Domino: “Put your fucking weapon down”— Keira Knightly as Domino.

The Hunger: Vertical display or horizontal causality?

The Hunger: High concept as poetic imagery.

Top Gun: High concept triumphs as a norm of comprehension.

Top Gun: Effulgent camera work fetishizes technology.

Top Gun: Tom Cruise’s hyperbolic star text.

Top Gun: Industrial expressivity or authorial resistance?

Top Gun: High concept as a restoration of the dominant order.

Days of Thunder: Tom Cruise as NASCAR driver, Cole Trickle.

Enemy of the State: United States under satellite surveillance.

Spy Game: From Tom Cruise’s bravado to Robert Redford’s regret.

Beverly Hills Cop 2: Brigitte Nielsen as a signifier of male performance anxiety.

Days of Thunder: Tom Cruise “trapped” by corporate sponsorship.

True Romance: Suffocating images of Detroit…

... and Los Angeles.

The Last Boy Scout: Sports and a fading American dream.

Crimson Tide: Gene Hackman ready to reprise Dr. Strangelove.

True Romance: A mass culture in freefall: Gary Oldman plays gangsta in front of The Mack.

Man on Fire: Denzel Washington as Creasy riding the vomit comet.

Man on Fire: More vomit comet.

Man on Fire: Staccato patterns of concentrated subjectivity.

Domino: Vomit comet meets Domino-Vision.

Domino: Bounty hunting on speed.

Domino: Toffee trails as heightened realism.

Domino: Domino, Ed (Mickey Rourke), and Choco (Edgar Ramirez).

Domino: Tony Scott and screenwriter Richard Kelly provide narrative flowcharts to help the audience comprehend the film’s storyline.

Domino: The front credits signal that the film is a series of dominos ready to fall at any moment.


Tony Scott and Domino
Say hello (and goodbye) to the postclassical

by Larry Knapp

Tony Scott — knowing auteur
or unwitting metteur?

Is it a sin to be associated with the postclassical? Despite two decades of debate and informed scholarship, many high-profile film theorists and critics still characterize post-1980 U.S. cinema as a violation of Classical Hollywood Cinema and its premature heir, the so-called New American Cinema of Robert Altman, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, Stanley Kubrick, Sam Peckinpah, and Martin Scorsese.

Those filmmakers who came of aesthetic age in the wake of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg — namely Adrian Lyne, Michael Mann and Ridley Scott — found themselves accused of bastardizing U.S. cinema into a denarrativized display of hyperkinetic images and nondiegetic pop tunes. Their willingness to fuse post-1960s European art cinema (i.e., Bernardo Bertulocci’s The Conformist [1970] and Last Tango in Paris [1972]) with high-fashion imagery put renewed emphasis on stand-alone shot compositions and the sonic propulsion of music soundtracks. This cross-Atlantic movement toward visual and aural poetics alienated critics who prized narrative continuity over sensory play.

Consider the peculiar case of Tony Scott. Unlike his older brother Ridley, who had the good fortune to direct Alien (1979), Blade Runner (1982), Thelma & Louise (1991), Gladiator (2000), Black Hawk Down (2001), and American Gangster (2007), Tony has been dismissed as a postclassical metteur since The Hunger (1983) and the windfall success of Top Gun (1986), decried by many as a postmodern exercise in neoconservative mythmaking. A product of the Royal College of Art and Ridley’s advertising production company RSA, Tony blithely admits that “I’m always looking for something to steal — I’m the best plagiarist in the world.”[1][open endnotes in new window] A graphic artist by training and practice, Scott views filmmaking as a process of instantaneous visual expression and an inevitable act of allusion and counter-expression:

"Filmmaking is like painting…Every stroke or every color impacts another and you build film on the canvas and you get ideas from the last stroke."[2]

"My first movie, The Hunger, was a direct knock-off of Nick’s [Nicholas Roeg’s] movie Performance. And Ridley really inspired me…You know, I can talk about Polanski and all the other guys. I steal!...A lot of them [other filmmakers] deny it though! They’re liars! Because that is what art is about. Art is about reproducing and recreating. My background as a painter involves the same choices, whether it’s canvasses or scripts."[3]

Tony’s joy of re-representation carries over to his own work. He wants to be sampled and recycled:

"I’m pleased if I do influence things. I see it on television mostly, in things like CSI. It makes me happy when it’s done well. When I did The Hunger I called up Nick [Roeg] and said, 'I think I just ripped you off — I ripped off Performance' and he said, 'Well dear boy, as long as you did a good job, I don’t give a fuck!'”[4]

