True Romance (1993)

2018 #150
Tony Scott | 121 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & France / English & Italian | 18

True Romance

Directed by Tony Scott from Quentin Tarantino’s first screenplay,* True Romance is pretty much everything you’d expect from an early Quentin Tarantino screenplay directed by Tony Scott. It stars Christian Slater and Patricia Arquette as a pair of Bonnie and Clyde-ish lovers, who accidentally steal a load of cocaine from her pimp and end up on the run from the mob.

At first blush, I’d say this feels much more like a Tarantino movie than a Scott one. It’s all there in the dialogue, the subject matter, the characters — it’s everything you’d expect from early QT: verbose, funny, littered with pop culture references, violent. It’s well paced, too; not exactly whip-crack fast, but also never slow or draggy. It is shot more like a Scott flick than a QT one, but only somewhat — it lacks both the slick flashiness we associate with Scott’s early work (Top Gun, Beverly Hills Cop II) and the grungy hyper-editing of his later stuff (Man on Fire, Domino). That said, some scenes (like one between Arquette and James Gandolfini’s underboss in a motel room, for example) are shot like Tony Scott to the nines, reiterating my opening point.

Other observations: There’s one helluva supporting cast — it’s just littered with famous names in roles that only last a scene or two. (I could list them, but that might spoil the fun.) The sweet plinky-plonky score by Hans Zimmer is so unlike either his normal stuff or this genre of movie, which is no bad thing. On its original release the film was cut by about two minutes to get an R rating, with the original cut eventually released “unrated” on home formats, sometimes labelled the “director’s cut”. All the differences are relatively short trims to do with violence (full details here). The “director’s cut” is the only one that’s ever been released on DVD or Blu-ray anywhere, thus making the distinction between “theatrical” or “director’s cut” pretty much moot at this point… or at any point in the last 20 years, frankly.

Clarence and Alabama go to the movies

It’s got a funny old trailer, too: it’s centred around a bunch of made-up numbers that have no basis in the film (“60 cops, 40 agents, 30 mobsters”), it mostly features the film’s climax, and it doesn’t once mention Quentin Tarantino — I guess “from the writer of Reservoir Dogs” wasn’t considered a selling point just the year after it came out. (Though obviously it was in the UK — just see the poster atop this review.)

Of course, nowadays it’s often regarded as “a Tarantino movie” — the copy I own is part of the Tarantino XX Blu-ray set, for instance. I wonder if that ‘divided authorship’ is why, while the film does have it’s fans, it’s not widely talked about as much as some of either man’s other work: it’s not wholly a Tony Scott film, but, without QT actually behind the camera, it’s not really a Tarantino one either. Personally, I’m a fan of both men’s work, so of course it was up my alley. I don’t think it’s the best from either of them, but mixing together the distinct styles of two such trend-setting iconoclasts does produce a unique blend.

4 out of 5

True Romance was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2018 project.

* True Romance came out between Reservoir Dogs and Natural Born Killers, but apparently QT wrote this first, then when he failed to get funding for it he wrote NBK, then when he also failed to sell that he wrote Reservoir Dogs. Another version says True Romance and NBK started out as one huge movie, written in Tarantino’s familiar chapter-based non-chronological style, until QT and his friend Roger Avery realised just how long it was and decided to divide it in two. ^

Spy Game (2001)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #87

It’s not how you play the game.
It’s how the game plays you.

Country: USA, Germany, Japan & France
Language: English, German, Arabic, French & Cantonese
Runtime: 126 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 21st November 2001 (USA)
UK Release: 23rd November 2001
First Seen: DVD, c.2002

Stars
Robert Redford (The Sting, All is Lost)
Brad Pitt (Twelve Monkeys, Ocean’s Eleven)
Catherine McCormack (Braveheart, 28 Weeks Later)
Stephen Dillane (Welcome to Sarajevo, The Hours)

Director
Tony Scott (Crimson Tide, Man on Fire)

Screenwriters
Michael Frost Beckner (Sniper, To Appomattox)
David Arata (Brokedown Palace, Children of Men)

Story by
Michael Frost Beckner (Cutthroat Island, Prince Valiant)

The Story
When a retiring CIA agent’s one-time protégé is captured by the Chinese, he recalls their years training and working together, while battling internal agency politics to free his former friend.

Our Heroes
Nathan Muir is on the cusp of retirement, a former CIA field agent who’s now desk-bound and disregarded by his superiors. Previously, he recruited sniper Tom Bishop into the agency, training him to be a spy with Muir’s own values — which Bishop didn’t necessarily share, and his reaction against has ultimately led him into the hands of the Chinese. But how? Well, that’s what flashbacks are for.

