Everett Collection
August 21, 2012 at 04:00 AM EDT

For years, Tony Scott was the top gun of adrenalized action flash. But was he a good filmmaker? With almost any other director, you might answer that question with a “yes” or a “no” or maybe a shrug of “eh.” But Scott, who took his own life on Sunday, was a special case. I was often ambivalent about him, but to his credit, he rarely invited a shrug. He directed some very big hits, and made famous and influential movies, but quite often the very qualities that excited audiences about his work — the propulsive, at times borderline preposterous popcorn-thriller storylines; the slice-and-dice editing and the images that somehow managed to glow with grit; the fireball violence, often glimpsed in smeary-techno telephoto shots; the way he had of making actors seem volatile and dynamic and, at the same time, lacking almost any subtext — were the same qualities that kept him locked outside the gates of critical respectability. A much simpler way to pose the Tony Scott Question is this: Was Top Gun a good movie? That’s a question that’s much richer than it sounds, and I can illustrate it by recalling my own critical relationship to that much-loved, much-mocked 1986 need-for-speed crowd-pleaser.

When Top Gun was released, I was a critic for The Boston Phoenix, and I remember seeing it at a sneak preview the Saturday night before it opened. Tom Cruise was already a major star, but this was his conquer-the-world arrival party, the one that lofted him into the stratosphere. That sneak preview had a level of buzz that I’d seldom encountered before, and seldom have since — it was like a coronation on uppers — and I confess that for most of the movie, I felt as if I was standing outside the buzz. I wrote a mixed review of Top Gun that was typical of the sort of moralistic sneer that the film inspired among critics. The dog-fight sequences were undeniably exciting, but I also complained that it was videogame filmmaking, and that the whole movie was too slick and glib, too jingoistic, too fetishistic about its back-slapping testosterone-happy flyboy bonding rituals.

Though I didn’t come out and say it, what really stuck in my craw at the time about Top Gun (and I think that a lot of critics felt this way) was that it dovetailed so neatly — maybe cynically — with the Reagan administration’s crafty cartoon of demagogic Cold War absolutism (“We begin bombing in five minutes!”). The movie seemed to be flooding “Go USA!” politics into pop culture by transforming military cheerleading into a marketing hook. On that score, the film exerted an extraordinary and lingering relevance. (At this point, I’m not sure if Mitt Romney’s attitude toward military engagement is so far removed from that of Top Gun.) And since, at the time, the most famous thing about Tony Scott — this was only his second feature; he would go on to make 14 more — was that he had come from the world of British TV advertising, it was easy to experience the movie, and to write about it, as an extended series of glorified advertising techniques. (Tom Cruise on his motorcycle, with “Take My Breath Away” swooning and moaning on the soundtrack and all that spacious depth-of-field photography, was basically Tom Cruise…in a Kawasaki Ninja commercial!) The word for the movie, in my mind, was packaged. It didn’t so much mark a new era of Hollywood as take the corporate Hollywood that was already in gear and kick it up another notch or two of visually narcotizing hucksterism.

Or so I said at the time. Three years later, in 1989, I was writing a one-shot video column for Premiere magazine, and the gimmick that I’d come up with was to contrast a handful of movies that were very slow (e.g., Barry Lyndon) or very fast (like Raiders of the Lost Ark). In the “Fast” category, I’d included Top Gun, and so I watched it again on VHS on my relatively small and crappy ’80s TV screen. Yet seeing it there, removed from all those previous “corrupt” contexts — It was military propaganda in hipster sunglasses! It was MTV Fighter Pilots! It was the trashing of Hollywood by Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer! It was superstardom by proxy! — I sat back and got caught up in what the movie really was: the newfangled version of a totally old-fashioned Hollywood rouser, with Cruise, as Maverick, melding, for perhaps the first time, the American teenage rebel and the American traditionalist hero. And what I now saw is that it was the vibe that Tony Scott imparted to nearly every scene that elevated the movie into a pop vision — that made rebellion, for the first time, look square-jawed. Top Gun is such a period piece that some claim to love it simply as kitsch (and it certainly has kitsch elements), but that’s not the reason that people still talk about it 26 years later. They talk about it because Top Gun, in its James Dean-meets-joystick way, is an indelible movie. And that’s why I would say that it’s also a good movie. It hooks you on what it is. It gets you pumped about being pumped.

It has often been said that criminals work harder than those who earn honest livings. That’s sort of how I feel about Tony Scott. As a filmmaker, he devoted himself to a kind of superficiality of feeling, yet he worked harder, and pulled out more stops, to achieve that than a lot of directors do who have won respectability. Top Gun will always be the quintessential Scott film, but the single best movie he ever made — the one that proved, for all time, that he really could be a good director in the classic sense — is Crimson Tide, the nuclear-countdown U.S. military submarine thriller in which Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman face off in a duel of wits and wills and close-up ideological brinkmanship that’s rich in psychology and subtle, high-tension acting. The movie famously benefited from an uncredited rewrite by Quentin Tarantino, but Scott staged it beautifully, and so simply, cutting down on his usual technological visual fussiness to let the actors shine through. Crimson Tide came out in 1995, a dozen years after Scott had begun to direct movies (it made my 10 Best list that year), and the film made me think: It’s time for Tony Scott to abandon all that visual frosting — to cut down on all his look at what I learned in advertising! razzmatazz and to grow up as a filmmaker, to start reaching for something more quiet and supple and humane.

I’m convinced that he had the talent to do it. What he didn’t have, perhaps, was the desire. After Crimson Tide, he made a couple of other films built around more lifesize story elements: the clever and satisfying Spy Game (featuring Robert Redford and Brad Pitt playing off each other like seasoned infielders), and his incredibly underrated remake of The Fan. But Crimson Tide was also, for Scott, the kickoff of what we might call the Denzel Washington Period, and if ever there was a director-star partnership that sounded good in theory and was a washout in practice, it was that one. When I think about the Scott/Washington flicks (Man on Fire, Déjà Vu, Unstoppable), I can barely tell them apart in memory. They melt and ooze together into a single abstract suspense movie: The Former Assassin Who Went Back in Time and Kidnapped a Train.

Of course, maybe all those movies — and even an ultra-violent dud like Domino — expressed more of Tony Scott than I’m giving him credit for. I personally would have liked to see him try for something way out of his comfort zone, like a stuffy period costume drama, but he was, to the end, an action filmmaker. And maybe that’s because he wasn’t just drawn to action — he believed in it. His suicide is deeply saddening, but it is also haunting. Scott, standing up on that bridge, could, in a way, be likened to the heroes of his films: a man who, in his very despair, had the fearlessness to take a plunge. Maybe he even allowed himself to imagine, for a moment or so, that he, too, would be unstoppable.

Follow Owen on Twitter: @OwenGleiberman

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