Tony’s utilitarian approach to filmmaking—his acceptance of commercial image-making as an act of willful theft—has made him vulnerable to Justin Wyatt’s charge in High Concept: Movies and Marketing in Hollywood (1994) that Scott’s work is symptomatic of industrial expressivity, in which the logic of patriarchal capitalism and its indelible ideological imprint overwhelm the auteur and freeze narrative storytelling into a bourgeois array of consumer-friendly images. For Wyatt, all of the major elements of High Concept encapsulated in a film like Top Gun — the elaborate production design and effulgent cinematography that fetishizes military technology, Tom Cruise’s hyperbolic star text, and the music tie-ins that modulate and frequently overpower the diegesis — prevent the spectator from identifying with narrative structure and character narration. The result?

"The look of the scene makes an everyday, banal sight aesthetically pleasing or at least aesthetically striking. This transformation is, at first, disorienting, causing the viewer to contemplate the strangeness of the image, rather than how the image fits into the developing story."[5]

What Wyatt limns in Top Gun is, in hindsight, the gradual consolidation of a new narrative mode in U.S. cinema. Wyatt’s alarmist reaction to High Concept as a threat to authorial expressivity — specifically the legacy of 1960s art cinema and the Movie Brats’ attempt to incorporate its innovations in the 1970s and 1980s — can be reframed as his fear that Scott’s willingness to adapt to a nascent postclassical norm (dare we call it NeoClassical Hollywood Cinema?) without offering any authorial resistance represents a chilling restoration of the dominant order. For Wyatt, Scott’s Top Gun is not just responsible for fragmenting U.S. cinema into an extradiegetic display of sensation and spectacle — it reinstates the corporate elite, reactivates the class divide, and defuses the social threat of the 1960s by marginalizing any nonwhite male to a suspect Other.

Wyatt is able to use Tony Scott to diagnose High Concept in the 1980s because he presumes Scott to be an unwitting stylist, technically accomplished but hopelessly compromised and interpellated by the Blockbuster aesthetic. What Wyatt does not take into consideration is Scott’s aesthetic curiosity and dialectical film-by-film sensibility. Cognizant of film style as a quantum phenomenon, subject to change at any moment, Scott’s aesthetic refuses structural categorization over time. Because of his long-term association with RSA, Scott is acutely aware of historical poetics in action. In interviews he acknowledges the legacy of Nicholas Roeg and the mid-1960s British New Wave, but he shows more enthusiasm for Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), Kátia Lund and Fernando Meirelles’ City of God (2002), and Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy (2003), all three of which mark a growing restlessness with narrative containment, stylistic self-effacement, and national identities in the 21st century.

Scott’s filmography runs concurrently with the development of Postclassical Hollywood Cinema in the 1980s and 1990s. By the time Scott had directed The Hunger, his first feature film, a horror film starring Catherine Deneuve as an elegant 4000-year-old vampire in search of a new mate, Lucas and Spielberg had already normalized High Concept as a neoclassical mode of storytelling with Star Wars (1977), Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), and Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). Like Lucas and Spielberg, and brother Ridley, Scott recasts genre filmmaking as a sound-and-light sensorium.

Scott applies the same technique in Top Gun, turning the staid war/fighter pilot genre into an aerodynamic tour en l’air. As the 1980s advance, Scott melds flagrant star vehicles with high-concept verticality. In Beverly Hills Cop II (1987) Scott amplifies Eddie Murphy’s status as a comic action star established in 48 Hours (1982) and Beverly Hills Cop (1984), alternating between scenes of comic exchanges and bursts of extreme violence. With Days of Thunder (1990) Scott transplants Top Gun and Tom Cruise into a racecar. Revenge (1990) features Kevin Costner as an ex-Navy pilot who retires in Mexico and falls in love with his best friend’s wife. As with his high-concept work in the 1980s, Scott appropriates Lucas and Spielberg’s neoclassical aesthetic to embolden the visuals and sound and intensify the genre paradigm at play—in Days of Thunder and Revenge both the racing film and old-fashioned melodrama get the “big treatment.”