Our Villains
Lots of Johnny Foreigners — but also some factions within the CIA itself…

Best Supporting Character
One of the CIA agents handling Bishop’s capture, and so attempting to handle Muir, is his oleaginous colleague Charles Harker. He’s played by the always-excellent Stephen “Stannis Baratheon” Dillane, who is perfectly snide in the role.

Memorable Quote
Bishop: “You don’t just trade these people like they’re baseball cards! It’s not a fucking game!”
Muir: “Oh, yes it is. It’s exactly what it is. And it’s no kid’s game either. This is a whole other game. And it’s serious and it’s dangerous. And it’s not one you want to lose.”

Memorable Scene
After an asset is killed, Bishop confronts Muir on a rooftop about the morals of what they do and why they do it. See also: Memorable Quote; Making of.

Technical Wizardry
The cinematography and editing haven’t yet reached the crazed heights Tony Scott would later display in Man on Fire and Domino, but it’s not without its affects. The flashbacks occur in a few different eras, so Scott decided to give each period a distinct look to remind the viewer of that time. For example, Vietnam is desaturated to a “strange sepia green”, while the colours in Beirut are heightened to mimic news clips from 1985. Conversely, Scott found the talky scenes within the CIA to be the “most challenging part of the movie” — without all his usual tricks, he had to rely on the quality of his actors to bring the scenes to life.

Making of
For the Berlin rooftop confrontation between Muir and Bishop, Tony Scott asked for more money to rent a helicopter. The producers refused — not unreasonably, when you consider it’s a dialogue scene. But Scott believed it was important and so rented the helicopter with his own money. Robert Redford was reportedly baffled by Scott’s use of a helicopter to film such an intimate conversation, but when he saw the final result he was impressed by how dynamic it made the scene.

What the Critics Said
“beneath the film’s nostalgic veneer and tooth-rattling visual and aural effects lies a mature ambiguity that’s unusual for a holiday blockbuster — and all but unheard of in a Tony Scott movie. […] the portrayal of Muir, Bishop, and their employers as significantly less than moral beacons makes the film surprisingly demanding as a whole. Rather than requiring us to take its desperate heroes and their dubious redemption entirely at face value, Spy Game slips in a refreshing dose of uncertainty with its cinematic jolts.” — Mark Holcomb, The Village Voice

Score: 66%

What the Public Say
“I have seen it three times now, and I still don’t have a full grasp of all the phone calls and cutaways and violent edits. This aspect, rather than being a distraction, is one of the film’s virtues. The idea is that Redford’s Nathan Muir is so smart that he is hoodwinking the CIA. Part of the game that the movie plays is that we the viewers are given just enough of a hint that we can appreciate his cleverness, but even we aren’t intended to fully ‘get it’. Tony Scott’s hectic, pulse-pounding visual style is largely responsible for this mesmerizing and confusing effect. Similar to (but far superior to) Guy Ritchie’s penchant for seemingly random visual tampering, Scott hits more often than he misses in Spy Game” — Ian Kay, Taking a Look

Verdict

Spy Game is not normally considered the pinnacle in the careers of anyone involved, but there’s something about it that really works for me. In part it’s the chemistry between Redford and Pitt, a pair of actors who look like they could be father and son and exude a similar level of connection. The dual timeline structure keeps things rattling along, with Redford entertainingly running rings round the CIA in the present, while the flashbacks consider “the greater good” — how far should they go, and is it ever worth it? Possibly such questions weren’t appreciated on the film’s immediately-after-9/11 initial release, but they’ve since become more relevant than ever.

That’s no moon… it’s #88.

Man on Fire (2004)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #57

A promise to protect.
A vow to avenge.

Country: USA & UK
Language: English & Spanish
Runtime: 146 minutes
BBFC: 18
MPAA: R

Original Release: 23rd April 2004 (USA)
UK Release: 8th October 2004
First Seen: in-flight, c.2004

Stars
Denzel Washington (Philadelphia, Training Day)
Dakota Fanning (War of the Worlds, The Runaways)
Radha Mitchell (Pitch Black, Melinda and Melinda)
Christopher Walken (The Deer Hunter, Hairspray)
Marc Anthony (Bringing Out the Dead, El cant ante)

Director
Tony Scott (Top Gun, Enemy of the State)

Screenwriter
Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential, Legend)

Based on
Man on Fire, a novel by A.J. Quinnell.

The Story
As a wave of kidnappings from rich families sweeps Mexico City, burnt-out former soldier Creasy is hired as the bodyguard of little Pita Ramos. She begins to bring him out of his reclusive shell, so when he fails to prevent her abduction, he vows to make the people responsible pay — very, very violently.

Our Hero
Washed-up alcoholic former Marine and ex-CIA operative John Creasy is a broken man, only taking bodyguard work in Mexico City because he needs the cash. He still has a particular set of skills at hand when needed, though.

