Robert Redford didn’t get it. This was the scene. Him and Brad Pitt, hardened mentor and disillusioned protégé, finally drop the “op” and “asset” wordplay and get honest with each other. It was potent. It was simple. So when he surveyed Tony Scott’s storyboards that morning, Bob had to ask: “What is this – is this a helicopter shot? Why are we shooting on a rooftop?”
Scott remembered his answers well enough to repeat them on Spy Game’s eventual DVD commentary. As for the helicopter, rented out of his own pocket, it lent the scene a nauseous subjectivity, searing Pitt’s anxiety into the celluloid. As for the rooftop: “I thought it was a good place.”
Redford didn’t know it, but he was starring in a prototype. Scott didn’t know it, but he was defining the modern action film.
By the mid-1990s, Tony Scott was a household look. Though he worked with four cinematographers across his first eight features, Scott’s early style is absolute enough to pass for autograph. Tangerine sunsets. Gun-metal nights. No color too lush, no interior too smoky. His commercial roots show on the cuts, each threatening to reveal a sweat-kissed Pepsi can, but he wanted to paint long before he sold SAABs and it’s obvious in anamorphic. To quote Empire’s Andrew Collins in his review of a film below, “The effect is like having your inside leg stroked in the dark for two hours.”
The Tony Scott Movie was unmistakable. And he wanted to change it. So he did, with a trilogy of and about transition, headlined by legends in twilight playing the hits one last time before letting their younger, hungrier co-stars take the stage.
The first of these sequels by any other name came out of order. After Crimson Tide, Scott started prepping Enemy of the State, a pet project of Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson since 1991. The paranoiac thriller offered the stylist an irresistible challenge: “Giving a fresh eye to surveillance today.” But would his mixed-media onslaught work?
Enter The Fan, a gig Tony Scott turned down twice before accepting it as a paid-for playground and chance to work with an icon.
Robert De Niro splits the difference between Taxi Driver and King of Comedy as a hair-trigger outcast defined by his idolatry and only charismatic in his car. Gil Renard commutes under a familiar Scott-orange sky and basks in his local celebrity as San Francisco sports radio’s favorite caller, but it’s oxygen he shouldn’t have.
Brand-new Giant Bobby Rayburn has no room to breathe. In a grim epilogue of his Major League character, Wesley Snipes plays Rayburn like a man afraid of his own bobblehead. His world is hype, his religion superstition, lucky number eleven, and he doesn’t even have that anymore. Until, of course, Renard kills the player currently borrowing Rayburn’s jersey.
As a Sunday-afternoon thriller chasing a pair of canonical character studies, The Fan suffers comparison, but De Niro does himself justice. Once upon a time, he played young men looking for gods, fathers, and direction. Here, at 19 years older than his obsession, his fandom isn’t formative; it’s an investment paid in vicarious glory. For all of Renard’s grandstanding about caring for the fans, it comes down to a single request in a stadium downpour on loan from The Last Boy Scout: “I never showed you my best pitch.” Forget them – notice me.
It’s still a Tony Scott Movie, but with more caffeine in the bloodstream. The cutting-room jitters play like suspense or flopsweat depending on the sequence, but the test was successful enough for the director to go all in.
Like The Fan, Enemy of the State fell into place as soon as the legend signed on. In this case, however, Scott had to talk Gene Hackman on-board personally. Will Smith, approaching supernova from Independence Day and Men in Black, took a deep pay cut just to work with him.
The result is the most direct sequel of the three, down to an N.S.A. headshot cribbed directly from The Conversation.
Robert Dean is the modern Hitchcockian man, successful and innocent as he can afford to be minus that one marital slip. It’s a testament to Will Smith, after a string of bespoke blockbusters, that he stepped in as-is and didn’t get caught in the gears. This is a Bruckheimer production writ large and the star, as always, is the concept.
Tony Scott sells it on the making-of featurette: “It’s not a perfect world, this digital world.” Closed-circuit static. CRT squirm. He collected every last limitation of the cutting edge and let them infect the Tony Scott Movie. Jon Voight’s proudly amoral villain doesn’t just attack Smith with his eye-in-the-sky, but the film itself. The future is now, whether or not you voted for it.
The analog alternative is “Brill,” a master craftsman in self-imposed exile played by Hackman six years ahead of his own. His paranoia is familiar. His isolated workshop is familiar. Even his plastic raincoat, however briefly he wears it, is familiar. Brill is not Harry Caul – for one thing he takes visible joy in his work – but the fidget is obvious; he steals his first scene from Smith just by anxiously chewing gum.
In lieu of satellites that can read Casios from low-orbit, Brill hides button cameras badly so the tech-possessed enemy doesn’t notice the ones he hid better. What saves him from arrest (or worse) is good old-fashioned acting, a carefully administered dose of panic that convinces the eye-in-the-sky to blink.
Roger Ebert skewered the director’s RadioShack chic with a laser-guided keyboard: “Tony Scott… films technology the way the National Geographic films wetlands.” Scott stopped reading reviews after The Hunger, but it’s hard to see his follow-up, a film that is 50% boardroom deposition, as anything but a challenge.
During interviews for Enemy, Scott said sooth: “Years ago my favorite movies were Three Days of the Condor and The Conversation. That was a genre I always wanted to do on film.” He had his Conversation. Spy Game would be his Condor. Luckily, Redford was already attached.
Though the cynical spirit is present and accounted for, Redford plays the source instead of the victim this time. Nathan Muir is a walking redaction who only survived to retirement because he surgically removed all hope of it. Pitt’s Tom Bishop hasn’t had that procedure yet. The $282,000 question is whether or not Muir can save his renegade apprentice from a Chinese prison on the other side of the globe.
The story takes place over 16 years and 24 hours simultaneously, abandoning traditional narrative in favor of a corkboard shaggy with headlines and yarn. ‘70s Vietnam, ‘80s Berlin, and ‘90s Hong Kong stutter together like sun-bleached reels spooled out of order and explained away by Muir’s famous poker face. Before it became a cliché, Scott employed the recent breakthrough of digital color correction to code each location and keep the corkboard as clean as possible.
The trick to Spy Game is that the yarn and headlines don’t matter. It’s a surrogate father-son story, the most overt transition of the trilogy, with an old movie star training his replacement. “Robert Redford was Brad Pitt when he was younger and Brad’s gonna be Bob when he gets older,” says Scott on the DVD commentary, not that he needs to. Late in the film, Pitt glares at Redford, sporting the exact same haircut and shades, and fights fate: “I’m not ending up like you.”
Brad Pitt might’ve been the movie star that ushered in the New Tony Scott Movie, but he wasn’t the Tony Scott Movie Star. Denzel Washington arrived one movie later, in Man on Fire, after sitting these out. He’d topline four of Scott’s last five features, all of them following the hyperactive blueprint sketched out across this sequel trilogy.
Tony Scott’s late-career style was mistaken for impatience and diluted by imitation, but there’s a singular logic to it, to every strafing-run wide and trembling close-up on the razor’s edge of clarity. It’s difficult to explain and even harder to justify without a rough cut handy. Redford didn’t understand because it only makes sense put together and played on the biggest screen possible. He accepted Scott’s explanation in Budapest, but quietly remained unconvinced.
“Until he saw the sequence,” Scott said, “and then he got it.”