As with Spielberg with Jurassic Park (1993) and Saving Private Ryan (1998), in the 1990s Scott drifts away from neoclassical aesthetics and adopts a more obtrusive postclassical mode that fuses high-concept packaging with digital technology and an increasingly agitated impact aesthetic that fray the edges of narrative continuity and invisible storytelling. Scott also assumes a postmodern stance with The Last Boy Scout (1991), a Bruce Willis action/private eye film, and True Romance (1993), Quentin Tarantino’s retelling of Terrence Malick’s Badlands (1973) by way of John Woo and Blaxploitation cinema. With both films Scott aggravates his style rather than embellishing the images to the verge of self-parody (arguably the reason for the lackluster performance of Days of Thunder and Revenge). Scott maintains this strategy with Crimson Tide (1995), The Fan (1996), and Enemy of the State (1998). Each film remains High Concept in the abstract — Crimson Tide resuscitates the war/nuclear submarine genre and casts Denzel Washington against Gene Hackman; The Fan turns the sports film into a psychological thriller by pairing the affable Wesley Snipes with Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver (1976) mode; Enemy of the State revives the 1970s political assassination/paranoia genre by casting Will Smith as the Robert Redford character in Three Days of the Condor (1975) — but postclassical in execution.

By the 2000s Scott becomes eager with Spy Game (2001), Man on Fire (2004), Domino (2005), and Deja Vu (2006) to allow the postclassical to transgress the high-concept hook that allows the films to be greenlighted, financed, and distributed. Spy Game, ostensibly a high-tech espionage thriller, positions Robert Redford as a disgruntled CIA operative who double-crosses his own agency when it fails to safeguard his protégé Brad Pitt. Man on Fire appears to be a standard action/ revenge picture, but Denzel Washington is so disturbed that the film becomes as deranged as its antihero/ protagonist. At first glance Domino appears to be a biopic about Domino Harvey, the renegade daughter of Laurence Harvey who moonlighted as a bounty hunter in Los Angeles, but what is actually there is Tony Scott’s attempt to purge his rock-and-roll demons and contemplate the post-postclassical. Deja Vu should have been another Denzel Washington star vehicle/crime drama, but the actual film is chaos theory in action as Washington tries to maintain his sanity in the wake of 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina by denying and replaying history. 

To understand Tony Scott is to appreciate his trajectory from High Concept to the postclassical. This gradual shift in form and a corresponding change in worldview—from Tom Cruise’s “need for speed” in Top Gun and Days of Thunder to Redford and Washington’s open despair in Spy Game and Man on Fire — cannot be appreciated fully until the appearance of Domino, his most daring film and conclusive evidence that Scott is not only a symptom but an agent provocateur of Postclassical Hollywood Cinema.

From High Concept to
Postclassical Hollywood Cinema

Justin Wyatt’s characterization of Scott’s work as High Concept can be applied to the late 1980s. Beverly Hills Cop II, Revenge, and Days of Thunder feature histrionic images that heighten the Oedipal machinations propelling Top Gun. Both Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop II and Tom Cruise in Days of Thunder betray performance anxiety as they strain to keep their star texts hyperbolic and free of any entanglements, whether they be female (the menacing Brigitte Nielsen in Beverly Hills Cop II) or the resurgence of patriarchal capitalism (Cruise as a NASCAR driver vulnerable to corporate sponsorship). In Revenge Kevin Costner dares to bed Madeline Stowe, the wife of Anthony Quinn. Because Quinn is Costner’s surrogate father Costner cannot bring himself to question his authority, even after Quinn tortures Stowe to death as a matter of honor. The “top gun” remains supreme.

Revenge: Kevin Costner challenges Anthony Quinn …

... but defers to the “top gun.”

The Last Boy Scout: Bruce Willis ponders a rat and his blue-collar status.

The Last Boy Scout: Bruce Willis languishing in a post-industrial wasteland.

Scott’s weakening ties to High Concept quickly materialize in The Last Boy Scout and True Romance. What appears transparent becomes more intrusive — the “empty” style becomes full, its restive quality suggesting Scott’s growing anxiety with the cultural forces that allowed High Concept and the postclassical to become a norm of audience comprehension. The Last Boy Scout presents Bruce Willis as a disgruntled prole languishing in a post-industrial wasteland, overwhelmed by a dysfunctional marriage and Scott’s malcontented camera-eye. The clean look of Top Gun and Days of Thunder — reinforced by Tom Cruise’s generic presence — becomes cluttered, festooned with a long lens and Willis’s post Die Hard (1988) portrait of masculinity in crisis. The same intrusive mise-en-scene envelops True Romance, with its suffocating images of Detroit and Los Angeles and the stifling influence of pop culture, a miasma of Sony Chiba, Elvis Presley, and The Mack (1973).