Our Villains
An array of ruthless kidnappers and corrupt cops, though some of the villains may be closer to home…

Best Supporting Character
Dakota Fanning has relatively limited screen time as little Pita, at least after the first act, but it’s enough for the viewer to warm to her as much as Creasy does, getting us on side for the violence to come.

Memorable Quote #1
“Creasy’s art is death. He’s about to paint his masterpiece.” — Rayburn

Memorable Quote #2
“Forgiveness is between them and God. It’s my job to arrange the meeting.” — Creasy

Memorable Scene
After corrupt detective Fuentes is kidnapped by Creasy, he wakes up tied to the bonnet of a car wearing just his boxers. Creasy demonstrates how he built a small bomb, before informing Fuentes where that bomb is currently located. To be blunt: it’s in Fuentes’ ass. That certainly gives the interrogation a different flavour.

Technical Wizardry
The film’s visual style — jumpy cutting, heavy saturation, etc — is apparently designed to reflect Creasy’s fractured mental state. The most memorable part, at least for me, were the subtitles, which use various fonts, placements, and reveals to make them feel part of the whole package, rather than a bunged-at-the-bottom last-minute addition.

Making of
The film was really shot in Mexico City, under the real threat of kidnapping and/or other violence. Radha Mitchell was escorted by three bodyguards after her driver was carjacked at gunpoint; Denzel Washington was also surrounded by bodyguards at all times; several crew members were robbed at gunpoint, and, according to the police, the crew were also targeted for kidnapping

Previously on…
A.J. Quinnell’s novel was previously adapted in 1987 starring Scott Glenn, Joe Pesci, and Jonathan Pryce.

Awards
2 Golden Trailer Awards nominations (Best Action (for trailer C), Best Drama (for trailer B))
3 nominations for Dakota Fanning as supporting or young actress (Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards, Golden Schmoes Awards, Young Artist Awards)

What the Critics Said
“On paper, we have a well-worn initial-mistrust-gives-over-to-mutual-affection arc, but Washington’s despair-tinged reserve and Fanning’s astonishing naturalness give the relationship warmth and resonance. Fanning exudes more than enough charm and decency to make Creasy’s renewal of faith completely believable. […] As the action goes increasingly over the top, so does Scott’s visual pyrotechnics. Probably setting a new world record for the number of different film stocks in one movie, Scott and hot-to-trot cinematographer Paul Cameron (Collateral) whip-pan and crash-zoom to new levels of excess, heightening both the teeming life of Mexico City and the anxiety around Pita’s kidnapping. Best of all are the subtitles: rather than simply translating dialogue, they assault the viewer, conveying drama and emotion through aggressive graphic design. You’ve never seen any done like this before.” — Ian Freer, Empire

Score: 39%
(I had no idea this was so critically reviled! I thought it was quite well liked, in fact.)

What the Public Say
“it is relentless in assaulting your senses and your sensibilities, and that can often be unpleasant, at best. While this is obviously the intended effect in many cases, [it] has the effect of making it unlikeable to watch, if not for the actions of its star character, then just for the fact that it seems intent on making the audience feel every ounce of anguish in the torturer and his victim. It’s definitely intended, but it doesn’t exactly result in me feeling empathy for either character, one way or another. It must be said, however, that Tony Scott is not afraid to have his character do horrible things to people. He’s not concerned about what the audience thinks about Creasy so much as they just consider why he is.” — CJ Stewart, The Viewer’s Commentary

Verdict

On the one hand, Man on Fire represents the start of Tony Scott’s stylistic excess that would see him through the rest of his career — the jumpy editing, oddly saturated images, etc. (It’s also present to an extent in Spy Game, though.) It would get a bit much at times (Domino), but Man on Fire uses it effectively. On the other hand, the film works just as well as a character-driven revenge drama. Rather than rush to the shooting-and-killing, Scott and screenwriter Brian Helgeland take their time to build the relationship between Creasy and Pita, so that when we do reach the vengeance portion of the story, you’re as invested as the characters are. Of course, from there it is (as a film from the year before would put it) a roaring rampage of revenge.

#58 will be… practically perfect in every way.

Beverly Hills Cop II (1987)

2016 #53
Tony Scott | 99 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Wiseass Detroit cop Eddie Murphy heads back to the titular wealthy California city* to investigate when a burglary gang nearly kills his friend.

Top villain Jürgen Prochnow is so underused one wonders why he’s even in the film — Brigitte Nielsen’s more striking henchwoman could’ve been brains as well as brawn. Either way, they’re the character equivalent of a MacGuffin: this is all about Murphy, plus sidekicks Judge Reinhold and John Ashton, having fun and entertaining us in the process. Tony Scott brings ’80s slickness without losing sight of the comedy, for a sequel that’s almost as enjoyable as its predecessor.

4 out of 5

* Did you know Beverly Hills was its own city? I thought it was just an L.A. suburb. ^