Correction appended August 21, 2012
The Vincent Thomas Bridge, spanning Los Angeles Harbor between San Pedro and Terminal Island, would be a perfect location for some high-octane Tony Scott movie. More than a mile long and festooned with blue LED strips, the gaudy bridge has made guest appearances in many familiar action films, including Lethal Weapon 4, Jerry Bruckheimer’s Gone in 60 Seconds, National Security and Heat, in which Robert De Niro mistakenly canonized this elevated roadway with the name “the St. Vincent Thomas Bridge.” One 1985 movie had a character bungee-jump from the bridge toward the Harbor: that was To Live and Die in L.A.
Scott may never have filmed a movie scene on this bridge while he lived in L.A., but apparently he wanted to die there. Around 12:30 p.m. Sunday, the British director of such supercharged Americana as Top Gun (planes), Unstoppable (trains) and Days of Thunder(automobiles) parked his Prius by the bridge, climbed over a fence near the ledge and jumped off, with no bungee cord to suspend his fall. The water below was his Terminal Island. In the office of Scott Free Productions, the film and TV company he ran with his older brother Ridley, police found what they described as a suicide note. At 68, Tony Scott had directed, and starred in, his last action scene.
(READ: Richard Schickel’s review of Tony Scott’s Days of Thunder)
For nearly four decades, Anthony David Scott and the 74-year-old Ridley were a prominent filmmaking duo. They produced most of their own movies, plus other action fare (The A-Team, The Grey), indie efforts (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Cyrus) and the popular U.S. TV series Numb3rs and The Good Wife. (Their four-hour miniseries Coma, based on the Robin Cook novel, is set for a Labor Day launch on AMC.) The Scott film alliance began more than a half-century ago, in 1960, when the 16-year-old Tony starred in Ridley’s debut short, Boy and Bicycle, about a teen playing hooky peddling through Newcastle and musing on his parents, his teachers and death. Already the obsession with speed; already, intimations of mortality.
While Ridley became a director of stylish Brit commercials, Tony planned a career as a painter, graduating from London‘s Royal College of Art. But Ridley found his kid brother’s soft spot: “I knew that he had a fondness for cars, so I told him, ‘Come work with me and within a year you’ll have a Ferrari.’ And he did.” Tony directed thousands of TV spots, but by the early ’80s he wanted to ascend to film work, as Ridley had with Alien and Blade Runner.
Eventually, each brother’s distinctive personality became visible. Ridley’s was international in flavor, heavy on British actors and period epics like The Duellists, Legend, Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven. “Nobody does toga movies like my brother,” said Tony, whose own sensibility was pure Hollywood. The boy with the bicycle and a fondness for cars also had a gift for eroticizing planes, ammunition, a star’s aggressive impulse — anything that moves fast, and can make a movie move faster. A notorious over-shooter (148 hours of raw footage for Crimson Tide), Scott would set his camera circling the actors like a handsome stranger appraising a pretty starlet at a Bel Air debauch. He’d daub the screen with water, fill it with electric sparks, douse his stars in photogenic sweat. He was the Helmut Newton of movie machismo.
His first feature-movie gig, The Hunger in 1983, was an exercise in feminismo: a luscious tale of vampirism, acutely remembered for the humid lovemaking of Susan Sarandon and Catherine Deneuve. A box-office flop, the movie nonetheless served as Scott’s calling card. After an adventurous few years in the ’70s, Hollywood had mostly given up on dramas of sexual tension; but the producing tandem of Bruckheimer and Don Simpson figured that if Scott could bring the same luster to male bonding as he had to lesbian lust, he might be just the fellow to direct their aerial caper, Top Gun. He was. For the main role of a Navy buzzboy, Tony was given the young actor who had just played the lead in Ridley’s myth-illogical flop Legend: a 23-year-old named Tom Cruise.
Enthralling and deplorable by turns, this tale of hot-rodders in the sky limns a life of quick thrills. Cruise’s Pete (“Maverick”) Mitchell fills his downtime with volleyball, partying and swell sex. But Maverick is truly juiced up in his F-14, where sex and sport fuse into career and patriotism, where an ace can wage a Nintendo war with death as the penalty. “Your ego is writing checks your body can’t cash,” an instructor warns him. Here, though, fatal crashes are what happens to supporting players, and cautious advice is something only a wimp would heed.
(READ: Corliss’s cover story on Tom Cruise by subscribing to TIME)
Sharing Cruise’s grinning, winning style, Top Gun cashed its checks on the actor’s body. So did the Navy, which set up recruitment booths outside theaters. But with its climactic dogfight against Soviet MiGs over the Indian Ocean, the movie also caught flak for being a sort of Uncle-Tom-Wants-You poster for World War III. As if anyone in Hollywood cared: Top Gun made its young lead a gotta-see star and earned $350 million worldwide (about $800 million in today’s dollars). It would be the biggest hit of Tony Scott’s career.