Wyatt’s complaint that the vertical high-concept image has overpowered horizontal narrative continuity and coherence becomes less persuasive once Scott taints the high-concept look to reevaluate the postclassical social condition. This cine-sensibility deepens with Crimson Tide, The Fan, and Enemy of the State as Scott’s intensification of form foregrounds a growing impatience for the status quo by displacing his white male protagonists with more heroic African-Americans: Willis defers to Damon Wayans in The Last Boy Scout; Denzel Washington upstages Gene Hackman in Crimson Tide; Wesley Snipes endures the fury of Robert De Niro in The Fan; and Will Smith brushes against Jason Lee before his demise in Enemy of the State. Once the driving subject, the white protagonists become subsidiaries, their residual task to protect and safeguard their African-American confederates from older, more malevolent white males.[6] While Eddie Murphy languishes as a comic Other in Beverly Hills Cop II, Wayans, Washington, Snipes, and Smith function as a source of normalcy, progressive masculinity, and ideological stability.

The Last Boy Scout: Tony Scott’s gallery of African Americans: Bruce Willis defers to Damon Wayans.

Crimson Tide: Denzel Washington upstages Gene Hackman.

In conjunction with the destabilization of the white male, Scott’s post-Revenge work challenges the ideological containment of the late 1980s. The Last Boy Scout and The Fan equate professional sports with downsizing, corporate greed, and a fading American Dream. As Wayans and Snipes struggle to maintain their wealth and competitive edge, Willis and De Niro remain mired in debt, their families in disarray, and their faith in hard work and sacrifice broken. True Romance presents a mass culture in a state of self-referential implosion ready to annihilate itself over the smallest provocation or insult. Crimson Tide, Enemy of the State, and Spy Game challenge the notion that the United States government acts in the best interest of its citizens. Hackman aches for a Dr. Strangelove-like thermonuclear exchange with a vanishing Soviet threat in Crimson Tide; the FBI and shadowy figures associated with the National Security Agency use surveillance technology to incriminate and terrorize a U.S. civilian in Enemy of the State; and the CIA looks the other way as Brad Pitt, one of its covert agents, gets rendered and tortured in Spy Game. In each film a lone figure — Washington in Crimson Tide, Hackman in Enemy of the State, and Redford in Spy Game—works against the system to shepherd the innocent to safety. This is a far cry from the neoconservative politics of Top Gun and Days of Thunder, wherein the protagonist is the problem, not the system.

Enemy of the State: Will Smith and Regina King as the “normal” American family.

Enemy of the State: Will Smith under constant government surveillance.

Enemy of the State: Gene Hackman befriends Will Smith.

Enemy of the State: 1984 goes postclassical.

Spy Game: Robert Redford double-crosses the CIA to ...

... protect his protégé and surrogate son Brad Pitt.

Scott’s aesthetic reflects this ideological shift. His mise-en-scene becomes denser and less decorative, his penchant for telephoto lenses and selective focus reducing secondary and tertiary planes to sinister pools of abstract color and shadow. Increasing use of headlong camera movement, lens filters, and irregular film stock give Scott’s films a severe cast and spasmodic rhythm. Editing and sound design become more eclectic and less subservient to the rules of spatial and temporal continuity as Scott resorts to jump cuts and nondiegetic sound cues more for expressive and percussive effect than for narrative causality. Did Scott’s films take on a more contentious sociopolitical temperament because of Scott’s progressive awareness of postclassical aesthetics, or did he become disenchanted with the neoconservative values associated with 1980s High Concept and adopt postclassical techniques available in the 1990s to express his disillusionment? Difficult to ascertain and perhaps irrelevant, given Scott’s inductive approach to his craft.

Concentrated subjectivity

Enemy of the State and Spy Game shake the foundations of Scott’s style with tenebrous images and CGI-powered shifts in space and scale motivated by telecommunications and surveillance technology. But it is with Man on Fire and Domino that Scott achieves an inexorable level of authorial expressivity — when the intrusive legacy of Nicholas Roeg, if not Sergei Eisenstein, Stan Brakhage, and Jean-Luc Godard, turns the postclassical into a ferocious assault on an increasingly hapless and anesthetized spectator. No longer content with amplifying the editing and glutting the mise-en-scene, Scott resorts to staccato patterns of concentrated subjectivity to suggest something is tragically wrong with the American psyche.[7] As Scott recounts:

“With Man on Fire I had a rule of thumb — if Denzel thought it, I would see it. For me the movie was about paranoia, betrayal, and redemption, so therefore I wanted to work the inner psyche of Denzel’s mind.”[8]

Scott covers key shots with a 1910 hand-cranked “merry-go-round” camera tellingly nicknamed the “vomit comet.” The hand-cranked camera violates the integrity and stability of the image, allowing Man on Fire to bristle and flicker with the same intensity and instability of its troubled protagonist Creasy (Washington). This overt play on diegetic subjectivity — where Scott disturbs narrative order and duration with concentration cuts, freeze frames, unanticipated musical cues, variable frame speed, and other digressive techniques that foreground his camera work — becomes even more pronounced with Domino, which Scott has described as “heightened realism” and “a ferret on crystal meth.”

