Tony Scott lifted action to kinetic reflection

Appreciation: Director's best work delivered insights on modern culture, media

“You need to tell us where to look.”

The words are spoken with telling urgency in Tony Scott’s “Deja Vu,” in which a federal agent solves a crime by framing and reframing a steady stream of moving images. For the millions worldwide who happily consumed Scott’s movies (to the tune of $2 billion in B.O.), this loopy 2006 mystery-thriller was, true to its witty title, just another expertly tricked-out actioner. But for the cinephiles who have long discerned a sly, subversive intelligence beneath the director’s slick, flashy surfaces, it was a dazzling conceptual coup, turning an outlandish time-travel device into a canny metaphor for the pleasures and frustrations of moviemaking, as well as movie watching.

Until his life and career came to an end on Aug. 19, Scott delighted in telling viewers where to look. Often he did this by supplying the maximum number of perspectives on any given scene; the signature Scott effect is the montage, fragmenting a relatively simple piece of action into a flurry of crane shots and whip pans. His restless, roving camera seems to be everywhere at once, as though wielded by a jittery, omniscient and not always benevolent observer.

It may risk insensitivity to suggest that Scott’s fatal plunge from a Los Angeles bridge — witnessed by many, and later shrouded in conflicting reports about the director’s health — didn’t seem terribly far removed from the mysterious, violent, spectacle-driven world his movies inhabited. To the extent that one can glean a person’s temperament based on his art (not a word I use lightly), it’s hard to watch Scott’s swift, relentless, hyperkinetic movies without arriving at some ideas about the man who made them.

In film after film, Scott churned out symphonies of bombast and adrenaline, dense with paranoia and intrigue, most of them centered around rebels and mavericks willing to defy authority and sometimes death itself. To put it mildly, these movies are not the work of someone who seemed inclined to go gentle into that good night.

Beginning with his hoot of a 1983 debut, “The Hunger,” Scott, a commercials director and art-school grad, betrayed a rebellious streak. His first two features expressed a bone-deep understanding of the cheap, tawdry, gleefully disreputable allure of the movies, whether expressed in the memorable image of Catherine Deneuve and Susan Sarandon getting it on in “The Hunger,” or in the immortal volleyball scene and the hypnotic upswell of “Take My Breath Away” in “Top Gun.” Never chasing the prestige pictures and Oscar nominations that came the way of his older brother, Ridley, the younger Scott was content to hole up in an unpretentious B-movie universe, a realm that suited him just fine even as it signaled a certain wry distance from Hollywood’s upper echelons.

Like most filmmakers in tune with cinema’s trash appeal, Scott has received more than his share of scathing notices, despite the enduring admiration for “True Romance,” his 1993 lovers-on-the-run caper scripted by Quentin Tarantino, and the general approval for such muscular hits as “Crimson Tide” and “Enemy of the State.”

By the mid-2000s, when he made his hysterically overamped revenge thriller “Man on Fire” and his aggressively scuzzy bounty-hunter biopic “Domino,” Scott had become a reliable punching bag for certain reviewers, who wrote him off as a purveyor of cheap, titillating thrills, pandering to the audience’s baser impulses by shamelessly indulging his own.

Yet the tide of opinion has since flowed just as strongly in the other direction. Several critics have made no secret of their preference for Tony over the more decorated Ridley, hailing the bristling energy, electricity and casual genre mastery of the younger Scott’s filmmaking, as well as his stubborn insistence on cinema as a primarily visual medium.

Certainly Scott came to develop a stylistic imprint as recognizable as that of any working filmmaker. His aesthetic is distinct even from the shock-and-awe tendencies of his regular collaborator Jerry Bruckheimer and of Michael Bay, to name two filmmakers with whom he shares a lasting influence on the visual-aural syntax of the contemporary blockbuster. Unlike Bay or Bruckheimer, though, Scott never used his late-career cachet to lend his name to a tentpole franchise (a rumored “Top Gun” sequel notwithstanding), opting instead to cast and recast some of his favorite actors — Tom Cruise, Val Kilmer, James Gandolfini and, above all, Denzel Washington — in new if essentially familiar configurations.

Scott’s films can seem by turns thrilling and empty, gimmicky and virtuosic. As his career progressed, his camera tricks became more gaudy and assaultive, his images doctored, processed, stylized and color-saturated to almost abstract levels of eye-popping excess. These are not films to watch for dramatic subtlety or, for the most part, narrative surprise, but as thrill machines and objects of contemplation, their fascination is endless. Even when they mistake excess for excitement and clutter for complexity, they give rise to a set of recognizable preoccupations and a surprisingly coherent worldview, engineered for mass consumption but built for auteurist appreciation. (The grief expressed by French cineastes over the helmer’s death has been especially acute.)

The world of a Scott film is an ecstatically gritty simulacrum of the real thing, dirty and cynical and mean. His later films, “Deja Vu” in particular, betray a feverish obsession with the rise of the surveillance state, replete with troubling themes of voyeurism and violation. Critics who have dismissed his output as mindless hackwork would do well to check out his solid 2009 remake of “The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3” or his terrific 2010 swan song, “Unstoppable,” both studies of mass-transit mayhem marked by a thick, sweaty atmosphere of social unrest and urban decay.

Scott not only showed us where to look; he liked to hide subtext in plain sight. Surely it can’t be a coincidence that some of his later titles — “Enemy of the State,” “Man on Fire” and “Unstoppable” come to mind — could be playfully coded descriptions of the director himself, expressing a posture of wry defiance toward the industry whose conventions and boundaries he navigated so efficiently.

Certainly these films and others, including “Crimson Tide” and “Spy Game,” are highly suggestive in the way they consistently pit men of action against a cold, impervious system or an unyielding chain of command. To revisit any of them now is to submit to a familiar world of easy, sometimes guilty pleasure, marred by the realization that Hollywood, sans Tony Scott, just got a little less personal.