The second biggest: Beverly Hills Cop II, his next film after Top Gun. A police thriller with the emphasis on laughs, BHC II certified Eddie Murphy, then 26, as the hottest comedy star of the decade. It was also the second of six Tony Scott movies produced by Bruckheimer. The others: the 1990 Days of Thunder, also with Cruise, plus the 1995 Crimson Tide, the 1998 Enemy of the State and the 2006 Deja Vu, all starring Denzel Washington. Two years ago, Scott, Bruckheimer and Cruise were planning a sequel to Top Gun.
Over the decades, Scott was able to attract big names in glossy updates of the old thriller mode: Hackman and Washington in Crimson Tide, De Niro and Wesley Snipes in The Fan (1996), Hackman and Will Smith in Enemy of the State (1998), Robert Redford and Brad Pitt in Spy Game (2001), Washington and John Travolta in The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 (2009). When two top stars played characters that needed to butt heads, and give a hint of some intellectual or emotional life inside, they often called on Tony Scott.
A few of these not-quite-blockbusters are remembered mainly for the glossily adamantine attitude Scott brought to them. Crimson Tide features lots of close-ups of manly jawlines, as if every sailor were posing to be sculpted like the U.S. Presidents onto Mount Rushmore. Pelham 1 2 3, the mostly wan remake of a much tougher 1974 urban thriller, is essentially a long phone call between train hijacker Travolta and subway cop Washington. To juice things up, Scott escapes to street level for a congestion of cars, arranged as carefully as clusters of Rockettes. This auto-tableau isn’t stalled traffic; it’s the backdrop for a spectacular crash.
(READ: Corliss’s review of Scott’s The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3)
Once in a while, inspired by a wild script, Scott would go invigoratingly nuts. True Romance, the 1993 film he directed from the screenplay that Quentin Tarantino had sold to finance Reservoir Dogs, was first slapped with the restrictive NC-17 rating; even in the R cut, there’s still enough gleeful carnage to make an audience wince out loud. A white drug dealer perforates some black thugs. Palms get sliced, feet corkscrewed, skulls smashed with toilet-tank lids, eyes and other essential organs blown out. The movie climaxes with a dozen or so thugs, druggies, cops — and that lowest form of slime mold, a movie producer — edgily pointing heavy artillery at one another. In 1995 Senator Bob Dole, preparing to run for President, lambasted True Romance as an example of films that “revel in mindless violence and loveless sex.”
A more accurate description would be: loving violence and mine-field sex. But a revel it is. Trading on his apprenticeship in commercials, Scott always knew how to make each image yummy, seductive, good enough to buy, whether the scene is selling sex, violence or some slick sociopathic blend of the two. In True Romance he pummels your eye with wide-screen close-ups that eroticize violence and give a lurid threat to the sex. The love scene is a French-kissin’, torso-lickin’ jeans ad set to cinema. In the big shoot-out at the end, bloody cushion feathers smother the screen in slo-mo.
(READ: Corliss’s review of True Romance)
The film flopped but its imprint was indelible. Fifteen years later, for a Maxim retrospective, some of the True Romance actors testified to Scott’s fidelity to the madness of the project. Said Tom Sizemore, “Tony started every take like this: Rock-n-roll, motherf—ers! Action!” Patricia Arquette, the film’s leading lady, told Scott that her mind “wasn’t where I wanted to be. So Tony said, ‘Do you want me to help you?’ I said yes, and he smacked me in the face. I was shocked. I started crying.” (Scott had a slightly different sense memory: “Patricia used to call my right hand ‘the Persuader. She’d say, ‘Bring on the Persuader,’ and I’d have to slap her. … That does not happen a lot with me and actors.”) One of the director’s favorite props was a gun that, when fired, emits flames from the side. As Dennis Hopper recalled, “I said, ‘Tony, you’re not putting that gun right to my head.’ He said, ‘It’s fine, do it to me.’ So a crew guy shot him, and he started bleeding. He said, ‘OK, that won’t work.’”
The movie in which Scott provided the most satisfyingly old-fashioned entertainment may have been his last: Unstoppable. With Washington (in his sixth and last film for Scott) and Star Trek’s Chris Pine on a runaway train, and Rosario Dawson on the other end of a phone line “directing” their ride, the film is both an improvement on Pelham 1 2 3 and an atonement for it.
(READ: Mary Pols’ review of Unstoppable)
This fable of men at work, challenged by a machine they learn to control, could be Scott’s metaphorical autobiography. Half of the hacks in Hollywood want to think of themselves as brilliant creators; Scott, though he had a degree proclaiming his artistry, knew he was a technician. In the machine art of moviemaking, that is an honorable calling. Efficiency can be a form of artistry, and Scott often reached that level of surpassing craftsmanship. He deserves to be remembered more for what he achieved in his life than for the way that he ended it.
An earlier version of this article cited a widely-shared report indicating that Scott had been diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer. His family has since denied the report.