When we lose a great filmmaker, our obvious first response is to think of his or her best works, and maybe even watch some favorites. Or, if we don't have time to pop in a whole feature, maybe it's just specific scenes we remember in tribute. But for a talent such as Tony Scott, a director with a consistent skill for the physical craft of action-oriented productions and an evolving yet always recognizable style and vision, his best movies are so full of memorable scenes that it's hard to highlight a handful of greatest pieces amongst those exceptional wholes.
So, presented with the task of celebrating Scott, who tragically took his life over the weekend, I'd like to share five moments that I think represent his work best, even if they're not necessarily the isolated scenes you first think of with each of their respective titles.
Top Gun: Opening Montage
Certainly there are a lot of great scenes in Top Gun, including any of the dogfight sequences, the serenade of "You Lost That Loving Feeling," the volleyball match and the sad death of Goose. But it all kicks off with a signature start on an aircraft carrier and a theme song from Kenny Loggins. This montage paved the way for many to come, particularly by Michael Bay and later Peter Berg, neither of whom can quite establish an atmosphere or fetishize military machinery as well as Scott. You could argue that this is more indicative of a Bruckheimer and Simpson production, but Scott, who was hired because of a Saab commercial featuring a jet that he'd directed, definitely helped mold this sort of rockin' setup. Even before Tom Cruise's smile runs away with the show, we are put in a mood of excitement and given a need for speed.
Days of Thunder: "A Very Thorough Physical"
I think there might be some racing going on in this near-remake of Top Gun with cars instead of jets, but I offer up this sequence as a reminder of how well Scott handled sex. While he was a great dealer in a kind of "pornography" pertaining to planes, trains and automobiles, his love scenes were anything but indecent. They near a sort of soft-core aesthetic, but they've got nothing on Adrian Lyne, and that's a favorable restraint. Typically assisted by iconic soundtrack choices that turned them into R-rated music videos, his love scenes tended to require the word "making" in front of the word "love." The carnal sequence in Top Gun may be more memorable, but I'll always believe Tom Cruise had the most extraordinary chemistry with Nicole Kidman, whom he married after meeting her on this film. They don't even need a song like "Take My Breath Away" for emphasis.
True Romance: "Elevator"
Wait, I'm picking the elevator scene over the "eggplant" bit or anything with Gary Oldman as Drexl or Alabama's very romantic confession? Yes, because this is the exact kind of thing I'm talking about with Scott, that he directed so many memorable moments that even the littlest of scenes warrant inclusion. These couple minutes are a perfect display of how well he maintains the thrills throughout, here accomplished with seemingly strong performances from typically so-so actors achieved through tight shots and quick cuts and precise sound design (Scott's movies were often nominated for Best Sound or Best Sound Editing Oscars, though this film was not recognized for either). It's a nice, tense tease of chaos before the real fireworks begin.
Crimson Tide: "Denzel Washington vs. Gene Hackman"
Scott is a master at pumping the intensity into little moments with so-so actors, so it's no surprise that he's really terrific with nail-biting drama when he's got more time and truly talented actors. The main attraction of this film is the confrontation between the submarine captain played by Gene Hackman and his XO, who is played by Denzel Washington. And again I have to acknowledge how difficult it is to choose isolated scenes in Scott's films, becuase you can really just go with any section of footage featuring these two performers in order to showcase the power of his direction. Here is one of many.
Man on Fire: "Kidnapping Shootout"
Scott was one of the originators of the music video style being adapted to movies, so it's interesting how much he later took from the style as it evolved. Look at Man on Fire, though, for some of the best uses of flash cuts, shaky cam and all the rest of the aesthetic choices we've come to typically hate from Hollywood in the past decade. He's got a better handle on these techniques here than most directors and his mixture of slow motion and sped-up shots might be the best since the tactics were thrown against each other in Koyaanisqatsi. Maybe it's a bit much and makes for a scene that feels like it takes a lot longer than it needs to, but Scott wasn't just about showing us what happens. He also made us feel what happens, and from different points of view, better than most Hollywood craftsmen.
Here are some contenders culled from Twitter for the honor of best scene in a Tony Scott film: