughout the movie, assuming they had let a guy with his temperament and mentality become a fighter pilot in the first place. Even though the Navy’s most effective recruiting video was almost entirely fraudulent, though, Top Gun was a fun little fantasy, and it held its impact on me far more than any other movie of the time with the possible exceptions of Raiders of the Lost Ark, ET: The Extraterrestrial, or Batman.
God bless the director of Top Gun, Tony Scott. Scott received word recently of the fact that he was developing a form of inoperable brain cancer. As a director known mainly for his action movies, Scott did something which was as fitting as it was sad and tragic: Instead of letting his cancer slowly eat him, he went the way of a lot of tragic action heroes and jumped off a bridge near the Los Angeles area. More philosophical types can probably find ways to argue the nobility of this gesture; however, in this case there was no being a real hero. No one was burning in a building or about to get blown up. It was just Scott taking what I guess was an easier way out, at least in his mind.
It’s often Tony Scott’s older brother, Ridley, whom all the attention and critical acclaim gets lavished on. It was Ridley, after all, who redefined science fiction in 1978 when he directed Alien, and again in 1982 with Blade Runner. It was Ridley’s movie, Gladiator, which won the Best Picture Oscar in 2001. There are few film buffs who will argue against the idea of Ridley being the more talented of the two. Tony’s trademark style was a lot more frenetic than Ridley’s, and it was unfortunately brought to lows through constant usage by Michael Bay. But while Ridley’s boosters mainly seem to be people who are film buffs, it was Tony who captured the heart of the average moviegoer. Yes, Tony might have had the worse directorial style, and his acumen in picking out decent scripts was questionable. There are movies he made in which he came off as desperate to turn a scene without any real substance into an image that could keep an audience’s interest (The Fan, ahem). But it was always Tony who had the touch necessary to connect with those who see movies for the pure escapism and joy of the movies themselves.
Although I can admit my guilt in the Tony-bashing role, the truth is he always did receive something of a bum rap. His 1993 masterpiece, True Romance, is considered a legitimate classic and a thought-provoker. His 1998 chase festival, Enemy of the State, was written off as masturbation for conspiracy theorists when it was released, but in the social media age, it’s looking more and more eerily prophetic by the year. Crimson Tide made an exciting movie out of a communications mishap which would be very silly and absurd in real life and, like in the case of Top Gun, would probably result in someone getting booted from the Navy. Speaking of Top Gun, that was one of three movies in Tony’s output which are considered exciting action movies which aren’t completely reliant on direct man-to-man violence. There’s a little bit of hostility between characters, and the American pilots enter a dogfight with some Russian pilots in the end, but the crux of Top Gun’s action is a bunch of training sequences. Days of Thunder is seen as an action movie but, since it’s about race car drivers, could very easily be written up as a sports movie. Unstoppable is about a train full of chemicals that needs to be slowed. I’m not certain about that last one since I haven’t seen it yet, but I’ve heard there’s no actual violence it in.
It’s a classic case of people concentrating so hard on what a director can’t do that we forget just what he can do. Tony Scott was deprived of critical acclaim because he was so good at tracking down the popcorn scripts. Movies rarely go both ways. Everyone knows the last Best Picture Oscar was taken by The Artist, but how many people would honestly know that movie even existed if it didn’t receive attention from the Academy? Iron Man 2 was forgotten about in short order because it was the worse sequel to a good movie, even though it got a huge release and had a brilliant actor playing the titular role. Occasionally, we get movies which somehow travel down both roads; Inception and The Dark Knight Rises are both great examples. Those, however, are the kinds of scripts that just have to be lucked into.
In all, Tony Scott knew he was an entertainer, first and forever. Unlike a lot of other directors, he didn’t give second mind to allegorical depth and metaphor. He never tried to twist a script into a kind of theme glove which he would try to then fit over a meaningless piece of popcorn entertainment in an attempt to ambush movie audiences. Even when a little bit of reflective examination might have helped a script, he held back and let screenwriters do their jobs.
Tony Scott’s greatest achievement was probably the fact that, in spite of the fact that so many of his movies were popcorn flicks, people remember them and still enjoy them, long after they should have faded out of the spotlight.