With Domino Scott gambles with the borders of commercial cinema (the film begins with the line, “Heads you win, tails you die”), eschewing all of the generic vestiges of Top Gun, transgressing style and thrashing narrative as if with a bludgeon (the first subtitle coyly reads “a true story…sort of”), metastasizing the pixilated Los Angeles of The Last Boy Scout and True Romance into a mad dash through mansions and crackhouses, all trembling with the same manic sense that something is amiss, absent, or just plain crazy. Screenwriter Richard Kelly meant for Domino to be a doomsday scenario of a culture in freefall, in which “everyone gets fucked,” the overarching theme of his own work as a director (Donnie Darko [2001] and Southland Tales [2007]) In addition to Man on Fire’s flashing, pulsating images, Domino features color-reversal film stock and cross-processing to bleed and distort the color palette and loosen the integrity of the film image. Scott shot frequently at 6 frames-per-second with intermittent camera movement to create “toffee trails” that suggest “bounty hunting on speed.” Domino qualifies as the first Tony Scott film that consistently destabilizes narrative order, duration, and frequency.[9]

Scott maintained a standard Aristotelian model of narrative development until Man on Fire, which surrenders to a tempestuous series of overlapping flashbacks, all motivated by Washington’s subjective crisis of faith and self-restraint. Domino adopts Man on Fire’s fractured narration and combines it with what Kelly calls a “TiVo-like” narrative construction that opens with the epilogue, then flashes into what appears to be an in medias res exposition which then shifts to a front-credit sequence that assaults the spectator with a flashforward preview of the film’s characters and motifs. The rest of the film functions as Domino-Vision, shifting back and forth in time and memory as Domino Harvey (Keira Knightley) trades narrative agency with fellow bounty hunters Ed Mosbey (Mickey Rourke), Choco (Edgar Ramirez), Alf (Riz Abbasi), and a panoply of characters that motivate an episodic road trip of the United States on mescaline.

With Domino Scott forces the spectator to tolerate a Byzantine plot to make sense of a convoluted storyline. Domino, the daughter of Laurence Harvey, rebels against her ties to Hollywood royalty by teaming up with Ed and Choco and working for bail bondsman Claremont Williams (Delroy Lindo). Domino’s jet-setting mother Sophie (Jacqueline Bisset) persuades producer Mark Heiss (Christopher Walken) to craft a Reality TV show starring Domino and her streetwise associates.

Meanwhile, Claremont’s mistress Lateesha Rodriquez (Mo’Nique) convinces him to stage a fake armored car robbery to pay for her granddaughter’s medical needs. Chaos ensues when Mob boss Anthony Cigluitti (Stanley Kamel) is tricked by the FBI into believing that his business partner Drake Bishop (Dabney Coleman) engineered the robbery and executed his two sons Francis (Kel O’Neill) and Chuckie (Frederick Koehler). As the FBI waits for Bishop and Cigliutti to incriminate themselves, Lateesha and her crew, the “First Ladies,” panic and leave Drake and Cigluitti’s millions with driver Locus Fender (Lew Temple). Claremont instructs Domino to abduct four counterfeit “First Ladies” (Francis, Chuckie, Lester [T. K. Carter], and Howie [Charles Paraventi]) and retrieve the money from Locus’s mother Edna (Dale Dickey). Edna gets revenge on Domino, Ed, Choco, and Alf by slipping mescaline into their coffee.

Alf loses control of their RV, crashing it in the Nevada desert. The group is rescued by the Wanderer (Tom Waits) and returns the money to Drakes’ Stratosphere Hotel, unaware that Alf has double-crossed everyone and replaced the millions with plastic explosives. More chaos ensues as Cigluitti mows down Drake and the FBI, fatally wounding Ed, Choco, and Alf, who waits for Domino and a dying Ed and Choco to escape in an elevator before leveling the entire hotel. As Scott recounts,

“It’s a very complex story. It’s a huge jigsaw puzzle. The audience has to pay attention in order to stay with all the beats of the story. We play it forward and we play it in flashback.”[10]

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